Parenting Through a Feminist Lens
Recently, my 12 year old decided to have a slash at shaving her legs. The results were patchy at best and bloody at worst. She didn’t tell me she’d done it- my step daughter told me, giggling her head off at C’s apparent ineptitude with a razor.
I was pretty surprised and queried her about why she hadn’t asked me first. Her answer was that she didn’t think she needed to and assumed I’d be fine with it. To a point, that answer made me secretly glow with pride. All my talking about bodily autonomy sunk in! My daughter shaved her legs in an unwitting act of feminism!
But….shaving her legs isn’t feminist, is it? I stopped shaving mine, after all. But I gave it up because I’d never NOT shaved my legs. It was something I began doing because society assumes you will and so I did. I realised I’d never tried not doing it and decided to leave my legs as they were to see if it was something I was doing for myself or because I felt I should. I wrote about it here.
The reason I wished my daughter had asked me is two-fold. I wanted to be sure she was doing it for herself and if so- I wanted to show her how to do it properly, to avoid the fuzzy patches and numerous cuts she’d given herself. I didn’t want to make a big fuss so I casually asked her why she had wanted to do it. She shrugged and said a kindergarten girl who she mentored for the peer support program had teased her about her fuzzy legs. She felt embarrassed, so she shaved them. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. My big girl who is off to high school next year took to heart a comment made by a five year old- and that five year old is already conditioned to think women must remove their leg hair to be acceptable.
I was kind of floored. I asked her why she cared what this little kid had said. She shrugged and we had a bit of a chat about what society expects of us and whether or not it’s reasonable and why I don’t shave my legs anymore- but I don’t expect my kids to follow my example blindly. While I am her mother and will make decisions regarding her body in terms of health for some time yet- I don’t feel this one is my call. They are her legs; in that she is entirely correct. Forcing my views onto her runs counter to those actual views. Being a feminist mum means I need to recognise her bodily autonomy (within age-appropriate boundaries) and respect her choices. While I’d love her to recognise that there is no actual need to remove her leg hair, that is something she will figure out for herself and it’s up to her what she does with that knowledge.
I told her that next time she wants to shave she should let me know, so I can show her how to do it properly in the interests of reducing the carnage. She said she would. I also asked her to think about whom she was shaving her legs for- herself or to appease someone else?
She then told me that she’d had a few comments from peers at school and that it made her feel self-conscious. No one likes to be embarrassed and kids can be notoriously cruel. As her mother, I want to protect her from that, so my first impulse was to tell her to go on and shave those legs. Remove the target. No leg hair means no one can tease you about it. However, there’s always a “but”… While I do want to protect her and shield her from any and all unwarranted criticism, I have to acknowledge that I’m not there all day at school and as she grows, there will be so many times when I am not there. So it is better for her to know how to stand up for herself when she needs to. C has always, always walked to the beat of her own drum. Before this, she had never really mentioned caring about what anyone thought of her appearance. I want her to hold on to that not caring, as much as possible. I want her to be confident, comfortable in her own skin and to not feel restricted by her gender. Not too tall an order, right?
The best way I can think of to do that is to keep incorporating feminism into the way we parent. It’s not just about bodily autonomy, though that is a core tenet of feminism. We talk to the kids about social issues and nothing is ever taboo. We’ve worked hard to have an open dialogue with them. They know they can ask us anything and we will give them an answer. We don’t buy into gender stereotypes and actively encourage the kids to question them. We respect their feelings and apologise to them if we’re in the wrong because no one is perfect; I get it wrong all the time. I’ve been a mum for 12 years and a step-mum for 8 years but I’ve still got plenty to learn and I think it’s important to let the kids see that. They are learning, too, so it’s an awesome equaliser.