Jon and I have been taking our kids swimming a lot the last few months. Several months ago we had an interesting conversation about the differences between men and women's locker rooms.
Apparently ladies, for all of you who don't know, men don't cover up in locker rooms. It is totally acceptable to walk around in the buff-- young and old. They don't have curtains around the shower, it is just a "tree" that everyone stands around and showers. They rarely have dressing rooms and even if they did, according to Jon, no one would use them.
This information surprised me and made me wonder if, at almost three years old, Rose isn't getting too old to go to the men's locker room! It is so interesting to me that it is so different from the women's locker room where there are curtains around every shower and even separate changing rooms to go into. The only people who I have ever seen strutting around in the nude are old ladies, which use to horrify us during Jr. High swim team! In fact, because of all my years on swim team I have learned all the tricks to discretely and "modestly" disrobe in a crowd, but I still don't think I'd ever just walk around totally in the buff. In High School there were often lines of girls waiting to use the bathrooms to change for gym, because you'd never just strip, even if it meant you'd be late for class.
Even as a grown women many of us don't even feel comfortable breastfeeding in a completely female environment (say the Mother's Lounge at church) without a blanket! And don't get me wrong, I am not condemning anyone here because I often do the same thing.
It just makes me wonder, where does all this embarrassment and shame about our bodies come from? And why don't men seem to have inherited it?
Several months ago we were at small public swimming and since there were no changing rooms in the women's locker room, and I didn't want to try to manage a crawling baby in a bathroom, I used some of my discreet disrobing techniques to change into my swimming suit. As I was changing I noticed a girl, about 10 or 11, watching me but trying hard to make it look like she wasn't. It didn't bother me because I got the impression from her that she hadn't ever seen an adult woman naked before (which I really wasn't) and that she was just curious.
As I thought about this later it really hit me hard; here was a young girl, on the verge of becoming a woman herself, who probably had no real idea about what her body should look like. In our pornography ridden culture it is very likely that by this time in her life she had seen at least one or two pictures or videos of naked, or mostly naked, women. (In fact, I know that all she has to do is drive down the interstate and she'd see at least three). How sad it was to think that most of the examples this young girl may have gotten about what her budding female body should look like (and behave like) came from women whose bodies had been photo-shopped and used to sell cars.
This experience really got me thinking about the shame and the embarrassment that surrounds women's bodies. Is the reason that so few of us feel comfortable in our own skin is because all we have to compare ourselves to is the media's unrealistic portrayls of women? In a culture where little value or respect is given to women's bodies-- using them to sell everything from milk to houses-- have we inherited and internalized more shame then we realize?
Have we taken the concept of "modesty" so far that we are giving our daughters unrealistic perceptions about what a real woman's body looks like? Does the preschool maxim "girls can see girls and boys can see boys" not apply after you reach puberty?
And if so, why haven't the men gotten the same message?
I realize that my experience may be different than other women's and I know for sure that things vary differently from culture to culture. There is a passage in on of my favorite books, "Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood" where Fatima Mernissi recounts how, from the time she was a little girl, she and her mother, aunts, cousins and grandmothers, would prepare to go to the traditional bathhouse (called a hammam). She writes:
"Our tradidional hammam ritual involved a "before", a "during" and an "after" phase. The phase before the hammam took place in the central courtyard, and that was where you made yourselves ugly by covering your face and hair with all those unbecoming mixes. The second phase took place in our neighboring hammam itself, not far from our house, and that was where you undressed and stepped into a series of three cocoon-like chambers filled with steamy heat. Some women got completely undressed, other put a scarf around their hips, while the eccentrics kept their sarwals on, which made them look like extra-terrestrials after the fabric had gotten wet. The eccentrics who entered the hammam with sarwals on would be the target of all sorts of jokes and sarcastic remarks, such as "Why don't you veil, too, while you're at it." (pg. 224)
This excerpt from the book fascinates me because it gives a glimpse into a different female culture and way of life than I have ever experienced. I am probably certain that if I was thrown into a hammam I might just be one of the eccentrics in my sarwal. Yet, I can't help but wonder how, if from my very earliest experiences, I had been surrounded by a wide variety of real, living, breathing examples of women's bodies-- young, old, fat, thin, firm or stretched-- that I might have had a much different feelings about my body as a young woman... and even as a grown woman.
Would I have felt more comfortable with the way I was developing? Would I be more accepting of the way my body has changed as a I've grown and born children? Would I be less deceived by the world portrayals of womanhood?
Either way, these experiences have definitely got me thinking about how I'd like to teach my daughter about what women's bodies really look like. I don't want her to inherit a lot of the shame and embarrassment that I did about my body. I want her to know that real, living, breathing women's bodies come in a variety of shapes and sizes and that her body will change throughout her life. I want her to know that the that no matter what her body looks like it is beautiful and divine.
Please don't get wrong on this. I am NOT saying that we ought to all strut around stark naked in the locker room so our girls get realistic expectations. I don't think I could do that. But I do think that we do need to do a better job at giving our young women more real examples about what real women's bodies look like.
I am new at this motherhood thing and so I am curious to know how you have taught your daughters to love and respect their bodies?