Being a woman: a letter from mother to daughter

There is a wonderful blog post doing the rounds, called Seeing a Woman: a conversation between a father and a son, in which a man seeks to encourage his son to take control of his wandering eyes, to discipline himself to look at women as human beings no matter what they are, or are not, wearing. He’s urging his son to take responsibility: “We’re told that if a woman shows too much of her body men will do stupid things.  Let’s be clear: a woman’s body is not dangerous to you.  Her body will not cause you harm.  It will not make you do stupid things.  If you do stupid things it is because you chose to do stupid things.” (emphasis mine)

I found myself reading and applauding this guy for the message he is trying to pass on.

Then I started thinking about the other side of the equation, and wondered what I would say to my imaginary daughter… (because, much as we humans like to simplify things, life is actually pretty complex)

Dear daughter,

As you grow up and become a woman, your body shape is going to change and you will notice that guys start looking at you differently. This will sometimes feel embarrassing and annoying, yet other times you will enjoy their attention – it can be quite exhilarating, finding you have power to distract, to manipulate, to get guys to do your bidding just by fluttering your eyelashes and pouting, to see an otherwise intelligent man turn into a drooling idiot just because you’ve worn that tight top or that short skirt… I’m not judging you, I’m speaking from experience, I remember very well how great I felt when I went out on the town, aged about 18, wearing a flimsy white night dress, how daring I felt and how excited I was to get all those looks.

Power is exciting. Don’t get hooked on it. Don’t let it become the thing you rely on for feeling good about yourself. You are worth much more than that. Your body – yes, it’s likely to be of interest to guys in general, but that doesn’t make you special. Most women’s bodies are of interest to guys in general. And even if your body is exceptionally attractive – so what? Is that really the main thing you want to draw attention to, the top item on your CV? Unless you’re looking for a modelling career, your body is really not the main thing.

No, I’m not judging you for wearing that skimpy dress to that party. Like I said, I used to do all that when I was young. I understand. The world around you tells you that what you wear is important, and you want to look cool when you’re out with your friends. And you want to feel attractive – yes, it’s a natural desire, and I’m not telling you to magically switch it off, I just want you to take control of it and to think about what you’re doing, how you’re behaving, what sort of message you’re sending out about yourself. They say that in the world of work, you should dress for the job you want – if you come into the office looking like a cleaner then you’re less likely to be considered for promotion to a management position. I’d say a similar principle applies in the world of romantic/sexual relationships – if you look like all you’re offering is your body, you’re less likely to be taken seriously by someone interested in a real, meaningful relationship.

Not that it doesn’t happen – sometimes a man may notice you first because of that tight top you were wearing, but get into a conversation and discover there’s more to you than meets the eye. But you can choose to make it easier or less easy for men to discover you have a brain between your ears – it’s your choice, and you are free to do as you like, but I’d like to see you think about these choices you make. I’d like to see you doing better for yourself than I did when I was young. I’d like to see you showing more self-respect than I did.

I repeat: you are free to wear what you like. And as that dad said to his son, it is a man’s responsibility to treat you with respect no matter what you choose to wear. Your clothes are never a valid excuse for a man to treat you badly, and they are never ever an excuse for a man to assume he can touch you sexually. Your “no” is just as valid whether you’re wearing a bikini or a burkha.

And men have been known to rape women who were dressed perfectly modestly too. Rape is a horrible crime which is often nothing to do with sexual attraction, it’s not about men being overcome by their lust – though that would still be wrong – but about power, control, humiliating another person, that sort of thing. Nuns get raped. Elderly women get raped. Ugly women get raped. So I really want you to understand that the concept of dressing modestly to avoid rape is nonsense. I’m encouraging you to dress modestly not out of fear, but out of self-respect.

And when I say “modestly” I do not mean a burkha :) Seriously, where you draw the lines is up to you, there’s no clear rule book. Here’s a guideline that I use for myself: how would I feel standing in front of a room full of people and giving a serious talk dressed like this? or having a deep and meaningful conversation with a man? Would I feel like “oops, I should really put some more clothes on so he can take me seriously”? Also: would I have a realistic expectation that men will take me seriously when I’m dressed like this? You see, what that dad was saying to his son about training himself to ignore a woman’s clothes and her body, training himself to look at a woman with respect no matter what she’s wearing – that is actually not an easy discipline. Yes, it’s a man’s responsibility to do that, to overcome his tendency to be distracted by women’s skimpy clothes, but let’s not pretend that this is an easy task, and let’s not pretend that we don’t sometimes enjoy this power to distract them.

So just as it’s right that this dad is trying to encourage his son to take responsibility, I want to encourage you to take responsibility as well. I want you to dress in a way that indicates self-respect, so that the message you’re sending out to guys who meet you is not “look at me, I’m so sexy” but “I’m a human being”. If you put “I’m sexy” at the top of your CV, don’t be surprised when the reactions you get will be on that level. Sure, it is still not an excuse for men to ignore your “no” – saying “I’m sexy” is not the same as “I’m available for anyone who wants to use my body”. You should be free to send out the “I’m sexy” message without risking your safety. You have every right to wear the skimpiest, most tight-fitting and see-through clothes and still be treated as a human being. You have every right to do that. I’m just trying to tell you I don’t think it’s a good idea. Not because of the risk of rape – like I said, rape happens to women who dress modestly too – but because I want to see you behaving with more self-respect.

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