To begin, let me say that I am drained to the point of exhaustion. Even when I’m the one driving, it’s all I can do to keep my eyes open and not fall asleep. So I couldn’t understand why, after putting my toddler to bed in the middle of the night, I was still up an hour later, staring at shadows on the ceiling and experiencing a lack of desire to go to sleep.
Someone else’s words had sparked the whole incident. Parents at my three girls’ elementary school receive an email once a week with a mix of school-related information (don’t forget to wear spots next week!) and administrative reminders.
It is time to send in the money for the pantomime trip!) (photos of smiling children who have won races or built models of mediaeval houses). A few days earlier, tucked away in the midst of all this was the statement that had been keeping me awake: “We would like to advise that the girls wear a type of cycling shorts beneath their dresses to protect their modesty when playing outside.”
This conscientious objection made me feel like a degenerate with no social graces or concern for the well-being of my children as soon as I saw it, and it only became worse as time went on. I consulted a few friends, and they shared my visceral disgust at the notion of teaching my daughters that their underwear is indecent. Others had similar experiences at other schools, and they were able to share their stories.
Children’s Positive Reaction
The children’s positive reaction prompted me to ask the headteacher a simple question: What does it mean to teach modesty to children ages four to ten? I was curious about the source of this enigmatic character. “In the matter of underwear,” she added, children practising routine school activities like sitting on the floor or playing outside was “an issue,” and, again, all the females had do this weird thing called “maintaining their modesty.” Her response was pleasant and evasive.
I was Angry
I was angry because I felt cheated, ignored, and undervalued, and those sentiments took over and woke me up at 3 a.m. with a vengeance.
To that end, I penned yet another email in the wee hours of the morning. There is no doubt I was pleasant. As a girl, you have to learn to be nice to people even if you’re feeling like punching them, and I talked openly about how happy I was with the school and almost everything else about it, and how I was only asking for an explanation because I couldn’t come up with a reasonable answer to some of my questions.
I can Educate My Children About it
As a start, I urged them to have the gutsy statement that the school does not want other students to see the contents of females’ underpants. Even if “modesty” really is a requirement, at least I can educate my children about it in terms that they can understand.
To begin with, I needed a reason. Can you tell me what’s wrong with my girls’ underwear? What if there is something about the colour or cut that makes you uncomfortable? I would gladly toss out my youngest daughter’s favourite gaudy yellow Dora the Explorer underpants if it would help. There’s just one layer of fabric between their bottoms and the rest of the world, therefore it’s possible that’s why.
It’s possible that young girls’ genitals need double-bagging, like meat at the grocery meat counter. Should I then recommend something to them for their school swimming classes, when any passing observer is unprotected from seeing their single-bagged vulvas? To me, the thought of prepubescent toddlers wearing underwear while dressed seems like a bad idea, and I’m not sure what to make of it.
Minor warming and an increased risk of urinary tract infections may be intentional measures to make them more self-conscious about their femininity. All of this is necessary preparation for femininity, after all.
I Questioned the Headteacher
A few years ago, I questioned the headteacher’s assertion that this was done to protect the other children from embarrassment and discomfort, as I suspected that most of the four to 11-year-olds in the school were either uninterested in displays of underwear or found them hilarious, as most young children do. Since puberty is a novel concept for older children, they may be more aware of the connection between their own and others’ bodies and sexual activity.
What I’d like teachers to do is talk to the older kids about this, and allow them to openly communicate any new feelings or thoughts they may be having. As if preventing young girls from performing handstands could solve all the problems associated with developing sexual awareness at an early age, blaming them is both inappropriate and ludicrous.
When I first saw the email, it hit me so hard because it seemed to sum up many of the things I’ve been working so hard to keep my children from learning, despite the best efforts of the rest of society. Whatever you do, whether it’s sports, employment, or politics, don’t put all your energy into it; instead, spend some of it worrying about how others perceive you.
Wear skirts, but don’t show your underwear; don’t overdo the make-up, but don’t look slutty; take pleasure in yourself, but don’t be vain. There is a lot of work to be done to hide, mask, and contain the fact that your body is an issue for you and those around you.