It was the last field trip of the school year, and I bumped around like a pinball among the girls in the locker room, looking for my daughter. There were 30 or 40 slippery 9-year-olds squealing in their wet swimsuits, and I was overcome by the volume of bodies. Or maybe just the volume. Either way, I pretty quickly started to feel claustrophobic and was considering an about-face when a child I didn't know—clutching her towel around her body like some sort of waterlogged pupa—looked in my eyes and desperately asked, "Where are we supposed to chaaaange?"
"Uh—." did a quick scan for a parent or authority figure because I was about to drop some of my wisdom on the child, and I'm never quite sure if what I'm going say is cool with the other parents, because, let's be honest: It frequently isn't. Unlike a lot of modern parents, I talk about stuff with my kid. Like, stuff.
For example, just last week, we were at the pediatrician's office for Ruby's annual checkup, and I explained to her about how, someday—not for a long time, but someday—the doctor would have to look inside her vagina.
I was quite pleased with how she received this information. Once she popped her eyeballs back in their sockets, she was very curious, and what followed was a wonderful conversation about speculums and mild discomfort and the funny stirrups for your feet and the photograph of a tropical island taped to the ceiling.
There we were, my daughter and me, having a discussion about something other than a man. I'm proud to say we passed the Bechdel Test IRL. And, too, we passed the less famous but far more rigorous Belfer test. This test requires not just the presence of a person of color, but, for the dialogue to be a truly meaningful, informed and worthwhile, the voice of said person of color also must be equitably included.
Anyway, I'm really big on normalizing and demystifying topics, and I notice that other parents are—well, less so. (Those parents had better hope their kid doesn't bring their inquiries to me, is all I'm saying.) And back in the locker room after swimming, there was no parent with any wisdom but me standing before this impressionable, young, already-body-shamed girl. So onward I forged.
"This is a locker room," I explained. "It's for changing. Changing is what you do in here." I emphasized exactly where (right here!) with great gesticulation and a few facial cues.
"But there's no privacy—." The child was shaking now.
"Honey, it's OK. We are all girls. We all have the same parts. Just drop the towel, strip the suit, put on your clothes and—boom!—just like that, you're good to go."
She did not like that answer and fled away like I had 10 heads. Then it dawned on me that nearly every kid in the place was doing the surfer-changing-out-of-a-wetsuit-in-the-beach-parking-lot maneuver. Some of the little darlin's kept their modesty intact by clutching their towels in tight fists, while others used their teeth as they wiggled with gargantuan, contorted effort out of their suits. Several chaperone mothers perpetuated the girl atrocity known as Dear God, Don't Let Them See Me Naked and held towels in the air as makeshift changing rooms for their embarrassed daughters. Seeing this, I felt deflated.
Only an hour earlier, I'd watched some of the same girls walk the gangplank of the high dive and then leap, jump, cannonball and flip into the water 17 feet below. Some of them walked out there like it wasn't but a thing, while others stood nervously, their toes just over the edge of the board, contemplating whether they would do it. All of them did it. They were soaring out there.
But in the locker room? It was a different bunch of girls. My heart sank as I recognized the scene from my childhood and realized how little things had changed.
Research out of the NYU Child Study Center has shown that girls' self esteem peaks at age 9. It peaks, people! At the age of this group of girls. And then takes a speeding nosedive thereafter—which, I'd like to point out, is a tragedy of indescribable proportion. There are, of course, numerous reasons for this phenomenon, but it should go without saying that the media plays a significant role. At the bottom of an online article called "Girl Power: Nine Ways to Build Your Daughter's Self Esteem," there are links (and photos) to other articles titled "How to Make Your Eyes Look Bigger with Makeup" and "10 Hottest Hair Trends of 2014" and "Back to Basics: 12 Shoes Every Woman Should Own." No wonder girls' confidence plummets: Everything around them tells them they're not right as they are.
After blowing that poor child's mind with the ghastly thought of changing in a changing room, I looked up to see my daughter at the other end of the locker room, separated from me by a gaggle of happy but utterly self-conscious little girls. She was carrying on with a friend who was doing the pupa thing. I watched her from afar as she dropped her towel on the disgusting floor, stripped her suit, put on her clothes—and—boom!—just like that, she was good to go. We've talked a lot about this stuff.
As I turned to leave and wait outside, bolstered to continue hauling the battle ax, I saw her pick up her towel and hold it up as a makeshift dressing room for her pal, still shivering in her swimsuit.