The recent teen suicide of Amanda Todd made me think about how the nude female body has been both exalted and torn down by men and women for centuries. Throughout our lives, even as children, we’ve been taught that our bodies are something to be ashamed of.
Women learn that their bodies exist for sexuality very early on. Our teachers, our parents, friends' parents, and community leaders teach us this from grade school to college and beyond.
I'll never forget the day the school librarian buttoned up my shirt because she thought my neckline was too low. "How does her mother let her come to school looking like that?" she said. It never occurred to me that my baggy flannel shirt needed two more buttons, because eight year-olds don't have breasts. I thought that being a child desexualized me, but it turned out that the only requirement for such judgment was that I be female.
Thus it does not come as any surprise to me that women are well acquainted with these judgments. Unfortunately, it also didn’t come as a surprise to me that Amanda Todd became so distraught that she could no longer live with herself; all because her community had seen her naked breasts. For women, class has always been inextricably linked to the covering or uncovering of the body. When you show your body, a commodity in its own right, to too many people, it loses its value, mainstream culture suggests. Because women tie their worth and therefore their class to the body, the thought that an image of their body could be shared with the world is all too terrifying.
A lot of faux-concerned journalists and legitimately concerned parents think the solution is obvious: We tell those young women to be careful and stop bearing their naked bodies to random people through downloadable photos. There are several problems with that plan. Young women, like young men, make mistakes. Young men can streak a football field or send pictures of their penises to women they hardly know, and their lives are hardly forever ruined.
The real solution won’t be the easy quick fix most parents are looking for. We need to de-stigmatize the naked female body.
It starts with us, talking to our daughters, nieces, and students about what they’ve done and what they’ve said, not how they much skin they bare or how they present their appearance. It starts with small every day actions. When you berate your three year-old daughter for removing her shirt, ask yourself if you would react the same had you had a three year-old son. Don’t tell a student you approve or disapprove of her dress. If your teen daughter’s once private naked pictures become public, tell her she has nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t tell her this because it’s comforting. Tell her this because it’s true. Amanda Todd wasn't guilty of anything else but having a female body. It’s too bad her classmates didn’t know that.
(Originally published 11/12/12)