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Winter 2006

Fall 2005

What it means to be a woman: For my daughter

Elizabeth Ross

There comes a time for all parents of girls when gender becomes more of an issue than just the general realization that "boys are different" - like they go to a different bathroom, unless they're with their mommies. Co-ed instructional baseball separates into Little League and fast pitch softball, magazines with pictures of teen stars are chosen over more "masculine" subjects like sports and video war games, and the infamous speeches from the school nurse or health teacher about the "facts of life" are given to girls and boys separately in the classroom.

My daughter is reaching this age of confusion - too young to be a young woman, but too old to be a little girl. I wish I could tell her that I remember that time of my own life fondly, but like many women, that is not the case. Explaining the concept of womanhood to my daughter is an increasingly daunting task, as healthcare professionals and politicians in this country keep trying to increase the scope of their involvement in the personal health choices of women - particularly those of childbearing age. My daughter is rapidly approaching that age, and to help me find the words to say to her, I asked the advice of Dr. Diana Blaine - the feminist professor from the University of Southern California. Her name may be familiar to anyone who keeps track of activist women who are persecuted by conservatives for not "knowing their place" - in Dr. Blaine's case, she was defamed for being outspoken and for posing for private photographs with her breasts bared.

Dr. Blaine's situation is one that I know could plague me at some point, since I know it is possible for someone to release nude art of me. I had posed nude for a few artists and lovers over the years, and began thinking sincerely about what I would do if those photographs or paintings would suddenly re-surface - most importantly, what would I say to my daughter? I am not now (nor was I ever) ashamed of my decision to pose in the nude, and it is not a regret - being completely honest now, it is highly possible I would again. My daughter might find that concept "cool" or absolutely frightening - there is little chance for middle ground.

"I would not let other people's opinions of me matter more than my opinion of me. I can trust myself and my choices," one of Dr. Blaine's comments to me leapt from the page. "If they make other people nervous, that's because other people are less sure of themselves than I am. I don't want to make decisions based on what insecure people want me to do. I want to make decisions based on what I want me to do, what is best for me." At the time when I posed, that probably was the best for me, mostly because I was in danger of falling prey to the concept that my body was somehow not beautiful.

I know this is a concern for my daughter, especially as I watch her choices for meals - salads more often than hamburgers, fruit and vegetables over candy. The choices seem to be driven by a fear of becoming fat like some of her family members, and I've been struggling to find a way to tell her that although I approve of her healthy choices, she shouldn't make those choices purely out of a desire to fit what she thinks the world expects of her. "I would view my body as a wonderful way to interact with the world rather than something to be looked at. Even though I am shown lots of images of women's bodies on television and in magazines, I would know that these pictures are as fake as pictures of Mickey Mouse and that I no more need to look like them than I need to look like Mickey Mouse," Dr. Blaine simply explains a fundamental truth that all women should learn.

One concern I never really had was over being told I couldn't do something - a trait I hope my daughter has inherited. "I would always ask 'why?' when somebody tells me I cannot do something and then I would decide for myself if their point makes any sense. I would feel free to reject it knowing that people base their opinions on limited information and fears that they have." These words from Dr. Blaine ring very true for me - I've spent my entire life doing what can't be done, or what hasn't been done before. "I would try things even if I didn't think I was going to be able to do them. I would try things that other people didn't think I would be able to do. I would never avoid doing anything because someone ells me 'girls don't do that.'" As first Girl Scout to march in our town's Memorial Day parade, first truly active female volunteer firefighter in town, and the baby girl who should have died within the first few days of life, it's always been about doing what can't be done for me - and I still smile when I see Girl Scouts and female firefighters in our town's parades.

I have seen signs of that fearlessness in my daughter, and I hope she will find her own "firsts" to accomplish. She is beginning to see the uniqueness of being a woman, but also the inequities - I feel the pain of her realization that there may be doors closed to her by society. If I do well enough perhaps I will give her what she needs to find the keys to unlock them.

My daughter doesn't have the benefit of a "traditional" family, but I hope that the fact that I walked away from an emotionally abusive husband teaches her that no relationship is more important than the one a woman has with herself. Dr. Blaine offers, "I would remember that I have absolutely nothing to fear except for letting myself down. There are no princes who rescue, but I can absolutely be my own best friend for the rest of my life. And that's the greatest truth in the world."

Being the latest in a long line of strong, opinionated women may be a blessing or a curse for my daughter - from her great-great-grandmother who was a political activist in spite of being blind and crippled, to her grandmother who remains active in politics, to her mother who will continue to work for literacy and education for the foreseeable future. If nothing else I hope that my stories of our family's past will serve as a reminder of these words from Dr. Blaine: "I would remember that I live in a beautiful world, that all I need to do is treat it gently, and treat myself gently, and treat others gently. I would remember that we are always changing, and I can make changes for the better if I follow my internal voice even if it seems to go against the norm. I would remember that brave women came before me to make the world a better place and that it is now my turn to do so."

Note: Special thanks to Dr. Diana Blaine for her comments, as they were given shortly after the death of her father. My sympathies are extended to her and her family.