“Locker room talk” and the old “boys will be boys” attitude creates and sustains rape culture and body shaming to persist. But how we don’t talk with girls about their bodies is also hurting them.
“You’re so pretty!” the speaker announced, looking directly at her. The 16-year old girl blushed, smiled awkwardly, and shrank down into her seat. Sitting 5 rows behind, I could feel her discomfort as half the room turned to look at her.
A few months ago, I spoke at an event for teen leaders. Waiting at the back of the room for the first speaker to finish, I watched and listened as he walked down the aisle to hand out papers for the co-ed group to take home. As the 60ish man spoke and walked, he came to the last row of students, handed a stack of papers to the young woman on the aisle, and exclaimed, “You’re so pretty!”
Her reaction hit me like a punch in my gut. She shrunk down in her seat and ducked her head down.
“Ick,” I quietly said out loud.
A minute later, realizing the back row didn’t get enough papers, the speaker returned, handed the same young woman a few more copies, and commented again to her, “You really are so pretty!”
The student cringed down in her chair even further, and her friends all turned and whispered something to her. Anyone could see she was hating this unwelcome attention, especially in front of teenage boys.
This time my gut was on fire.
It brought me right back to when I was 13 years old and waiting for my mom in the lobby of the bank. A 30ish man walked up, stopped next to me, told me that I was pretty, and asked me out for a coffee.
I felt fear, out of my depth, and immediately worried that I had done something to attract this uncomfortable, dangerous-feeling attention.
I said “No!” giggled, and looked down with flushed cheeks at my long-sleeved flannel shirt and knee-length cut-offs as I walked towards my mom, wondering, why did he ask me?
My mom didn’t see it happen, and I didn’t tell her. I felt ashamed, somehow.
About a year later my 22 year-old brother got into a fist fight with a 20ish guy who came up to us, asked how I was doing and chucked me under the chin telling me I “looked fine.”
Male attention felt dangerous and troublesome. The “male gaze” isn’t just locker room talk and cat calling. It’s much more damaging than that.
Even though I hadn’t “done anything” I felt like I had done something wrong by getting attention and proceeded to wear bulky, long sweatshirts for most of my teen years. The last thing I wanted was more attention.
This kind of unwelcome attention feels like theft. It steals our ability to feel like we own our bodies. Even when no physical damage is done, these kind of comments damage the free expression of our beauty and full expression of ourselves.
How can we talk to girls about their bodies and the male gaze?
This question, and my anger at myself for not telling that male speaker to be more aware of how he made this young woman feel, has been roiling around in my body and brain for months now.
When it comes down to it, we live in a culture where many men feel like they have the right to comment on, touch without permission, and abuse women of every age.
I’ve asked friends and readers, and posted the query on Facebook and Instagram.
The first thing I’ve realized is we shouldn’t talk TO girls and women about their bodies. We should be talking more WITH them. Sharing. Educating about basic biology, not handing down judgments and approval willy-nilly.
Here are some of the comments and insights women have shared with me via social media:
Terricole: As a therapist I like the idea of figuring out guidelines as opposed to the ALWAYS or NEVER school of thought since we are all just flawed humans trying to do better. When it comes to weight gain or loss I def say no comment is the way to go. My 22-year-old niece just lost quite a bit of weight and her mother (my sister who is and has always been weight obsessed although she is very fit) kept commenting on how great she looked until my niece lost it and said,”Stop looking at my body with that critical eye. Your compliments make me feel exactly as bad as your not so subtle suggestions of how to lose weight when I didn’t ask you. STOP OBJECTIFYING ME MOM PLEASE! ” And when you think about it the flip side of the complement is a criticism and all of it is judgement. I grew up with 3 beautiful older sisters and my mother rarely commented on our looks at all. So although my weight fluctuated no one commented on it Consequently I felt loved the same pretty much all of the time. With my many nieces I would focus on gratitude for their strong healthy bods because not everyone can run, walk or hike etc. Also focusing on positive behavior(that was so kind of you to …) and good intentions is empowering and shows them what you think is important. Modeling a positive relationship to your own body & figuring out your own stuff from your family of origin will help you not hand down toxic stuff. This is really the greatest gift you can give to all of your kids (and yourself too!) ❤️
grace.freshfoodkcI: I love conversations about bodies that wrap up the whole person. Talk about how their body shape, size, etc. reflects their life and passions. I love how your freckles show in summer-it makes me think of all of our fun park dates or I love how your strong legs could hike up this trail. If women grew up appreciating their body’s ability and strength, we’d have a lot less stress about the rest.
Heartenhealthy As a mom of 2 daughters I think about this A LOT. My 4 year old will ask when she gets dressed up for something or I’ve just finished doing her hair if she looks beautiful and I tell her that she looks beautiful all the time. I want her to understand that she is just as beautiful when she first wakes up in the morning as she is when she is dressed up or does something to change her appearance. I make sure we focus a lot on talking about what her body is capable of and the importance of who we are inside. We talk a lot about what it means to be unique and I tell her that it means everyone is special in their own different way. I feel like we are fighting an uphill battle with the current standard of beauty that we see in mainstream media. Thanks @deliciousalex for posting this question. Conversations like this are important in order to determine what we can do differently to raise our daughters to be confident and to reject the notion that appearance matters most.
Karenmeiercoach Completely agree with @terricole 👌 – modeling a positive relationship with your body is key. I also think it’s important to discuss the importance and beauty of body diversity – that bodies come in all shapes and sizes! 🙏
In short, there are a lot of opinions about how we should talk to and with our girls about their bodies. And that’s just the women.
To me, one thing is very clear:
By commenting (repeatedly) on a woman’s appearance, we risk making her feel more self-conscious, more uncomfortable, and less seen for her whole self.
We make a woman’s worth all about how she looks and her body becomes a commodity. Something to be owned or used.
She becomes a thing, rather than a person.
The anger I felt at that older man commenting on the young woman’s looks boils down to this – he wasn’t engaging with her as a whole person, he was, in a few words, patronizingly giving his approval of her, and drawing a lot of uncomfortable attention to her, by reinforcing a patriarchal (Yes, I said it) norm that pretty women are more worthy and deserving of special treatment.
Like my 13 year-old self, many teenaged girls don’t appreciate too much attention. Attention and the male gaze are rife with danger for all women:
- We are taught to crave attention and approval of our appearance, and yet
- If we cross some invisible and ever-moving line of seeking too much attention, we risk being labeled a slut, high and mighty, or worse.
Attention feels like a dangerous, can’t-win proposition for women, and it begins with these seemingly innocuous comments.
I wish I could go back and pull that man aside, tell him the truth – his comments were more damaging than anything – and ask him to refrain from making approving statements about women’s appearance in the future.
I would ask him instead to acknowledge women for their hard work, for their accomplishments, for their strength and resilience.
The conversation about women’s bodies must change. And we have to start changing it amongst ourselves.
Stop buying and investing in the appearance-based celebrity gossip culture that Jennifer Aniston so eloquently spoke out against. Tell young women how strong they are and how their hard work is noticed and appreciated. Have meaningful conversations with them about what they see on television and in magazines, and even on Instagram. Find out how it makes them feel to see models and movie stars be appreciated only for their looks.
Once we allow women to be fully seen, we may finally create a culture of true beauty, one that’s safe for every woman to shine in all of her strength.
How can we talk with girls and women about our bodies?
First, we should be talking more with each other about our bodies.
Not commenting on each other’s bodies, but sharing our experiences and feelings about growing up female.
We should talk about celebrity culture and the impact that social media has on our body image and connectedness.
Recently Playboy Playmate Dani Mathers was at her gym when she used Snapchat to broadcast a picture of a middle-aged woman using the shower in the locker room. Mathers captioned her Snap, “If I can’t unsee this then you can’t either.”
Not only was the model and radio host making fun of another woman’s body, she was illegally posting a nude photo of a woman without her permission in a body-shaming way. Mathers’ gym, L.A. Fitness, immediately banned her from ever using any of their outlets again, she was fired from her radio job, and is now under investigation by the Los Angeles Police Department.
This is a case of woman-on-woman body shaming gone very wrong, but it happens all the time in more subtle ways. Last year, blogger and runner Kathy Sebright shared a story of how two women commented that she had “put on a lot of weight” at a July 4th parade when they thought she couldn’t hear them. Her invisible story of struggling to help her young son and family manage a horrible illness were not visible to the women; they didn’t see her whole story, only her current shape and weight.
Just as the speaker felt it appropriate to comment on the young woman’s beauty, bringing her attention she clearly didn’t want, the female model felt it appropriate to negatively comment about the woman’s body at the gym, bringing her attention she clearly didn’t ask for.
How can we end this cycle of shaming and hurting? Is banning and firing the answer? I felt the anger and understood the immediate reaction to ban and fire Dani Mathers after her shameful and illegal Snapchat fiasco.
But, is this really going to solve the problem?
I believe we need to talk with boys and girls, men and women about what happens when we comment on each other’s appearance. We need to share our experiences with each other and with our children so that they feel entitled to respect their own bodies, and so they respect other people’s bodies just the same.
What if instead of firing Dani Mathers, her radio station had assigned her to both record a conversation with the woman she photographed and to interview a new woman every week for the next year about a personal body-shaming incident and how it affected the woman?
How can we include men in this evolution?
And what about men?
As the mom of a 9 year-old boy, I’ve worried and struggled with what to say and how to raise him so that he’s a “good man” that respects and stands up for women as well as himself.
We look at the progressive sex education books together, learning about anatomy and the differences between men and women, so that he has real knowledge. We call our body parts by their names: penis, vagina, breasts, and vulva, rather than “down there, willy, or nana’s” so that we aren’t making jokes about the human body rather than being factual and easy about it all.
We teach him that his body is his own, and no one may touch him without his permission. The same goes with friends and family: every person is in charge of their own body. You respect theirs, and demand that they respect yours.
We don’t force him or even ask him to hug family if he doesn’t want to. Why force kids to do something physically that they don’t want to do?
I’ve told him it’s nice to comment positively on someone’s clothing, but not on their body. Not because you don’t like how they look, but because people are very sensitive about their bodies and we want people to feel happy in themselves.
We’ve come up with “safe words” so that when any kind of physical play becomes too much for him, he can shout “RED!” and we know it’s time to immediately stop tickling or wrestling.
By teaching young men to respect their own bodies, as well as everyone else’s, we can raise the new generations not to fall into the same shameful traps.
What should I have said to that 60 year old man?
I wish I had pulled him aside, out of view of the students, and told him how his comments actually affected this young woman. I would ask him to not draw attention to young women’s appearance, but instead to comment on their strength and intelligence. And I would beg him NOT to go talk with her about it, even to apologize, because, knowing women’s inclination to shoulder all blame, she would probably end up apologizing to him in the end.
But I didn’t. I may always regret that.
Instead, I took the stage and taught the group about the wisdom of their bodies. I taught them a practice I wish I had learned at a much younger age, but one that any of us can learn to our advantage:
I told them how to feel “YES” and “NO” from their own bodies, and I want to teach you how to do this now too:
Sit with your eyes closed and place a hand on your heart and one hand on your belly. Take 5 deep, slow, relaxing breaths.
Feel and say YES out loud. YES. YES, I want this. YES, this is for me! YES, I know this! YES! YES YES!
How did that feel in your body?
Now take 5 more deep, slow, relaxing breaths to settle down again.
Feel and say NO out loud. NO. NO, I don’t want this. NO, this is not for me. NO, I don’t like that. NO NO NO!
How did that feel in your body?
I asked how many in the audience could feel a difference between YES and NO in their bodies, and more than half the room raised their hands.
This practice, I told them, could be used for choices, small and large, throughout their life. What to eat, what to wear, where to go to college, who to date, how they’re being treated…
I shared that, especially for the young women in the room, they were going to need to learn how to tap into this truth in their bodies. Their truth and desires will be squashed again and again by unconscious or uncaring forces in the world.
We all need, men and women alike, to practice feeling what our bodies are telling us, honor and respect ourselves, gather support around us, and continue to speak up for our truth.
I don’t have all the answers.
But I’m a woman with a fiery interest in helping create a world where every young woman feels like she owns her own body, grows up not fearing her own beauty (and honey, we all glow with a divine inner beauty!), and where all women feel free of shame so they can shine their fire freely.
Maybe the best we can do now is share and grow this discussion, talk with each other about how we feel, and share our experiences.