How Do I Avoid Giving My Daughter Body Issues?

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A toddler
A toddlerPhoto: Getty Images

Something I never thought I would hear my 2-year-old daughter say: “Mommy, kiss my vagina.”

But I have to admit that I’d brought it directly upon myself: I kiss her a lot, on demand, and I was careful to teach her the words for all her body parts. As far as she’s concerned, her arm, her mouth, her eyes, and her vagina are all equal, and all equally deserving of affection.

I’d been laughing at something she said before this request came in, but I stopped, abruptly. Something — a look of shock or fear — must have passed over my face, because she paused like a deer in headlights, searching me with her deep brown eyes for how she should feel or react. She is so intelligent and sensitive, as children this age are; they’ve already learned to account for and react to social cues. There was a moment of tension. And then I looked at my husband, who was on the floor with us, and stifled a laugh, and we all moved on.

The remark was errant — it rolled easily out of her mouth and off her back, and she didn’t linger on it. She never lingers long, and she hasn’t brought it up again. But it gave me plenty to think about.

When we named Zelda’s parts, I went about it pragmatically. Her hair is her hair, her eyelashes are her eyelashes, her knees are her knees, and her vagina is her vagina. I know some people use “vulva” these days — it’s more accurate — but I figured that if and when she went to day care, “vagina” would be more mainstream. She was, after all, just a baby. She’s now just past 2, and I was right about school: vagina and penis seem to rule the day, and to my relief, she hasn’t rolled out any pet names for those parts.

But when she asked me to kiss her vagina, it felt like a preview of parenting to come: complicated, scary, and requiring outside assistance. My first reaction, I’ll be honest, was to worry about my own ass: “I need to get her to stop saying this or I’m going to jail,” I thought. “Someone might jump to conclusions.” In the same, sad way that I feel I must always be prepared to explain each little bruise on her knee, I feared that the worst might easily be assumed of me: that I was abusing my daughter, this little being of mine.

My next fear — though perhaps more rational — was no less terrifying. “I’ve taught her no defenses,” I thought. Does her open, casual relationship with her body make her vulnerable to child molesters, wherever they were? What should I be teaching her about her body and privacy, especially now that she uses the toilet? I expected to be having these thoughts and conversations much later, but here she was, presenting me with reality way before I was prepared. 

When the question of my daughter’s “private parts,” which she absolutely does not consider private in any way, came up, I turned to my friends with kids, particularly with girls. To my relief, I found that we’ve all dealt with things pretty much the same way: no shame, real names for real parts, keep it fairly direct. Many of us had suffered with diminutive nicknames for our vaginas, which ended in embarrassment at school, or simply in confusion. No one wanted to bring that into the lives of our 21st-century daughters.

But most of us didn’t have great answers for how to convey the rest of the information, which is, after all, pretty subtle. “There must be a book about this,” one friend texted to me.

What do I want to convey?

The truth isn’t simple. First, I want my daughter to be happy with her body for as long as possible. Every night, I look forward to seeing her reach up for the mirror as she squeals, “Wanna see Zelda!” She revels in her fat thighs, her big belly, her wet and crazy curly hair. She’s so clearly pleased with her reflection that it almost erases the years of tween agony I spent afraid to look at myself in a mirror.  

Through her, I’ve learned that humans are naturally quite tickled with their corporeal form, and I can’t overstate the importance of this. It breaks my heart to think of it ending, and I want to prolong this glorious peace she has with her “nune” self. So any indication from my corner that some part of her is less good than another, or that it should be hidden, is something I want to avoid.

So much female body anxiety is unavoidable. It’s in the air and the culture and the people around us. I do not want to add to it, or to make her uncomfortable in her body before she absolutely must be. 

At the same time, of course, I want her to develop good manners. I don’t relish the fact that occasionally, when we’re out to eat, she lets everyone in the restaurant know she needs the bathroom by yelling “Poop! Poop!” as I frantically carry her through the room. I don’t want her to touch herself needlessly in public, and I also want her to know that, for better or worse, her “private parts” are different.

Dr. TJ Gold of Tribeca Pediatrics in Park Slope, Brooklyn, says it’s best to “keep it simple,” and that parents should start pretty early. Around the age of 3, she recommends — though, of course, my daughter has forced my hand in some ways, starting the conversation a little early. “A straightforward, gentle approach” she says, “keeps shame out of the mix.” It’s good to tell little ones that strangers shouldn’t touch private parts. “It may feel awkward,” she says, “but it’s best not to overthink it or discuss it too much with children because it can become confusing.”

Confused is a great word for how I feel, but I’m taking her advice to heart. Up until now, my primary concern has been not making her feel shame about any part of her body or any bodily functions. I don’t, for instance, want her to say “yucky” at her own poop. Oh, sure, it seems totally rational to describe poop as “yucky,” but I read up on it and decided that I agreed with the bent of thought that went “Your body’s natural! Nothing to be ashamed of here!”

No one told me what to do when I corrected her. “No, your poop isn’t yucky,” I said, literally shuddering at the word, and she smiled at me and said, “Yummy!” So I improvised. “It’s neither,” I said, throwing her diaper into the pail nearby. “Poop is neutral.”

But it’s hard for anything to stay neutral for long. I hope my own self-knowledge, of the way I felt about myself as a young girl and the way I feel, even now, as a woman, will inform my approach. For all that’s said these days about helicopter parents who overthink every little thing, I can’t underplay this. My daughter’s relationship with her body remains, to me, very dear.