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Walk Like A Woman: Fathers, Daughters, & Beauty

2011 March 8

Recently there have been a number of essays and articles written on two of my favorite blogs, The Good Men Project and Jezebel, about how fathers–and the men in girls’ lives (uncles, brothers, parents’ friends, etc.)–affect girls’ self-esteem and what makes a girl become desirable/attractive woman–desirable in all the senses, not just sexual.  These essays and articles (Talking to Your Daughter About Beauty, Men and the Sexualization of Young Girls, and Daddy Issues: Does A Wandering Eye Hurt My Daughters?) got me thinking about my own experiences with my father, and how he taught me–explicitly and implicitly–what men wanted and found attractive.

My father was fairly supportive compared to a lot of other baby-boomer era fathers, especially when it came to my academics, where I struggled for a long time with ADD and Dyscalculia.  But I also struggled with my looks, like most young girls.  I didn’t really care about my looks, or give them much thought, until I began middle school and the hormones bust out and kids start exploring their burgeoning sexuality.  I began to think I was fat.  I wanted a nose job.  I was too short.  My stomach wasn’t washboard-flat (really, what kid has washboard abs?).  Boys weren’t interested in me, or if they were, were so quiet about it that I never knew.  I poured over magazines like Ms., Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and Sassy, always comparing myself to the models and celebrities and always finding myself inadequate.

My father taught me how much looks mattered for women, because my mother never looked good enough for him.  My father was supposed to love my mother, but did loving her mean constantly criticizing her looks?  As a kid I didn’t think this was odd, but I also noticed it.  After having three kids my Mom was no longer 100 lbs and a size 2.  But she was–and still is–a wonderful mother.  Through how my father treated my mother, he was also teaching me how men treat women.  And as I entered puberty my father started making comments about my body.

My family used to go to Cape Cod every summer, where my dad’s parents had a house.  When I was around 12 or 13 years old, I was walking on the beach with my father and he decided it was a good time to tell me I walked like a man.  He said I needed to learn how to “walk like a woman” and sway my hips.  The subtext of all this was that the way I walked turned men/boys off.  My dad thought it was unattractive, thus I was unattractive, thus men/boys would not find me attractive.  My dad demonstrated how a woman should walk and I copied him until he was satisfied that I no longer walked like a man.  Only now have I realized how fucked up that moment was.

Throughout my adolescence my father would tell me my ass was getting big, how I should go to the gym more (not to be fit and strong, but to be skinny), how I shouldn’t eat that baked potato because the starch was going to make me fat.  I weighed 120 lbs in high school.  That is not fat, even though I was convinced I was.  My distorted perception of my looks led to a lot of disordered eating.  I never had a eating disorder, but I would starve myself for short periods of time, spend hours on the treadmill at the gym, obsess over calories, and then inevitably binge.  I don’t blame my father for my issues with food and my weight, but I do blame him for being overly critical of my body and for reinforcing my low self-esteem.

As teenagers, very few girls know how to react to their fathers when they make comments like that.  All teenagers are somewhat insecure and figuring themselves out.  Very few know how to fight back when their fathers (or mothers) make derogatory comments about their looks, weight, or body.  It’s hard to have the wherewithal to tell your parent he or she is full of shit when they make comments about your still developing body.

Last summer David Byrne and Fatboy Slim produced a new album called Here Lies Love, which is a musical interpretation of the lives of Imelda Marcos, wife of Ferdinand Marcos, former dictator of the Philippines, and Estrella Cumpas, the woman who raised her.  I love this album, and at this point you may be wondering what this has to do with my essay.  Well, one of the songs, “Walk Like a Woman,” deeply resonated with me.  The song describes the anguish many women go through when it comes to their looks and the men in their lives, and how they try to live up the expectations/idea of “womanliness”.  The song articulates Imelda’s relationship with Ferdinand, how she struggled to meet his (physical) expectations of her.  This is the chorus and the second verse:

I’m going to learn how to walk like a woman
I’m going to learn how to dress, how to dance
I’m going to learn how to make an impression
Do anything for the love of this man

And if he loved me on the day we met
Then why must I be someone else?
The girl he married—now is that still me?
Who am I now? I ask myself

Looks matter.  We all know that.  But personality, actions, and what you choose to do with your life are so much more important.  By teaching our daughters that looks are what really matter, we are undermining their self-confidence and teaching them the antiquated notion that attracting, getting, and keeping a man should be their primary purpose in life, that if you want to succeed at that you must fit some imaginary, unattainable, physical ideal.

I will never, ever forget the comments my dad made about my body.  How he reinforced the negative thoughts I had about my looks, how that made feel so inadequate, so unattractive, and even unlovable.  But with the distance of time, experience, and maturity, I am able to see that he was wrong.  The point here is that the way fathers treat women and girls teaches their daughters how men treat women, and the power dynamics of male-female relationships.  Men and fathers are, of course, not entirely at fault.  Women and mothers teach their daughters plenty of negative things about women and women’s bodies.  But the men in our lives serve as models for men in the rest of our lives.  And we, as daughters, notice it all.  We notice when your head swivels when an attractive woman walks by, we notice when you make negative comments about another woman’s appearance, we notice when you admire a female athlete or newswoman not for skills and talent–but for her looks.  And if you tell your daughter that she should watch what she eats or that she’s getting chubby (i.e. fat) don’t think she’ll ever forget it.

3 Responses
  1. March 9, 2011

    This is a wonderful post, but I also that women sometimes reinforce these same issues. My dad may have said a few things, but my mother did to–things that took a long time to push away. Things that, to this day, still prevent me from seeing how beautiful I really am.

  2. Andrea Greco permalink
    March 13, 2011

    Great piece! I told a couple of people about it, and both of them reacted the same way: “I’m so glad somebody is writing about that.” It’s something most women have dealt with, but we don’t always talk about it, because it cuts deep. This is an articulate exploration of the subject, and I admire your chutzpah for discussing your own experience.

    Practically from birth, a girl will be informed of her feminine role by every other image she sees. The last person who should be telegraphing this message of “cover it up and pack it in” is her dad.

    I wonder if fathers are trying, consciously or not, to correct for their wives’ choices when they make these sorts of comments to their daughters. In other words, “Don’t you turn into your mother… you know, that woman who I don’t really want to have sex with anymore…” That train of thought gets weird real quick, but it is what it is. Mothers do the same thing with their sons, I think, albeit without the focus on body shape. It’s bizarre, the assumption that little children need any help getting into “the straitjacket of traditional American masculinity” — or femininity. As if this is some sort of favor. As if the rest of the world won’t pressure a kid plenty.

  3. YMB permalink
    March 28, 2011

    I am 33 years old and my right hip has been bothering me since I was about 11 years old — basically ever since I reached puberty. At different times in my life, this pain has ranged from a a severe lower back pain to an ever-present tightness and dullness deep inside my hip. I am an athlete so I tried exercise, stretching, yoga, nothing helped. I am also spiritual so I tried somatic body work and energy healing, massage. Eventually I was able to tap into the emotional substance of this pain, and it had to do with my father and our interaction when I was just entering puberty. I sat with that thought, trying to heal it and understand it for a long time.

    Finally, one day, as I was walking I began swaying my hips. And the pain was gone! I realized that I had been preventing the natural sway of my hips, by pulling my hip inward, and I had been doing it for 22 years! My father planted a seed in my mind that said, “Don’t you be sexy, womanly and attract male attention”, and I buried that seed until it became part of my identity, my body, my gait. My husband has brought out the woman in me, and for that I am deeply grateful.

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