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It was strange, watching women flaunt their womanliness while demanding respect for it at the same time. In this place, womanliness is protected not by females hiding themselves, but by men restraining themselves. I could not understand it. An entire society that refuses a morality based on what women wear. It was a foreign concept.
On a spring afternoon, a year after the Elmo fiasco, I met my friends in a local park. Our children chased each other around the playground as we sat on the bench, chatting about our toddlers and pregnancies. My high school classmate, Chany, told us of her latest ordeal.
“Could you believe it? My oldest started developing…. She is only 11. It seems like she was just born, and there I was a few days ago explaining to her all about periods and everything else. Of course, she was horrified. She told me, ‘Mommy, ugh! That is so yucky! Why do these things happen?’” We laughed sympathetically.
Chany continued: “I told her that this is the way Hashem made the world. There are things that are just yucky, but there’s nothing to do. Every woman in the world goes through this… eventually, you get used to it!”
My friends nodded. We had all been through this, learning the embarrassing facts of our bodies from our mothers, who learned them from theirs. Eventually, the shock wore off, and life went on.
I chatted with my friends as we left the park. But a chasm had opened between us. I called my daughter, playing on a swing, her lithe, sweet body arching up at the wind, and I knew at that moment we have it all wrong. We do not look at our bodies with respect or dignity; we see them as things of shame, our maturation a dreaded process. When our daughters look at their breasts, they see them as ugly things, pieces of machinery necessary for feeding babies. Things that boys are lucky not to have.
So how do I find my own way? How do I create a healthy space between fearful paranoia and obsessive desire? A place where my children can appreciate their sexuality without being consumed by it? How do I raise a child who won’t go into cardiac arrest over a dancing woman on “Sesame Street”?
It’s been a long journey. Slowly, I learn. My own child taught me as she grew. When she was five years old, she sat in the bubble bath, playing with a naked doll, staring at it curiously.
“What does Hashem call this?” she asked me pointing to elbow.
“Elbows,” I said.
“What does Hashem call this?” She pointed to her knees.
“And what does Hashem call this?” she asked, pointing to that which does not have a word.
I mumbled something incomprehensible, but my daughter wanted to know.
“This place. What does Hashem call this?” She pointed to the part between the doll’s legs. “What’s the name of it?”
I cringed as I said it, forcing it out, a word so shameful it seemed like it had never been said out loud before, as if an accident of creation.
“It’s called a ‘vagina,’” I said. “Vah-gina…” I watched her repeat the word simply and without fear: “Vah-gina. This is the vah-gina.” A part of the body that God made, too.
I wanted to hug her innocence. I wanted to take a piece of it and hide it safely away for the time when “vagina” would be more than just a word. I wanted to promise her that she would never be a stranger to herself, and that when the buds begin sprouting on her adolescent chest, it would be a moment of wonder. I wanted to promise her that she’d know the beauty of her body, her arcs and curves, and that her sexuality is a gift: the miracle of being a woman.
I wanted her to differentiate between modesty and a suppression that is just another kind of exploitation, one that shrouds women with the fear of men. We have learned to see our bodies through men’s insecurities, and we’ve become afraid to dance.
I wanted her to move, to swing her hips side to side, to see that sexuality is a deeply private part, but not a hidden one.
It is said that in this world even the most insignificant creatures have a divine purpose. Nothing is for naught. These are the words of the wise and the sages. I don’t know if the wise or the sages knew of Elmo, nor of “Sesame Street,” or what they’d say about such furry creatures playing any sort of a role in heaven’s divine plan.
But they played a role in my family. I never frantically pressed the forward button on “Sesame Street” again. Now, I laugh and remember, watching my children move along with the beats, giggling happily with Elmo and the dancing lady until the end of the ABCs.
Judy Brown wrote the novel “Hush” under the pseudonym Eishes Chayil. “Inside Out” is her essay series about life in the ultra-Orthodox world. It is based on true events, but her characters’ names and identities have been changed; some are composites, comprising several real-life people.