On Teaching My Daughter She’s More Than Her Body

At the end of every conversation with her, every word of encouragement, note about her intellect, her creativity, her place in my world, is the undertone of fear that I will raise a daughter like me.

Once, my 6-year-old daughter told me that her friend was better than she was. Not that he was better than her at something, he was just better, because he was a boy.

During my pregnancy with her, when she was still ungendered and nameless in my mind, I prayed desperately for a son. I thought that having a son would be easy. I would teach him to view women as strong capable leaders, people he could look to for insight and clarity into situations he didn’t understand. I coveted this idea of my future son, knew that in a world predominantly made up of men who objectified and sexually demoralized women, I could teach one man to respect them.

At my 20-week appointment, the ultrasound technician said, “Everything,” meaning my unborn child’s genitals, was “looking suspiciously girly.” In the moments following her proclamation that I would birth a daughter, I felt a heavy weight sink low in my abdomen. Six years later I still carry that weight around like the leftover pit from a beautiful fruit that used to rest in my womb. I wanted a boy for the exact reason I didn’t want a girl, so that I could teach my son that women were more than the sum of their parts.

When my daughter came to me as I was slicing cucumbers in the kitchen and told me that this little boy showed her what inferiority feels like, I felt all the self-worth I’d attempted to cultivate for myself crumble. I’m sure my words to her were kind despite the anger burning in my gut, aching to spew out of my unholy mouth. I probably empathized with her and talked about the importance of choosing our words carefully, how her friend hadn’t chosen nice words. What I wanted to say instead, what I still want to say, is that the world doesn’t define her. That the thoughts of one little boy who thought he was better than her, simply because of his gender, was in no way the divine answer to the question of her self-worth. That her gender didn’t define her and neither did his words.

When I was 12, after years of being called ugly, a freckle-faced cartoon, too ugly to fuck, I learned that while my face may have left something to be desired, my body, certainly, did not. Because no matter how ugly my face was, a female body was almost always going to be the irresistible siren call to some men. It didn’t matter that I was smart, that I devoured books and loved to write stories, or that I played the trumpet well and loved to analyze sheet music, that I was a good friend because I was kind and liked to please others. It didn’t matter that I loved to ride horses and eat grilled cheese sandwiches, and that I was desperate for someone to teach me what good music was, or how to dance. What mattered was that I possessed on my body, the symbols of sex itself: large breasts that had developed too quickly for my young mind to grasp, curvy hips, and legs I had trouble finding pants long enough for. With these, I was worth more than my character alone.

I spent much of my high school free time huddled in the school’s basement being felt up, or letting boys shove their hot tongues into my mouth while they pressed against my legs. After these sweaty and sometimes long encounters, I emerged feeling victorious. For 10, 20, or sometimes 45 minutes, I was not only in control of a situation, but filled with self-worth, because I, my body and not my character, was desirable.

With my body I found what I thought was the answer women needed to thrive in a world of men. My choice to use my body became the ultimate tool to my happiness. Even when my skin crawled after groping fingers left indents and scratches, when light purple marks found themselves on my neck and shoulders like an ugly Scarlet Letter.

I teach my daughter simple things: how to brush her hair, load the dishwasher, how to behave at a friend’s house, and when it’s OK to say no. I’ve taught her where her nose is, her fingers, eyes, mouth, and belly button. We pointed to each one and said the name of the part over and over in the toddler-speak that mimics a high-pitched, drunken slur, until she memorized them. I’ve taught her to read letters and then words, to lose herself in stories, act silly, enjoy quiet time, and laugh a lot.

But I am not prepared to teach my daughter what her body means to her, what she will mean to the world. I am not ready to watch from the other side as she navigates the murky waters of body image and self-worth, see her sneak into the house with scarves wrapped around her neck to hide the purple, mouth shaped marks, and watch the proud look in her eye when she dresses in clothes that are too tight for a body that needs freedom from the heaviness that accompanies desire. I cannot watch her struggle to find herself at 13, 17, 25, going out with one boy and then another, desperately changing herself to fit their idea of what a woman should be.

I try to raise my daughter to believe she is more than a body, more than any physical trait that can be picked apart and labeled. At the end of every conversation with her, every word of encouragement, note about her intellect, her creativity, her place in my world, is the undertone of fear that I will raise a daughter like me.

Briana Loveall is a current second-year student at Eastern Washington University’s MFA program. She is the mother of two, wife of one, a freelance photographer, and full-time writer.

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