By Tracee Sioux

As the mother of a four-year-old daughter, I have been mentally preparing myself for the eventual discussion about sex. I was going to be open-minded and talk honestly and without fear. I was going to talk about specifics, including feelings, and be open to my daughter’s wish to experiment, though cautioning against too much experimentation too soon. Prepared was I to calm my husband down, explaining that a little education never hurt anyone. What had to be avoided was conveying feelings of shame or embarrassment or shock about the issue. Sex was, after all, invented by God. I would handle the subject without inflicting negative feelings on her sexuality while at the same time cautioning against promiscuity.

“Mama, do you want to have sexy today?” my daughter asked one morning. She’s only FOUR YEARS OLD!

No air in my chest, eyes and mouth opened as I tried to control the shrill shriek of my voice and I asked, “Ainsley, do you know what that means? What do you think ‘sexy’ means?”

“Like kissing and holding hands and wearing a dress and going on a date,” she said.

“Okay, well it’s not something mommies and kids do and it’s not appropriate for four years to talk about,” and for good measure, not to mask my real and legitimate concerns, I added, “Please don’t talk about sexy or sex in front of other kids or they won’t be allowed to play with you anymore.”

And there I was, stunned, terrified, completely unprepared for such an exchange and praying it didn’t come up again until she was at least nine or ten and I could give her a Judy Blume book.

I flashed back to the previous evening’s episode of the Gilmore Girls. Honestly, I thought the show was innocuous, even good for us to watch an example of affectionate mother-daughter dialogue. I vaguely remember doing something else while the character Ling discussed having sex with her boyfriend. Virginity was winning the battle, but the word sex was probably uttered at least 20 times.

I started paying closer attention to what got into her little brain. I noticed behavior that felt more dangerous than cute, as it had only the day before.

I took notice of the provocative poses on the cover of magazines in line at grocery stores, in the images of Disney princesses and Jessica Simpson sauntering around singing about snack foods on commercials.

I heard her say, “I’m her,” when she saw Pamela Anderson in a commercial for her TV show Stacked. Pamela Anderson! Not even on my worst, most self-loathing day have I wanted to emulate Pamela Anderson. Never have I wished to be so gaudily female and so, well, Barbie-like and unnatural and made-up and plastic.

My daughter is taking in all the images of womanhood she’s presented and picking up on an unattainable, and I think, unattractive, exaggerated version of girlness.

Overnight I felt like a failure at filtering terrible distorted images of women, and far too inadequate to handle the question of “sexiness” and femininity. I became almost certain that she would inevitably find herself in therapy attempting to fix all the damage we’ve done to her by not sheltering her from every sexual or provocative image and then reacting to her curiosity in the worst way possible – with shock and terror.

“Ignore it, at four she doesn’t need any more information. Just tell her it’s not appropriate for her to talk about,” has been the advice from all I’ve consulted.

Still, it – the issue of sexiness and sex – hasn’t gone away. In fact, she seems to be more preoccupied with it.

I lashed out in fear turned to anger one day and hissed, “You don’t need to be posing provocatively, do you understand me? You are only four-years-old and that’s simply not appropriate.”

Having overheard me, my husband responded, “She doesn’t even need to know the word ‘provocative.’”

He’s right, but I can’t think of an appropriate four-year-old synonym for sexy or provocative.

My original fear was realized when my friend informed me that the last time our children played together that Ainsley struck a pose and said, “I’m sexiest.”

To which I took my girl aside and said, “you better not use the words sexy, sex, sexiest or anything like it around those kids or you will be in big trouble. Huge! And don’t you do any posing with your hips or bottom out either!”

“No,” my friend said, “It’s never come up with my kids. You should probably keep telling her not to talk about it, but she’s definitely too young for more information.”

Further investigation illuminates that my friends’ method is to use a way more intense filter than ours. They turn off the TV when commercials come on. They flip the covers of magazines over when standing in line at stores. They tell their kids to turn away from billboards that contain provocative images of the body. They even withdrew their kid from private Christian school when a fellow kindergartener offered to show him her boobs.

Not only does this seem like an awful lot of effort, but their goal as parents is vastly different from ours. They are raising their daughters to grow into being submissive wives. Were we to ban every negative image of womanhood we would include that of a blindly submissive wife. Using the criteria that bans sexiness, unattainable prettiness and servant-like wifeliness, what images of femininity would be left? Stern schoolmarm? It is unlikely such images will hold much appeal for our daughter. They certainly don’t hold much attraction for me.

For now I’m sticking to a few little lies about sex like, “Sex is something that mommies and daddies do,” and a few poignant truths, “four-year-olds don’t need to worry, or talk about, things like sexiness.” Let’s hope I come up with something better when she’s nine or ten.

I’m also going to be more vigilant about what images of femininity she is exposed to. Within reason.

The findings in the 2005 Dove Campaign for Real Beauty Global Survey give me hope. While 97 percent of girls by the time they are 15-years-old want to change something about their bodies, it also shows that most girls are taking their cues from their mothers. Actually it’s a three-way tie between mothers, media and girlfriends, which is both frightening and hopeful. If mothers are an early pivotal influence on how daughters feel about themselves, then I had better start watching what I say about myself, women and beauty in general.

Next time my daughter says “I’m her” when she is taken with an overly-perfect picture of womanhood I’m going to say, “No, you’re you, and that’s better. In fact, that’s perfect.”

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