Girls need all kinds of role models, even ones that help them have healthy sexuality

Right after providing for her basic needs, one of the important tasks I have as the parent of a daughter is how to raise her to love herself, her body and her sexuality. How do I raise her so that she feels confident in herself and respects herself? So she knows her worth and is confident enough to demand it from those she has relationships with (and especially those she decides to share her body with when she grows up). Hell, so she knows how to ask for a raise without pausing because she’s afraid someone will think she’s “not nice.” How do we do that in the age of sexting, reality shows featuring Playboy pinups as role models and … maybe especially this … when you live in a town like Las Vegas?

The Ms. Blog has an interesting interview with Joyce McFadden, who’s written a book Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women. While I have not read the book, I found the interview to be eye-opening, validating and a little uncomfortable. (I never said being a feminist mother was easy.) To wit:

I think the most important thing, by far, is beginning to talk about sexuality simply and naturally when she’s a toddler, so that right off the bat, she knows it’s part of a dialogue the two of you can have. Keeping her ignorant about the fundamentals of her own body will set the stage for shame and guilt over her sexuality as she ages. If she’s old enough to know what her earlobe is, then she’s old enough to know what her vulva is, because it’s all pre-sexual in her understanding.

Part of me is screaming “Hallelujah!” And another, quieter, part of me is saying, “Do I really have to teach my daughter the word ‘vulva’ at the tender age of one?” And I am a bit ashamed to admit this, in all honesty. Because, I am not afraid of the word vulva or vagina (or penis) in almost any other context. But somehow, it’s hard for me to teach it to my daughter. I think it has to do with the loss of innocence I perceive. (Not her perception of the world. Just my perception of hers.) Knowing those words is the first baby step (pardon the pun) toward what will be her sexual health and expression some day. I want her to have a wonderful, healthy attitude toward sex and sexuality when it comes time for her to blossom in that direction. Why would I want her to have shame or any kind of negativity? I think I just wish I didn’t have to know about it.

But I’m a grown woman! And I know just how hard it is to come back from the weight of intense shame and pain regarding sex. As the survivor of sexual abuse, it took me years to feel confident in my own skin. And, I am glad to say, that at least I knew the correct terms for all my body parts, thanks to my mom teaching me the birds and bees when she was pregnant (when I was eight). I never, ever want my daughter to experience shame in the bedroom. Or shame while getting undressed to step in the shower. Or shame in a dressing room, for that matter! I may not be able to protect her from all the ills in the big, bad world. But at the very least, shouldn’t I prepare her with the tools to talk about her body? And to do so without making it dirty or shameful? I owe her that.

And maybe this is a healing opportunity for me. In teaching her to love her body and to know all her body parts, maybe I can shake off these last vestiges of shame that I didn’t even know I was carrying around. To that end, here are some tips that McFadden gave in the Ms. Blog interview:

What are some small things a mother can do for her daughter when it comes to nurturing a sense of confidence and bodily comfort?

Some of the things I’ve done to nurture healthy sexuality in our home have been:

  • teaching my daughter about her anatomy from the time she was little
  • answering honestly any question she’s ever asked me
  • explaining menstruation in the years before she would likely start
  • more recently, covering issues of safe sex and discussing the emotional components of sexuality–like mutual respect, an understanding that women’s pleasure is no less important than men’s, encouraging her to listen to her own instincts, and so on

I’ve also shared with her stories of my own mile markers—my first period, my first sexual encounter. In a lot of these conversations over the years I’ve explicitly conveyed to her that I want her to have a happy, healthy life that includes valuing her sexual vitality.

Cross-posted on The Tired Feminist.

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