We were the new neighbors. I had just unpacked the last box and paused by the window to appreciate our green lawn when the sprinklers popped up to do their scheduled watering. Delighted by this new pleasure, I hollered up the stairs, “The sprinklers are on!” My six-and-under trio flew past me and burst out the front door. They threw off their clothes and, within seconds, surrendered all their tiny dignity to the wet spray. I felt at home as I hunkered down on our new porch steps with my five-month-protrusion resting between my thighs. I sipped my tea and surveyed our tiny slice of Eden, filled to the brim with gratitude… (gratitude and a growing baby.)
I guess I just expected that the population at large would embrace the sight of my naked kids. I still adored their tiny curved bellies, their smooth little bottoms, and their complete abandonment to joy, sans all clothing. Only now, we were not in the middle of a secluded forty-acre plot, we were visible to other homes. And I very abruptly learned that we were wearing the emperor’s new clothes.
“Look! Those kids are all naked!” a shrill voice heckled from the end of the driveway. Side by side, two little kids pointed fingers from the serenity of a shared Power-Wheel. My children, unaware of their indecency, sprinted forward at the sight of the new comers just as the Power-Wheel, admitting shrieks of terror and glee, turned on a dime and disappeared back down the rode.
I pregnant-strutted as quickly as possible down the steps and across the driveway to gather my flock. We had done nothing wrong. I could fix this; make sure the shame of this moment didn’t stick. “C’mon,” I said, taking in the next row of houses, people inside, probably watching, “er…let’s all go inside.” I escorted my little exhibitionists into the house, but fearfully forgot the lesson outside. I soon learned it takes more than one naysayer to break the unclothed spirit of a kid.
The following week I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the house right next door was a family of crazy homeschoolers, “Like us!” (I assumed incorrectly.) My eldest daughter gregariously enveloped this shy, polite as-all-heck, neighbor girl. Holly was one year older and loved crafting and reading and make-believe, and seemed to be a perfect companion. I had hopes upon meeting her that she would become an example of maturity and manners for Haven.
We all became accustomed to the intermittent ring of Holly’s baking timer whenever she came over to visit. Every fifteen-minutes, a jangle notified her that it was time to run home and “check in.” I didn’t think too much about it, until one afternoon when her mom came knocking on my door to confront me about the picture of a naked woman that my five-year-old son had in his bedroom. Confused, I allowed Holly to escort her to a poster on his wall of animated super heroes, complete with an overly busty Mystique in her blue skin.
An acute awareness befell our home during those future fifteen-minute increments. Of notable interest was how often my family was categorized as “weird” in a squeaky little girls voice. My 6 year-old son without a shirt on, or myself exposing a breast to feed my new born, were observed to be “gross.” If any proper names were used for body parts, I could be sure to have an overly friendly confrontational chat with the mother. We both kept the peace by fake laughing over one another about the crimes our children were committing. Exhausting!
But our girls were friends, both homeschooled. We owned houses next door to each other. There didn’t seem to be another solution. I felt panic when that sweet little face appeared at our front door. She gently swayed side to side in her new dress, thoughtfully calling me “Miss Emily” and politely asking if Haven could play. I can still see my children’s confused expressions as she shrieked through laughter “STOP LOOKING AT ME” while they played dress up in the living room. Later she chastised them for kissing their dad and me on the lips. I began imagining the horror of what the neighbors would think if they found out I sometimes showered with a kid or two.
I wish that I’d foreseen the impact that this little friend would make in such a short time. Gone were the moments of pure nudity, but I had expected that sooner or later (definitely later). And in its place a growing fascination was fostered for all things that could be suspects of shame.
That’s when I decided to get real naked with myself. I was leading by example when it came to being comfortable in my own skin, but that hardly required me to talk about the opposition. I didn’t know how to deflect the harm of other’s judgments. I was a little kid all over again and silence reined over the ridicule of our human bodies. If I allowed it, another family would interpret what I knew was right for our individual family, and it wouldn’t be with a favorable artillery of words.
I began to use any comparison with the neighbors as a soapbox moment in my anti-humiliation campaign. I was not immediately successful at this, and even fearful that I couldn’t or even shouldn’t, be telling my own kids about their own bodies. Thankfully, with every new word tackled: “sex,” “vulva,” and yes, even *gasp* “masturbation,” I realized that my kids were way less mortified than I was. I made it clear that what I expressed to them was unique for our family, just like the neighbors had their own very unique way of talking (or not talking) about bodies.
We discussed “sexual objectification” at the Target check-out line while analyzing Kim Kardashian’s magazine cover. We shared beautifully illustrated books about different types of bodies, allowing these to be coffee table friendly, regardless of who was visiting that day. This last year when an adult discussion on politics lead to my daughter asking some very specific questions about her president, we had an empowering talk about consent. And nobody turned into a three-horned-sexual-ghoul. Nobody was emotionally stunted or robbed of their innocence. If anything, after our experience with the neighbor friend, I feel that I have given that innocence back to them.
I have heard similar stories of parents who speak freely about bodies and sex with their kids. I wish that someone had told three year-old me that having a body was okay. In fact, it is super-cool, and special, and fascinating to learn about and absolutely worth protecting. I won't pass the fear I felt about my own body onto my kids, a fear that grew mostly from silence. My parents didn’t want to talk about it, and that void filled up with misconceptions.
Had I not faced the obstacles that our neighbors provided us with, I may have missed an invaluable opportunity to cultivate the natural flow of conversation about our bodies. Although we struggled in the moment, I appreciate the opposition that parenting with others provides. It allows us to dig deep and get critical about why we have the values we do. As a budding teen, Holly is a less frequent visitor at our house, but we have maintained a healthy relationship with our neighbors. I hope that we have been a catalyst for productive conversations in their home, as they so clearly were in ours (even helping us to identify how Mystique was being sexually objectified right under our noses).
I have healed some of my own un-ease about my own body through ensuring that my children value theirs. And consequently, I can’t shut up about it now. The more that I discuss this issue with the people in my parenting world, the more I realize that I am SO not alone. Do you have a personal stigma attached to body image from your childhood? And, does it effect the “sex /body talk” in your own home?