An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do.
I am wondering how you approach raising a confident young female teenager in our society. How do I best help her balance negative societal messages about dress, or cat-calling, with self-respect and healthy sexuality? How do I encourage her to embrace her changing body while not being overly body conscious, and yet create strong boundaries? How do I help her navigate unwanted attention and stay safe with the ever changing social rules today?
I hate to see her considering her value based on who likes her. Trying to teach her to dress confidently and authentically when I see her choices so influenced by what others think or say is so tough. I also hate watching her try to navigate that balance of feeling good about the attention she gets and feeling the disrespect that goes with being catcalled. It is such a confusing thing to balance: unwanted attention is still attention, even if it is based purely on looks. What are women supposed to feel? Some find it offensive, some find it a compliment, some fear for their safety.
How do I help her navigate all of this so she feels powerful and good about herself as she moves through the world as a woman?
What a challenge it is to raise cis-women! I specifically say cis-women because there is a particular experience of growing up in a female-identified body in the midst of patriarchy. It is not more difficult than growing up in a male-identified body, or a trans or non-binary body. I think patriarchy really screws us all when it comes down to it, because hierarchical value systems of any kind deny the complicated experience of being human. But the experience of traveling through the world in a female-identified body, trying to be safe and powerful and whole in a society that sees everything associated with women and the feminine as less, is a particular kind of pain in the ass.
Parenting someone learning to navigate traveling through the world in a female-identified body is also incredibly challenging. Parenting trans-girls is likely doubly so, but I wouldn’t presume to speak to it given my lack of experience. My approach to parenting my daughter (who is cis) and son (who is trans) is largely based on what I wish my parents had done for me, and has been developing since my kids were small. To be honest, some of it may be uncomfortable to hear, but I think parenting humans as they become adults with their own needs and agendas often is, so there you go.
I believe the first thing you have to do to raise cis-girls to be powerful, impactful, vibrant cis-women is to do your own work around sex and shame. In this country, I’d call it wading through the lasting effects of Puritanism. It is so deeply ingrained in our Puritanical culture that sex is bad, bodies are sinful, and women are inherently a danger to everyone through their irrevocable wantonness. Though lots of Western religions teach these lessons, Puritanism really perfected that toxic misogyny in what is now the United States.
When our girls start to express sensuality or desire, when they start to experiment with what it is to feel “sexy”, we are trained to recoil. If we acknowledge that young girls can be and feel “sexy” then we must be monsters and pedophiles. They must be on the fast train to being whores or tragedies. We rush to cover them up and shut them down, lest they become targets for predators, and lest we have to confront the ways in which we respond to their sensuality and end up feeling like monsters ourselves.
I stopped growing when I was 13-years old, which means I have been in an adult female body since middle school. I cannot tell you how upsetting and confusing that was for my father. The war between his attraction to my growing sensuality, which is totally normal, and his fear for my safety, which is understandable, caused him to project all kinds of conflicting and confusing feelings onto me. It also sometimes made him kind of a dick.
One day when I was in high school I was walking home from the Metro alone in the middle of the day. This was the mid-80’s, which explains my outfit of combat boots, men’s long johns under men’s boxer shorts, and an army navy surplus jacket. My father pulled up next to me on the side of the street, completely out of the blue, and loudly demanded that I “get in the car, because no daughter of mine is going to walk down the street looking like a hooker.”
I grew up around the street from a bathhouse. In elementary school I saw actual sex workers throw men out on the street while on the way to buy milk at the corner store. I knew what sex workers looked like (if they wanted to make any money at all), and I knew I didn’t look like that. I understood, on a certain level, that my dad was just freaked out by my body, but that didn’t make the shaming hurt any less. I wanted him to see me, not use me as a projection screen for his own fears and hang-ups around sex and women. But to see me he would have had to see himself, and that wasn’t going to happen.
Luckily, around the same time I had another male mentor in my life, whose name was Barry. Barry had worked with young people for decades, and when I was in high school he was my bus driver. Barry had a lust for life that was unmatched. He loved kids and opera and games and God. He was visceral, sensual, and expressive.
When my father couldn’t, Barry saw me. He delighted in me. He would tell me that I was growing into a beautiful woman, and I knew he meant both my body and my soul. I also knew that when he noticed my increasingly adult body and expressed appreciation for it, there was nothing in his notice that was demeaning, dehumanizing, or objectifying. He didn’t believe my beauty existed for his consumption. He just believed it existed, and was worthy of celebration, like any other beautiful thing.
I’d seen him revel in the beauty of a forest, and in the beauty of sport. I’d seen him weep at the exquisite beauty of a choral harmony. By growing into a woman I was simply taking my place in the beauty of the world. There was no shame in that, nor in Barry.
I believe with every fiber of my being that what cis-girls need to grow into thriving, vibrant cis-women is body autonomy, personal authority, and sex positivity. We need to teach them about consent, that they always have the right to say no, but we also have to teach them they have the right to say yes. We need to teach them to be shameless, self-possessed, and free.
Young women have a right to inhabit their bodies, to explore pleasure and attraction. They have a right to experiment, whether it is clothes, or gender, or sex. And they deserve the information, tools, and support to engage in that experimentation safely, without fear of judgment, disease, pregnancy, or assault.
Though I didn’t start having the kind of sex that will get you pregnant until I was in college, I became sexually active at 12- years old. There was a LOT of kissing and fondling and nakedness and experimentation with all kinds of people, ranging in age from my own to more than a decade older than me. Some of it was fueled by actual attraction and pleasure; a lot of it was fueled by low self-worth. Some of it was really fun; a lot of it was amusing, though a little boring. Some of it was dangerous. None of the sexual activity that I engaged in consensually as a young person was traumatizing. It did not ruin me, and I don’t regret any of it.
The only thing that saddens me looking back now is the extent to which I had to hide it from my parents. There were dangerous situations I only ended up in because I knew my parents would be angry and ashamed of me if I asked for their help. Their shame became my shame, and did not keep me safe.
Though no amount of sex positive education, or access to birth control and safer sex resources, will completely protect any woman from sexual assault or abuse, it does protect her inner landscape from being sullied by other people’s shame and toxic bullshit. Young women who feel sexually confident and empowered are less likely to end up in social situations where they know they are going to be dehumanized and treated as prey. When they are subjected to unsolicited attention on the street they have the ability to gauge what is comparatively harmless flirtation, which they may or may not choose to respond to, and what is invasive entitlement that puts them in danger.
Developing that confidence takes time, experimentation, and some failures. That’s where we come in as parents. We have to give them the emotional and psychological resources to move out into the world and take risks, to not take other people’s shame and toxicity on themselves, to trust themselves and their instincts above all others, and to love themselves even when they fuck up, which they inevitably will.
We have to be doing our own work around sex and self-worth so that we can always provide them with a safe, non-judgmental place to land when they fall, and celebrate them as they grow into ever more complicated humans who are separate from us.
That doesn’t mean we have no boundaries or restraints or rules. I’m not suggesting we just let them do whatever they want all the time. But at a certain point, and likely much younger than is entirely comfortable for us as parents, we have to accept that they are going to start to experiment. Whether or not they feel like they have to hide that from us will have a direct effect on the amount of danger they encounter, and how resilient they are in the face of failure or trauma.
Right now your girl is just beginning this journey. If you have expectations or rules around the way she dresses, investigate where those rules are coming from in you. Make sure they aren’t based in shame or fear, which means you’re asking her to carry your projections. Talk to her about the choices she wants to make and why, and really listen to where her motivations are coming from. If she’s experimenting with what feels attractive to her, or what attracts attention from others, talk to her about what she’s hoping for, and what it feels like when she gets it. If she’s really wrapped up in other people’s values or opinions of her, express your confidence in her judgment and ability to think for herself.
She will develop confidence in herself and a sense of inner authority, but up until now her whole life has been external authority — yours. Handing authority to her peers is a step away from your authority and towards her own. Don’t sweat it unless her peers are undermining her sense of self-worth; just encourage her to trust herself. Every time she is confronted with a choice and makes a good one, lift her up. Over time she will become her own North Star, but it will take awhile. It takes all of us awhile.
Talk to her about unwanted attention, whether it is on the street, at school, or anywhere. Ask her if it always feels unsafe, or if sometimes it feels different. Encourage her to think about the dynamics and to trust her instincts. If she feels safe and flirty, so be it. There is no shame in that game. If she feels unsafe, then help her think through what she can do to feel safer or exit the situation. Always remind her that she gets to decide, gets to change her mind midstream, and deserves safety.
No matter what happens, whether it is with a stranger on the street or with someone she knows, whether she was just walking down the street or was naked in a room somewhere, if she ever feels unsafe or violated assure her you will be there for her, without judgement or shaming because you always, always have her back.
Talk to her about sex and safety, but also pleasure. Never forget the pleasure. When we only discuss sexual safety we communicate that sex is often a danger and never a joy. If discussing pleasure with her is too uncomfortable, find a trusted adult she can talk to or a class (Planned Parenthood often offers sex positive education and discussion groups for teens) that she can take, if she’s willing. Let her know that you want her to be educated and confident about her own pleasure, because all women deserve that. And when she says, “Ew, mom! Gross”, back off, and then say it again some other time. She may not seem like she’s listening, but she is, trust me.
For me, the hardest part about raising children is letting them learn, which means letting them make mistakes, and feel pain, frustration, confusion, sadness, disappointment, and heartbreak. Keeping them company in a loving, non-judgmental, compassionate way without trying to prevent them from suffering is just the fucking worst. It goes against all of our instincts. But it is the only way that they build the character and inner authority to carry them confidently out into the world beyond our reach.
Your girl is lucky to have a parent who is asking these questions and wants her to be powerful, safe, vibrant, and whole. Just keep talking and listening to her. Keep telling her you believe in her. You’re both going to be great.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
Do you have a question about relationships, sex, parenting, politics, spirituality, community? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s walk each other home.