Raised Like A Girl: Some Thoughts On Tradition

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Amanda Moser

Fan of tattoos, David Bowie, and dogs with short legs. Not necessarily in that order.

Tradition is a funny thing.

We, those who are steeped in it, can rarely see another way of doing things. We assume this is THE WAY, and, because it’s the way we’ve always done, it’s the way we’ll always do.

And for many southern women, like the women in my family, tradition is the way of life.

There are unfair expectations placed on you, simply because you were assigned female at birth.

It’s in the way you’re expected to dress, to act, to think, to believe. It’s all the thousands of little ways your life has been prescribed for you, without your consent.

The passing down of gender roles and familial traditions are often one and the same.

Nothing exemplifies this more than the difference in how boys and girls are often raised.

One thing that young girls are taught, in a way that young boys demonstrably are not, is that their bodies are for public consumption.

Your body is for public consumption

I was often asked to get the opinion of my dad, my grandfather, my uncle, as to how I was dressed: whether it was “appropriate” and how much skin was shown. It was made clear to me from a very young age that my body was for male consumption, male dictation. That the choices I made should be dependent on what the men thought, how the men felt. 

My body was up for debate.

There was an open-season on comments and critiques; my body was not my own. From the dresses I was forced to wear to church, to the length of my shorts in the heat of Texas summers, to the only type of swimsuit I was allowed to wear — a one piece, often with a skirt, never a two piece, never a tankini — every item of clothing I wore was up for debate and discussion.

Even when I asked for my first bra — my first BRA — my mom wanted me to get my dad’s opinion. I remember being absolutely mortified and then layering on tank top upon tank top underneath my school uniform until the need for a bra was too great and couldn’t be denied anymore. 

We, the girls in my family, were taught how to make ourselves presentable — through the eyes of our family, in a wholly contradictory and confusing way.

We were given “play makeup” for Christmas, but weren’t allowed to wear it out of the house. We have a closet full of our aunt’s and grandmother’s old, very adult, clothes to dress up in, but weren’t able to make our own decisions regarding school clothes. We were given nail polish, but could only use it on our toes. We were told that the hair our bodies grew was nasty, that women should be smooth and silky, but were forbidden from shaving until 15. 

Even though we were taught how to cook heavy, cheesy, sugary, and fat-laden foods, we were constantly aware of how much of it went into our bodies.

If we ate more than was deemed “appropriate” we were scolded:

  • “You’d be so pretty if you weren’t fat…”
  • “Remember, ‘a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips’…”
  • “No one’s going to love you if you’re fat…”
  • “You can’t find a husband if you eat like that…”

There is no such thing as bodily acceptance in my family. We women are creatures made up of flaws, and as such must constantly be scrutinized and driven to change.

Growing up I had headache-inducing, sit-on-it-long hair. Long hair was ladylike. Long hair was for little girls. I hated it.

I remember the first time my mom left me alone with the hairdresser, I sat there in near-tears and begged her to cut eight inches off instead of two. And bless her, she did.

In the eighteen years since, my hair has only been long once. Once. In eighteen years.

The inability to have ownership over your own body, even as a child, sticks with you and leaves its mark. 

The thing is, tradition is not mandatory. It’s not a survivalist technique, it’s not evolutionarily necessary.

It’s just tricked us into believing that.

One of the most insidious familial traditions I can think of surpasses gender roles. It’s expected of all children, no matter what, and it is this: the lack of consent surrounding bodily touch

In my family we were forced to be physically demonstrative with family members, with no regard to our personal comfort.

Bodily autonomy starts at a young age; understanding that you have the right to dictate who touches you, and when, is an important lesson for all children to learn.

Being forced to hug and kiss family members when you don’t want to teaches children that they don’t have the right to say no.

Consent begins at home.

It begins with raising children to know, without a doubt, that they have control over who touches their bodies. It begins with teaching children that they aren’t allowed to touch someone without consent. Every single child should learn this growing up.

The world would be a much healthier, safer place if they did.

Children should be raised to understand that their bodies are their own. That other people do not have the right to dictate what their bodies look like, when their bodies can be touched.

Bodily autonomy, or the lack thereof, touches every part of our lives. It impacts how we relate to those around us, how we feel safe in our own skin. It’s imperative that this become the new tradition, the new understanding, passed down from generation to generation: you are your own.

Family traditions are there to make us feel safe, to make us feel as if we belong, as if we’re part of a tribe. But sometimes those same traditions can be limiting, prohibitive, and dangerous.

They can exclude us just as easily as they include us. They can make us feel wrong and out of place in our own families, if our hopes or dreams or ideas differ even slightly from the norm.

The thing is, though, these traditions are pretty well-cemented in our psyches. They have planted roots, set up shop. They are assumptive and loud; they are bullies who think they have all the control.

And so, some traditions just shouldn’t be in charge anymore. Their power must be taken away.

We should treat these traditions like a grumpy old man who’s just not used to not getting his way. Our traditions are likely pretty sexist and racist; you know they’re homophobic. They like to ramble on a bit about “the good old days” and kick up a fuss. But like any recalcitrant toddler or obstinate old man, they just need some boundaries.

They need to be told that enough is enough, and we’re not going to stand for it any more.

Times are changing. We know more now than we did then. And so, we change the landscape. We decide what traditions to continue, what traditions to change.

And what traditions, like a cranky old man, just need to take a nap.