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Women's Bodies, Culture and Politics – What's a Mom to Tell Her Girls?

As parents, we try to teach our kids to own their bodies and protect them, just as feminists encourage all women to own our own sexuality.

In an opinion piece for CNN.com, celebrated author Naomi Wolf tackled some of the issues on the front lines of the struggle for control over women’s bodies,  a subject that suddenly has cropped up again in the 2012 elections, as candidates discuss rape, abortion and women's rights.

In “Kate's breasts, Pussy Riot, virginity tests and our attitude on women's bodies,” Wolf reflects on recent events such as:

  • the American University professor who breast-fed a baby in class
  • the release of topless photos of Kate Middleton
  • Pussy Riot, the punk band sentenced to two years in a Russian prison after a staged performance in which they did high kicks that showed too much of their bodies, and 
  • Michigan representative Lisa Brown who stirred controversy by using the words 'my vagina' in the statehouse.

“In a hypersexualized culture, in which porn is available 24-7,” Wolf writes, “it is not female nudity – or discussion about vaginas or breasts or ‘pussy riots’ – that is scandalous … Rather, what is still scandalous to our culture is when women take ownership of their own bodies.” 

Wolf makes a stellar point. As parents, we try to teach our kids, early on, to own their bodies and protect them. I tell my girls that their private parts are just for them. They’re theirs to touch and take care of unless Mom or Dad needs to help them and no one else, like the doctor, can touch them there unless Mom or Dad is present.

We teach our kids to own our bodies just as feminists encourage all females to own our own sexuality.

Jaclyn Friedman, co-editor of the 2008 hit anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, has a new book, What You Really Really Want, a guide on defining, understanding and owning your sexuality.

In it, she says, “I’ve learned that it’s possible for me to violate my own boundaries, and how damaging that can be, and how to resist doing that. I’ve learned … that ultimately, I get to make my own decisions about what’s good and bad for me.”

If owning our own bodies, private and public parts alike, means showing what we want of our bodies, when we want, then discussions about pornography and sexual practices are not what many portray.

Wolf gets me thinking, as a mom, when she says, “Staging a strip performance is not disruptive to social order in Moscow, but three punk poets using their sexuality to make a satirical comment about Russian leader Vladimir Putin is destabilizing and must be punished.”

I yearn to someday help my girls see that they do indeed own their own bodies and deciding how and when they use or display them is a powerful thing. It’s a powerful thing for them to be in control – full control – of these decisions.

When I say full, I mean not even letting concerns about outside opinions or judgments hold sway over their choices.

True autonomy means not caring if someone calls you a slut. 

“The issue is not the vagina,” Wolf writes, “but who gets to say what becomes of it and who owns it … In the struggle over sex, these choices are where the struggle lies: Who decides reproductive rights; who decides when and how breasts might be exposed; who decides who can say vagina and where; who decides who is a slut, and who must be punished with hard labor for asserting their right to define their own sexual and artistic identities.” 

So, while my discussions of what to keep private vs. public are kept very simple right now for my two kids, aged 6 and almost 3, I look ahead to a time when they can understand more subtleties. When that time comes, I want them to understand they have always been and will always be the sole owners of their bodies – their whole bodies in full.

In this way I hope to help them hold onto the power that they are only now understanding they have about what and when to show themselves. I hope concerns over what other people think or desire won’t override what they know they want for themselves.

And I want to make sure they remember this ownership extends not just to what they show, but also to how they use and allow their bodies to be touched. 

If Naomi Wolf is right, and I suspect she is, and “these choices are where the struggle lies,” I want my girls innoculated. Perhaps by the time they begin to claim their own sexuality, or breastfeed their own babies, the battle for control over another person’s body will be a thing of the past.

But if not, maybe they can become models to those who are still finding their power, yearning to claim what was theirs from birth, even if no one wanted them to know it. 

Cindy McNary October 27, 2012 at 03:18 PM
Of course this is an important lesson to be taught to young women. However, I do disagree with the openness and in-your-faceness of having young women get that message out. (I say this as the mother of a preteen boy.) Perhaps I am too old-fashioned for my own good, but I do understand how females baring their "privates" in public is a statement of female empowerment. Nor do I not understand how a mom breastfeeding her baby with her breast nearly unexposed is a statement of the same. Some taste and decorum go a long way towards making your message without turning off others who might be sympathetic and understanding of the message. Again, there is nothing wrong with this message; I just disagree on the style of how women choose to show their belief in that message. A woman need not bare her body parts to get this message across.
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