Telling your daughter she can be strong and capable will never be the same as letting her find it out for herself.
What is your body for? Ask a little boy and he will tell you it is for running and jumping and swimming and kicking and rolling down the hill until you can’t breathe. Ask a little girl, and she will probably tell you that her body is for wearing pretty things. She has already figured out at five what she probably won’t articulate for decades: Her body is for being looked at.
Forty years ago last week, an amendment to the Civil Rights Act passed and changed my life. That sounds dramatic. So dramatic, in fact, that I almost backspaced right past it and wrote something more innocuous, something like this:
Did you know that women’s participation in high school sports increased over 900% since the passage of Title IX?
Today, 42% of high school athletes and 45% of college athletes are female.
Those are true statements indeed, but so is the fact that Title IX changed my life.
I was five the first time I remember kicking a soccer ball, and I hated it. Only at the insistence of my parents did I reappear the following Saturday, and the Saturday after that. We swarmed across the abbreviated field, hacking at each other’s ankles, swinging and missing, and occasionally sitting cross-legged to search for four-leaf clover. It was not soccer, but it was the start of something. The next ten years were caravans across the state, cleats that dumped clumpy turf across every surface of the house, and shin-guards that never ceased to stink.
That bag of gear has sat untouched in a closet for almost a decade, ancient dirt still clinging to the laces of my cleats. It would seem now that it was all for naught; there were no championships for me, no scholarships, no accolades. And yet, who I am today, how I view and treat my body, is a product of that on-field education.
Parents think sports are about teaching your children lessons about teamwork, sportsmanship, healthy competition, and hard work. They may think they are reinforcing the value of fitness and health. Worthy goals, to be sure, but for daughters, you may be missing the single most valuable benefit of sports.
At some point, your daughter will have this epiphany while running or jumping or kicking or throwing. She will realize, suddenly and surprisingly, that her body can do things, and that that capability is unrelated to the way she looks. She knows, in an instant, what boys seem to have already figured out: her body is awesome because it can do awesome things.
Last summer, standing on the beach, I noticed a stranger taking my picture with his cell phone. I faced him, and said, “Don’t take my picture.” He didn’t stop, so I said it again. He shrugged, “Come on! You’re at the beach!” This man, this stranger, imagined that the fact that I had a body that he could see meant that it was designed for his appreciation.
Your daughters will be told every day of their lives, in advertisements and television shows, from their peers and partners, that their bodies are made for pleasing someone else, for being admired, envied, and desired. It’s the gym slogan “Look good naked,” the eye-candy dancers in music videos, the models draped on cars, the cheerleaders whose athletic prowess is so clearly secondary to the size of their breasts and the arousal they inspire in others. It’s princesses who need rescuing, high-heeled shoes for toddlers, pre-pubescent beauty queens with spray-tans and dye jobs, reality shows where plastic surgery is the prize, not the punishment.
You can tell your daughter every day that she is strong and smart and amazing, but every day she will see messaging that tells her she’s only as good as other people think she looks. The only way to ingrain your message so deeply that she can produce it in the face of constant objectification, is for her to see and feel firsthand what her body is capable of. So help her find a way to feel what it’s like when her body works for her. Hike, bike, swim, stand on your head, throw a ball, run down the street, dance around your kitchen. Do whatever she wants, but do it now. It only gets harder.
Photo courtesy Emily Heist Moss