I’m not sure how to talk about this. But I’m scared for you, my daughter. You have such a bubbly, sweet, and fiery soul, and this makes me afraid that the world is going to tell you to stop listening to your intuition and your gut.
But as afraid as I am of the world, I’m also scared of the church. The church will tell you, Zoe, how to be a good girl, but the church may forget to tell you that you are already real – that your purity is neither your greatest asset nor your most valuable attribute. You, with your pigtails and twirly dresses, have a physical body and a brain and a heart that cannot be deleted with the wrong choices or from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hear me: there is nothing you can do to lose the beauty of your lovely, muscular legs that climb jungle gyms with abandon.
You are not a rose with each petal ready for plucking. You are a sturdy young tree by the water with a solid trunk and roots that will grow deep in the earth. The church doesn’t always know how to approach you and your body, but you don’t have to play to a script or a casting call.
When I watch you play at the park in the crisp fall air, I think about what it was like to be your age. I want to tell you to remember this feeling. How it feels to laugh and not care who is looking. Remember how it feels to be out of breath. To be wild – like an otter, flipping in the stream. And sometimes, when I’m watching you, I feel like I can be that way again. Free. I am a wild-child through you.
I believe this is a form of prayer; that maybe my desire for you will carry you through the hard years. One day as a teenager, your legs will churn while you are running and the memory will rise of what it felt like to know you were loved even when it all feels so-not-okay. Of a time when you were everything you needed to be before the world told you you were not.
You’ve not yet learned that everyone thinks your body belongs to them. You will have to dissuade them otherwise: the church, the world, our culture, the boys, your parents.
You are not yet ingrained with the rules that define your Christian schools’ dress code – wear this, don’t wear this, don’t hug too close, don’t reveal your body. I want you to know that when I received this “code” in list form from your school, my first impulse was to bolt.
I felt the hot breath of shame tugging at my own shirt, and I wanted to cover you, my five-year-old daughter, with my own body to protect you. This body, your mother’s body, has seen it all, and I want to protect you.
Instead, I told your dad we would have to talk through this until it was clear what this list was not. It is not a definition of you or me.
I knew what was on ‘the list’ without looking: No clingy clothes, no leggings, No. No. No. No. The list for the girls was five times as long as it was for the boys. It always is.
Let’s not start this early, I told your dad. Let’s not tell her the rules everyone has for her body.
It wasn’t about the rules in themselves. It was the lessons behind the rules, sweetie. From the church, I remember these lessons well: Your body is dangerous. Your body is too much. Your body is shame.
And from the world, you will learn the opposite: Your body is desired. Your body is not enough. Your body is lacking. Your body is mine.
And there will be very few safe spaces, my daughter.
I want to tell you a story. What I did to cope, long ago, from rules and from the culture and from the church was this: I simply stopped belonging to my body. I rejected it. I taught myself my own rules to subvert the system. I forgot how to feed my body and how to love it.
These were my dark rules: Don’t be a body. Starve it. Wreck it. Destroy it.
This led me down a path into a jungly forest out of which I almost never came back. “Don’t be a body,” became: “Don’t eat anything. Stay small. Don’t desire, Briana. Don’t want. Don’t be a leader. Don’t forget to smile. Be quiet. Be small,” In the process, I almost lost my soul.
I abandoned my body early on; I rejected it, I compelled it to submit with diets and pills and throwing up until I almost lost my body and my whole self with it.
And this is why I’m afraid for you, my daughter.
It was a long journey of reconciliation, and honey, I don’t want you to stumble on the same road that I did.
But every night – you should know this – I watch you sleep in bed. I breathe a sharp breath of relief when I see you. You are here in your body. You are present and you are real and you are loved. Your striped bed sheet softly cuddles and wraps your girlish hips.
Often you are curled up, mouth agape, and I can’t help but laugh at your beauty in astonishment. Your chest rises and falls as if the world loves you, unconditionally. As if you will always believe this love.
And later, at the playground, as I watch the shy evolutions of your smile, my daughter, and your stocky little legs running across the playground, I will celebrate your incarnational being-ness.
If there is one thing I will pray over you, it is that you will be.
That when you need to talk and say something, you will be heard.
That when your skirt is too short, you will not be shamed.
That when you sit in the pews, you will hear people speaking directly to you.
That when you wonder if you are loved, you will know that God sees you through-and-through, that you are a warrior and a girl of valor. A fighter. A person, a lover, a friend, a daughter, and this, – your – wild body.