If I am lucky enough to have a daughter I will teach her what my mother did not. I will tell her that pretty, smart, and kind are not mutually exclusive. I will tell her that being a woman has its flaws.
If I have a daughter, I will teach her to be strong. I will tell her that kindness is an invitation, that if you are kind to men they will bring you balloons to class, or ask you on dates, or make you feel uncomfortable when they corner you at parties. Be kind anyway.
I will tell her that perfection is not always perfect and that a relationship has its ups and downs but that it should mostly make you feel good. If it doesn’t, you need to reassess why you’re in love. If he tells you you’re too fat, or he’d rather date one of your friends, or he disparages you when his mother visits, or he doesn’t care whether you move away, or if you're happy or if you're sad, then this man has taught you something - he is not worth the time you save on your commute by sleeping over at his house, he is not worth the brief collage of compliments that kept you enamored, he is not worth the dinners he cooks, or the presents he gives. He is not worth you.
When you’re in college and your soccer coach walks you down to your car after a game and tries to kiss you on the lips, turn your head and let it land on your cheek. Be kind, you are both adults after all, and then get in your car and leave. Don’t quit playing soccer. Don’t never go back. He only mistook your kindness and respect for love.
This will happen a lot when you are kind. A man will write you a love letter, maybe two men you thought were friends. And if they break up with a woman for you, that’s their problem, not yours. Friends will try to be more than friends, and you will lose them. Be kind anyway.
And when someone says you’re too fat, or too skinny, or your hair is the wrong length or color, or even when your TA says things like “If you weren’t my student…” Try not to give them the power to topple you. Because though they may make existing uncomfortable, though they may make you feel self conscious whenever you see them, and even when you don’t, their superficial jibes cannot insult your intelligence, or your kindness, or your freedom.
That’s why we have to be strong, my love. We can’t fall into their self-loathing trap.
When your professor thinks you can’t hear him and refers to you as the “exceptionally beautiful one,” in a class you’re excelling in. Don’t start cutting class because of him, my sweet. Don’t abandon the entire major. Don’t write it off because it seemed like a compliment, don’t forgive him because it felt harmless enough, and don’t let it slide. Compliments from a teacher sound like this: “Great effort,” “How smart you are!” “You have a lot of talent/potential/chutzpah.” There will be millions of compliments in your life, but they won’t all feel like that. Like someone stripped you naked in a crowded room.
This is when you should stop being kind for kindness sake. This is when you should begin to fight.
When you spend a rare evening in a club, and you faint outside after the first few gulps of a beer that didn’t “taste-quite-right” and the club manager tells you you’re fine — It must have been the music that got to you, it must have been something you ate. Don’t refuse to be seen by a paramedic. Don’t brush it off and go back to the boy who sent you outside by yourself. Do you know how hard it is to tell if a person’s been drugged? The blood tests, the drink samples a lab has to take? The club manager just looked at your tongue, and pronounced you un-roofied. When later you vomit completely sober in the club’s bathroom, don’t blame it on the Ikea meatballs you ate for dinner, or the electronica pounding in the back of your brain. Don’t sign away your right to medical attention, or you will question that night for years after. How hands are supposed to look when they pass you a beer, how friends are supposed to act when you faint (and you never faint) or vomit in the bathroom for fifteen minutes. You’ll think about the long drive home by yourself fuzzy and shaking, you’ll always wonder what could have happened if... if...
I remember once, speaking to someone I considered a mentor about the most lewd thing anyone has ever said to me (let alone at work). He was a friend (do you see the pattern, my sweet?) who made an inappropriate pun about my “box” and what he’d like to put in it.
How should I deal with this, I asked her, how do I respond to these sexist and abusive words. She sort of grinned and asked if I wanted her to speak with him. No, I said.
I wanted an answer, I wanted strength.
If I were her, my feminist hat would have been on fire. I wouldn’t say, “let’s not make a big deal of this,” I would yell, “that’s unacceptable!” I would reel in righteous and wear a big F on my chest for FEMINISM, and FEMALES, and FUCK YOU.
But I wasn’t a child, and she wasn’t really the hero I was looking for, so we did nothing. She wanted to be liked by men, she thought the big F on her chest would make them lose respect. Maybe it would.
That’s the delicate balance right there, isn’t it, child, we are at war with man but we want men, and we want to be wanted. But when you don’t fight the unacceptable, when you ignore that crunching sound in your chest when their words crumple you, you are condoning it. So you have to fight.
You have to fight for the inside you, the smart, kind, generous you that’s beat to hell every time you’re seen as just a body and breasts. We must fight for other women too, my love, because we know all too well it’s hard enough to fight for ourselves.
I will tell her all of this so she knows she is not alone, so it won’t turn her stomach when it happens to her. I will tell her this so she won’t recoil, or slink away ashamed. I will tell her so that she might be stronger than us, braver than us, fight back harder than us, so that she might shout "this is not okay!" without feeling embarrassed that it happened to her. Like she invited it, like she's just doing it for the attention.
And if I am lucky enough to have a son, I will tell him this too. Because if we all tell our sons and daughters about the atrocities of living in a world where sex is a commodity, then maybe one day, if they are lucky enough to have daughters they won’t have to worry about being sexual prey.
Until then, we have to fight, and we have to tell our daughters these stories so they can learn to fight too.