As October comes to a close, I look back and think about what happened during a month devoted to both breast cancer awareness and a national campaign encouraging parents to talk to our children about sexuality, "Let's Talk" month.
The first has been hijacked by hot pink objectification, the second undermined by unreasonable fear.
I remember picking up my daughter at middle school one afternoon years ago and watching the kids, both boys and girls, spill out of the front doors wearing rubber bracelets and waving shiny bumper stickers with "Save the TaTas" emblazoned on them. Following an assembly, they were all amped up about raising awareness and funds for breast cancer, participating in an effort to help protect their mothers, aunts and grandmothers from what some of them already knew from personal experience was a life-threatening disease.
It was quite a vision -- all those young girls being empowered and disempowered in the very same moment. Just as they were deepening their understanding of anatomy, medical science and social responsibility they were being taught their breasts -- as well as their mothers', aunts' and grandmothers' -- weren't deserving of anatomical, medical or socially responsible language, but rather infantilized labels.
And we wonder how our girls come to disavow themselves of their body parts, seeing them instead as the property of another or through someone else's gaze, touch or careless reference. We also wonder how our boys come to sexualize girls through a depersonalization of them. Well this is how. Or rather this is just one of the many, many ways. Think of all those middle school girls, with their brand new breast buds or already full breasts, assimilating the objectified term TaTas into their understanding of their anatomy and worth, while the boys bore witness and assimilated the same sexist message.
And now there's another endeavor with another childish slogan. Earlier this week I was walking past an AG Jeans store, and there, in electric pink letters on the display window in front of what I imagine was a size zero mannequin in skinny jeans, was the message "AG Hearts Boobies" -- a phrase brought to us by the Keep A Breast Foundation. Again, it's a lot for our girls and boys to assimilate. On the one hand, it's a message that's supposed to be out there only for the good of women, while on the other hand, it shows disregard for the very body part they're trying to promote saving.
As for sexual education, "Let's Talk" month coincided with the release of a study reporting the news that a vaccine that prevents cancer doesn't make girls promiscuous. No surprise there. But fearful parents had worried that giving their 11-year-old daughters the HPV vaccine would be tantamount to rolling down the bed sheets for them.
In my research and in discussions during speaking engagements, both mothers and daughters report that talking about sexuality in their homes is, more often than not, either non-existent or so limited as to be totally unsatisfying. Mothers say they avoid it, and daughters say they learn to go elsewhere for knowledge. So it's no surprise that we end up where we are, with women and girls confusing their vulvas and vaginas.
We want our daughters to feel the confidence necessary to listen to their bodies and instincts in order to make wise decisions regarding their sexuality. That confidence requires a sense of ownership and pride over their bodies. When we avoid teaching them the basic lexicon for their sexual parts and use names associated with playthings to describe their breasts, we whittle away their chance at nurturing those qualities.
Let's teach our daughters the stuff that will actually be of use to them, and let's do it explicitly as well as by example. What they need from us is an understanding of their sexual anatomy as something to be respected.
For those who say, "Oh, they're only words, lighten up," I offer two comparisons:
One: If we ever heard a man confuse his penis with his testicles we would think he had crawled out from under a rock.
Two: There are currently TV commercials raising awareness for the life-threatening disease diabetes featuring people who've had their feet and toes amputated. If that ad campaign were called "Save the Tootsies," people would be in an uproar, and there would be an immediate public outcry to remove ads that mock the seriousness of diabetes and the experience of those who suffer from it.