TIVOLI, N.Y. — When my first daughter reached fifth grade, she told me the girls at her school would watch the “period film” soon. She said, “Our film is an hour, and the boys’ film is, like, five minutes.”
I asked that the boys also be shown the film about periods. Boys, I said, have a right to this critical education about human biology.
I was told that the boys weren’t ready. Ready? I wondered. For what? To be human?
My daughter, also not ready in many ways, began menstruating that year, and the same girl who at 6 paraded her first bloody, lost tooth around a restaurant was now expected to become an expert at keeping secrets — tampons stashed in her lunchbox, knowing winks with other girls and the old tried and true method of tying a sweatshirt around her waist.
Do we keep girls’ bodies secret to protect boys? And if so, protect boys from what? The truth that female bodies are complicated and full of wonder?
Emily Wilson from Babe.net does a brilliant interview series called “ManLibs,” in which she quizzes men about women’s bodies. “Getting her period usually means that she is not ___________.” Answers range widely. “Ovulating.” “Fertile.” In another episode, she asks what the birth control pill suppresses. One man says, “I feel like I should know this.” Ms. Wilson replies, “I feel like you should too.”
What are teenage girls? When I walk down the street with my daughters, we often get, “Here comes trouble.” In what twisted universe do my girls equal trouble? “Sugar and spice” insults in its simplicity too. Girls are biological powerhouses of chemical reactions, amino acids and enzymes, and honestly, I don’t even know what. I made three girls, and I am a girl, and I still don’t understand. One of my daughters once asked, “Mom, how did you get milk to come out of your boobs?” and my first answer (since improved upon) was “I have no idea.”
How much of that unknowing is the reason the world pretends girls fit into narrow categories with shallow concerns — selfies and shopping and TikTok dances? Female bodies have historically been neglected by science, and that void of information is too readily filled with unwarranted fear. Why can’t we just say, “I don’t know what girls are”? And then set about the business of trying to know.
From what I know of teenage girls, they feel things deeply and often have trouble properly communicating all that they feel. Living with so much feeling in a world that does not value feeling is a challenge. In Octavia Butler’s masterpiece “Parable of the Sower,” 15-year-old Lauren “suffers” from a condition known as hyperempathy. Lauren feels the emotions of other people. Lauren feels. In the world of “Parable,” empathy is dangerous. Lauren is often crippled by the pain she experiences at the hands of other people’s emotions. While Ms. Butler is known for science fiction, Lauren’s affliction reads to me as straight-up truth. We live in a world where it is dangerous to feel things and where those who do feel are in peril.
Feeling things is an act of bravery. Think of Claudette Colvin, Greta Thunberg and Emma González. Think of all the shy girls you’ve never heard of. What if we stopped seeing the unimaginable heights of teenage girls’ emotions as anxiety or hysteria (a hateful word derived from “hystera,” Greek for uterus) and instead likened these heights of feeling to space exploration, deep sea diving, scientific research into what makes us human? Our girls are explorers and experimenters. Why then not listen to our deepest feelers, those humans who might provide us with a blueprint for the best, most human way forward? Why behave as if feeling things is silly and nice?
bell hooks writes, “Patriarchy has always seen love as women’s work, degraded and devalued labor.” As if to love were easy, when really, learning to love people is a fierce pursuit for the strongest.
Of course, boys feel things just as deeply as girls. Emotion does not belong to one gender. While we tell girls they are lightweight because they feel things, we tell boys that if they feel things, they are girls.
Let’s encourage boys to show us how deeply they feel, to put an end to secrets and shame. And let’s stop separating them from the wonders of human biology. I love to remind people, especially male people, that period blood was their first nourishment. If we don’t teach boys what they need to know about girls’ bodies, they are going to make things up. And some of the stories boys have made up about girls’ bodies have had devastating aftereffects.
In a recent column in this paper, “The Children of Pornhub,” Nicholas Kristof tells the story of Serena Fleites, who was 14 when a boy she liked asked her to send him naked videos. The boy then shared the videos with other boys. One posted them to Pornhub, which has promoted videos under search terms like “exploited teen” “young tiny teen” “14yo” “screaming teen” “degraded teen” and “She can’t breathe.”
It often seems the next logical step for pornography is surgery videos or female autopsies. How much interiority do people want? Do we want to see the large intestines of a 15-year-old girl? Would that be sexy? Ms. Fleites tried to kill herself. Is that the video people want to see?
My oldest was 9 during the 2016 election. Someone at school had told her about Donald Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” transcript. My daughter asked, “Mom, do you know he grabs women’s private parts?”
“Don’t worry,” I consoled her; such a horrible human would never be elected president.
Four years later, there he was, threatening Mike Pence. “You can either go down in history as a patriot or you can go down in history as a pussy.” A comment that makes it abundantly clear Mr. Trump doesn’t know the first thing about vaginas — that they are the pure strength that pushed us all into existence.
After Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won (not on election night but a few days later, when it seemed clear that the victory was real) my oldest daughter, now a teenager, emerged from her bedroom and started to dance wildly in our living room, without music even, legs kicking high, arms swirling, dancing as if she didn’t care who saw her joy and freedom.
This from the same girl who breathed a sigh of relief when her school went remote in March, because she did not have to be seen anymore. She could turn off her camera. She could wear pajamas. No one would see a breakout of acne and make meaning of the messages in her hormones. Hidden alone in her bedroom, my daughter could be anything she wanted.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the expression “I feel seen.” People use it to mean something positive — “I feel understood.” But for a teenage girl, in this climate, being seen can be traumatic. We’ve made what is visible into what is valuable.
Ms. Fleites says that she once believed that she was “not worth anything anymore because everybody has already seen my body.” I want to tell her, I want to tell my daughters, that the value in their bodies has nothing to do with being seen. The value in their bodies is in how they will use their legs and lungs to carry them out into the world, and their hearts and brains to think and feel.
Vice President Harris matters so much. How, America, did it take us more than two centuries to lift a woman up into the executive branch? In the book “Sisters in Spirit,” Sally Roesch Wagner wrote that the suffragists “believed women’s liberation was possible because they knew liberated women, women who possessed rights beyond their wildest imagination: Haudenosaunee women.” The women of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy lived in a matrilineal society. They nominated and removed their chiefs. Matriarchy is in the history of this land.
When my daughter’s dance was done, she said, “Mom, we can hang the flag again!” We live very rurally, and of late, the flag here has been used as a battering ram. Young men purchase huge flags and affix them to the back of their trucks, arguably in violation of the U.S. Flag Code, yet these young men consider themselves patriots. They race their trucks right up onto the bumpers of other cars, as if they might drive over other Americans. While it might be youthful exuberance and love of country that compels them, it’s menacing for the rest of us.
After my daughter’s dance, I looked for our flag. I know how to love something that is imperfect. I love teenage girls, and I love America, but I’m done with the word “patriot.” It’s time for America to make room for her matriots, a word my spell-checker tells me doesn’t even exist. We tell schoolchildren that our flag was made by a woman, a matriot. While I’m not there yet, I’m trying to look at it and imagine a motherland.
In our flag I will look for the national parks, the public libraries, the artists and innovators, the land where my dead beloveds are buried, the tiny but tremendous mutual aid society my town put together in the pandemic, my daughters’ underpaid teachers and coaches, the trees and rivers and children. I will not forget the genocide, greed, hatred and tremendous inequality in our flag. I won’t be blind to my nation’s faults.
And I won’t be blind to my daughters’. My 13-year-old tells me I’m annoying. She says my clothes are ugly and that I’m a bad writer. She tells me I’m controlling and refuses to eat dinner. She’s not going to fold the laundry. She says she hates me. And I try so hard to move past her attempts to anger me, the way she rides right up onto my bumper. I breathe her in and watch in amazement at the riot of things she feels, a confused jumble of emotions that she’s working to sort through, to make sense of how deeply she feels things in a world that doesn’t want her to feel. I watch her flail, and I struggle to understand.
America, my emotional teenage girl, I love you.
Samantha Hunt is the author, most recently, of the story collection “The Dark Dark.”
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