Back in 2012 when the ultrasound technician announced to me that my first child was female I was absolutely beyond happy (and again to my joy, three more daughters two years later). I was alone and pregnant then because my husband was in Singapore and I was finishing up my last semester in Cornell. I got home from the ultrasound and started thinking about my girlhood and I started bawling. I realised I didn’t want my daughter to experience all the hurt and feelings of exclusion I have had to experience in my lifetime because I was female. Then I told myself that I cannot stop my children from experiencing pain and hurt but what I can do is teach her and be her strongest advocate and role model. I would say I’ve always been a feminist but I never really identified myself as one until I became a mother to four daughters. People think patriarchy is outmoded but it continues to exist silently and in many cases, overtly (hell, so many women do not have the choice to marriage, abortion and even access to sanitary napkins in so many parts of the world, even in developed nations). And it is important to me to raise my daughters to know how to deal with being a girl and later a woman in an era that is still terribly sexist. It is also important to me that they do not grow up ignorant of the systemic forces that allows for oppression to happen, and not just to women.
Since they are still wee babies and generally not conscious of their surroundings, there is little I can do at this point in terms of imparting wisdom about female empowerment. But I have already chosen to begin my work in raising four mighty girls because from the moment we are born, society has already programmed our brains to imagine how we should look and be if we are girls. For starters, I thought I would encourage gender neutrality when it came to clothes and toys, and offer them a library of storybooks that were diverse in their representations of women, families and individuals. If I did not then from a very young age they will come to identify certain things with girls, and certain things with boys, when the fact is boys and girls can wear anything (yes boys can also wear pink), and play anything. I do love dressing up the girls in dresses but I don’t go overboard. I make sure that all their clothes are able to stand up to hours of play. I never understand parents who doll their girls excessively that they can’t move much, or they break into bullets of sweat when they try to move. Women are already conditioned to restrict their movement through their tight clothes and high heels, and why we do this to little babies and toddlers is beyond me. I am also well-known to especially detest toys that are marketed just for girls. For example, why does Lego need to create a special theme called Lego friends just for girls? I heard from my friend working in Lego that Lego Friends is doing most poorly among all the other Lego toys – unsurprising perhaps? The beauty of Lego has always been the fact that its bricks allowed for free open-ended play and when they impose themes, it removes possibilities and introduces stricture. This is the reason I would immediately toss the Lego boxes (that would tell you what theme the bricks should ideally form into) and I would intentionally haphazardly mix all the bricks from the different thematic boxes and leave it to my children to build the pieces as they wished. One brilliant father worked with his daughter to build a Transformer robot from the Lego Friends thematic set.
I also heavily discourage my family and friends to obsess about the girls’ appearances and try to nudge them gently to discuss more exciting things with my daughters. To be honest, any conversation is probably more exciting than pointing out to them their features. What are they suppose to say when you tell them, “You have such beautiful eyes?” Its not like they were born with the possibilities of other kinds of eyes. Also, I have never been concerned about my appearance so this already comes naturally to me, but our daughters learn from us, and how we deal with our weight, appearance and what we say about ourselves are not lost on their young minds. I mean we are certainly allowed to discuss these things, but its about how we talk about it. Do we body-shame ourselves, or do we accept ourselves for we are? If its the former, our daughters are also going to look at themselves and wonder what is wrong with their bodies and ask to change them.
And the last and most important thing I plan to do when they are this small is to teach them the correct vocabulary for their private parts. My toddler knows what is breast, vagina, vulva, nipples and so on and so forth. This measure is largely preventive: I want her to know that her privates are precisely that – its private. Sometimes she might need mommy’s and daddy’s help to clean her privates, but otherwise it is completely out of bounds to everyone else. Teaching her the correct and scientific names of her sexual and reproductive organs is also giving her the power to communicate when she feels her privacy has been transgressed. This includes giving her the power to say no or yes when someone wants to hug, kiss or touch her. The word No! may be annoying when we want to get them to do things but in the very long run, its a very powerful word that teaches them about enforcing their personal boundaries when they feel its in danger of being breached.
As they get older, we have so many, many things to discuss and we’ll reach that when its age-appropriate to. Its going to be one of those conversations that I will always have with my daughters, and I will never stop talking about it because there is just so much work to be done in this world still!