I recently stumbled upon a couple of stories online about a Kentucky father who used social media to discipline his 10-year-old daughter after discovering she had been lying about her age, starting relationships with older boys, and creating her own social media accounts. The dad posted photos of the girl wearing jeans and a custom air-brushed, light-pink T-shirt that says "I am 10 years old" on the front and "5th grader" on the back. Her hair is adorned in a style I remember being typical for black girls in my fifth-grade class: plaits decorated with barrettes and elastic bands with plastic balls on the ends that we used to call "knockers." In the post, the dad states that the photos are the "consequences behind her actions," and he points out that although his daughter is only 10 years of age, she is 5 feet 9 inches tall.
Last I checked, the father's original post has 3,767 comments, and there are more on various other posts now that the original has gone viral. Each story I've seen has asked readers if they think the dad did the right thing. The majority of commenters applaud him, but a few criticize him for possibly making his daughter more vulnerable to pedophiles who would prefer she look like a little girl. Others express concern that his actions will drive her away.
I'm not here to judge the dad -- parenting is hard enough without 3,767 comments -- but the dad's actions and the circumstances that prompted them present some things that are worth considering:
The early sexualization of girls is real. I've walked into the girls' section of a department store and seen the thongs marketed to 7-year-olds, as this study references. And that's just what retailers and advertisers do. Much worse are interactions with men on the street. I've been getting harassed since I was 13 years old. While the many layers of fat on my body made me feel uncomfortable, they probably also aged me a little, and ...
Girls who look older are a target. The fifth-grader in the story has the face of a child, but at 5-foot-9 -- and perhaps with a little makeup and with her hair straightened instead of in plaits and barrettes -- she undoubtedly catches attention from men and boys who shouldn't be looking at a 10-year-old. In my experience, this attention is confusing; it can be simultaneously gross and flattering, especially when your body is in those awkward stages of transition and development and you're not sure how to feel about your looks. Which brings me to my next point (a point I've made before here):
Every stage of a girl's sexual development is met with awkwardness, shame, disgust and division. It doesn't matter if it's breast buds, hips, or menarche. Boys make fun of girls, girls compare themselves to other girls, and grown women and men make assumptions about pubescent girls because of things that happen to their bodies naturally. They're labeled "fast," and they find ways to cover up their bodies to decrease unwanted male attention, but no one gives them the tools to deal with desired attention, either. Girls are blamed for their looks, which induces shame. The 10-year-old in the viral post doesn't appear to be at this stage yet, but the time is coming. This point also is worth noting because ...
Shame is hard to overcome. In my research for a paper earlier this year, I came across the perfect description of shame's effects. Malidoma Somé described how shame was seen in the West African culture he grew up in: Shame was "a collapsing emotional force that paralyzes the self" and yields "distrust, suspicion, and discord" throughout the community. To prevent this discord, the village elders would find a way to correct a person's wrongdoing without shaming them.
If I were a 10-year-old, I would want my dad to love me enough to stop my reckless and naïve behavior in whatever way he knew how, but ultimately, I would also need him to do it without shaming me. I would need to know that I could trust him to help guide me and make me feel beautiful and loved as my body morphed into a shape I hadn't imagined myself having just a year ago and as the kind of attention I wanted from men changed with my body.
And as an adult, I want the dad to go after boys and men he sees harassing any girl or woman as hard as he went after his little girl.
[Mariam Williams is a writer born and raised in Louisville, Ky., where she's received numerous arts awards. When not working in the field of social justice research and taking graduate courses in women and gender and Pan-African studies, she blogs at RedboneAfropuff.com. Follow her on Twitter: @missmariamw.]
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