A few years ago, as I waited in line for a stall in a public bathroom, a mother came in with her young son. No big deal; this happens all the time. However, I was beyond dismayed when my turn came and the kid stuck his head under my stall door while I used the toilet. His mom immeidately yelled at him to get back over to the sink so she could wash his hands, and a thought process unfurled itself in my head: Perhaps one of the reasons that women's bodies are always on display Western culture while men's are private and guarded fiercely has as much to do with childhood as it does with the patriarchal sexualization of the female figure.
Think about it: when children grow up, they tend to be with their mothers. Boys and girls enter women's bathrooms, women's fitting rooms, and women's locker rooms. They are used to being around all kinds of women in various states of undress, even if they don't always see them. At the same time, since fathers are not generally the primary caretakers of children, girls rarely enter men's bathrooms, men's fitting rooms, and especially men's locker rooms. In fact, if a dad brought his daughter with him into some of the places that a mom would bring her son, people would react with horror, as though the idea of a girl (accidentally) seeing a naked men is somehow perverse although if a boy (accidentally) sees a naked woman, people just shrug. More commonly, I notice desperate fathers with daughters beg perfect strangers to bring their daughters to the women's bathroom if they are out and their children need to use a toilet. I concluded thus that everyone accepts nude women as a fact of life and that's just how it is. Female and male, we grow up comfortable with female nudity. Male nudity, on the other hand, is not public domain and is not for everyone's eyes to consume.
As I read the latest exploits of my friend Alex and her two kids over at Formula Fed and Flexible Parenting, I came across the following aside:
Meanwhile the boys had gotten dressed and popped into my room. Fortunately any sense of privacy I may have had disappeared when I had that first transvaginal ultrasound almost exactly 6 years ago. Perhaps in the checklist... I [was] given in our pre-conception appointment there needed to be a question that read, "Are willing to have an audience when you get dressed for the next 5+ years?"
Aha! This is exactly what I've been thinking. Motherhood itself really takes away that aspect that women's bodies are our own. Just being pregnant and then the act of childbirth itself requires many people to look at and into our genitals. (In fact, when my sister told me last week that she was pregnant, I asked her if she planned to breastfeed. She said she wanted to, but was afraid that it would be hard. I assured her that there would be lots of people who could help her so she should at least try it, and then she snapped, "I don't want strangers seeing my boobs!" We both cracked up at that, as she realized that everyone and his/her uncle would be poking and prodding her in the next few months and by then, who would care if yet another person gazed upon her bosoms?) Then, as women spend time doing every day chores and other activities with kids, they get used to seeing their mom (and maybe other women) changing, as I rambled about earlier.
Throw race and ethnicity into the mix, and we see how the public domain of women's bodies becomes even more entrenched in a negative way. Diary of an Anxious Black Woman cites a post by Michael Anthony Noir at the Vibe blog Critical Noir about a Salon.com article by Erin Aubrey Kaplan about Michelle Obama's butt. In both Noir's post and the discussion ensuing at Diary of an Anxious Black Woman, writers point out that the history of black women's bodies includes the idea that "the idea that black women's bodies were accessible and available to any--and all" (Noir), or more succinctly, as one of my favorite former bloggers Pseudo-Adrienne said at Diary:
Yeah, nevermind her Ivy League education, her career, and her devotion to her children and husband. NO! Let's belittle all of her educational, professional, and family accomplishments (and her *humanity*), and gossip over her ass, as if she's no different than the nearest video-girl! (eye-roll) Ah, another shining example how women's-- especially WOCs'-- bodies are public domain...thanks ingrained, societal misogyny and racism!
The combination of benign familiarity and toxic sexism, misogyn, and racism interact in ways that lead many (but not all, obviously) people to encourage children's natural curiousity about female bodies and shame them when they inquire about male bodies, create further stigmas around male genitals, engender a respect for male privacy but not female privacy, and at worst, cause people to believe that they have a right to see women naked that can lead to horrific violence against women. I wonder if it is why men are supposedly more visually stimulated by naked women than women of men (although the truth is that women are increasingly equal consumers of porn - it is just that we often must make use of porn that is designed for men and not women since few people bother making feminist porn).
No one's body belongs to the public. It would be interesting to see what the world would be like if male bodies were normalized to the natural comfort level we have with female bodies, and how that would affect how we treat women's bodies. Or am I overthinking this?
Suzanne also blogs about life at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants. Her first book, Off the Beaten (Subway) Track, is about unusual things to see and do in New York City and makes a fine gift for those who love NYC, stories about unusual people and places, or both.
More from parenting