On a bright summer day early in the 1980s, I was running around a neighborhood just north of Boston with my older brother and two boys who lived next door. The sun was blazing and they took off their shirts with the confidence and abandon that all children possess and a percentage of lucky adults get to preserve. It was hot and that made good sense to me, so I joined them. I took my shirt off too. We ran some more until my mother spotted us and stopped me in my tracks: Put your shirt back on, NOW.
The message was clear; it was perfectly acceptable for the boys, ranging from ages 3-9, to run wild and topless. It was a dangerous and shameful act for me, a 3 year-old girl to do the same. I was not allowed to resume playing until I was fully clothed. I protested but eventually obliged. The boys witnessed everything.
That might not have even been the very first time I was taught to be ashamed of my body, but it’s the first time I can remember. It’s burned in there, next to so many of the moments where I was ridiculed for being tall and skinny and flat-chested and big-nosed, for the clothes I wore, for the way I didn’t smile and for the way I was not interested. Every woman has been taught a similar lesson, one way or another. Probably plenty of men too.
I have been thinking of this memory a lot this summer. Serafina is 3 and since the weather turned warm, she prefers to be naked pretty much at all times. Sometimes the babies follow suit. She is often seen in our neighborhood in nothing but a pair of shoes, sometimes a sun hat. She rides her bike this way, her scooter, swings on the neighbor’s swing, tends the garden, races through the sprinkler. She is completely unaware that there is anything strange or quirky or cute about this, and certainly she does not have a remote sense that there is anything shameful or possibly dangerous about this. She is just doing what feels good to her and her body, which is exactly what I believe she should be doing. Others would disagree and a few of them have told me so. Some have told her too.
She shouldn’t appear in public spaces without clothes on, they say. She most certainly should not appear in photos without clothes on (social media agrees and recently banned me for 24 hours). Why? It’s not OK. It’s not appropriate. Why? Because there are a lot of creeps out there and you never know. Because she is a little girl.
Well, that is hard to argue with. There sure are a lot of creeps out there. And not a single one of them goes around advertising that they are creepy with kids. With that in mind, those particular creeps could be anyone — someone you know and love and wouldn’t suspect, even. (Statistics show that ‘stranger danger’ is a bit of a myth and that most abuse occurs by a trusted adult.) One in 10 children is abused before they are 18. Thirty-percent will be abused by a family member. One in 4 women is sexually assaulted.
But what does any of that have to do with my little girl running around naked this summer?
Perhaps I am naive. I do not want to live in a world where I see a happy kid splashing in a river and wonder where are the pedophiles? That does not make me blind to the realities of what my children may face in their lifetimes. Abusers will persist whether or not my child enjoys a brief moment on this planet where she can feel and act like a wild animal. A pervert may be present at the very birthday party where she is the only kid playing in the sprinkler without a bathing suit on. Does this necessarily harm her?
My goal as a parent, in this moment anyway, is to cultivate a sense of self-love, strength, confidence and security for my three daughters. I want them to feel so resolute in who they are and what feels good and right that no one ever makes them do something they don’t want to do. Shame is the opposite of consent and they are both so subtle. I don’t think you can teach them at the same time.
Serafina will start to notice that other people keep their clothes on at birthday parties or swimming holes, all on her own. No one needs to tell her that. Also, how bizarre is this message to girls, which starts basically in infancy — “Don’t swim naked. Squeeze your body into this skimpy, uncomfortable and tiny piece of fabric if you want to enjoy summer.” And, for that matter, why is it any less “dangerous” to have preschoolers wearing bikinis in public or in photographs?
I’m not advocating for parents to encourage nudity or to have their daughters join their sons in shirtless romps around the neighborhood. But what if we didn’t forbid it?
I know we’ve horrified some guests when our kids run into the backyard specifically to pee outside and rip off their clothes at the sight of a hose. But for now I am trying hard to not hear those criticisms or see that horror and create a space for my girls to develop a superhuman fearlessness about the space they occupy. Because they will need it. Even if I successfully keep them from shame, the world will show it to them over and over and over again.
Right now Serafina is quite proud of the distance she gets with a really big pee stream. I am proud of her too.