My daughter Amma shimmies around the kitchen with one hand on her hip and the other on the back of her head. She strikes several suggestive poses while shouting, “I’m sexy and I know it. Oh yeah, oh yeah!” I recognize this as the chorus to a recent pop song by Beyoncé, who we all love.
I stare at Amma and wonder where exactly does a kindergartner learn to arrange her hands and shake her hips like that?
Tish, the morality cop of the family, bounds into the room, and like a referee throwing a flag onto the football field, she yells, “Inappropriate, Amma! Sexy is inappropriate!”
Amma yells back, “No, it’s not!”
Tish says, “Yes it is! Sexy IS inappropriate, right, Mom?”
This argument sounds very much like the civil war that has raged in my mind for the last two decades. Is sexy inappropriate? Is sexy wrong? Is sex wrong? It can’t be wrong, but how can something that has forever been twisted to subjugate women not feel wrong?
My girls stare at me, waiting for the verdict. Delivering it feels above my pay grade. How can a woman who’s been so confused about her body and sex for so long lead her girls toward healthy relationships with sex? How can I possibly be the right person for moments like these?
I look down at my girls’ expectant faces and I remember that there is no right answer. There are only stories to tell. Every day the world will tell my girls its story about sexiness and what it means to be a woman. My girls need to hear my story. Not so my story will become theirs, but so they’ll understand that they are free to write their own stories.
They need to know that much of what the world presents to them is not truth; it’s poison. And my girls will only be able to detect lies if they know what truth sounds like. I take a deep breath and tell myself to relax. This is just the beginning of a lifelong conversation the three of us will have about womanhood.
I say, “I think most people are confused about what 'sexy' means. Sexy is a grown-up word to describe a person who’s confident that she is already exactly who she was made to be. A sexy woman knows herself and she likes the way she looks, thinks, and feels. She doesn’t try to change to match anybody else.
“And she knows how to use her words to tell people she trusts about what’s going on inside of her. When she’s angry, she expresses her anger in healthy ways. When she’s joyful, she does the same thing.
“She doesn’t hide her true self because she’s not ashamed. She knows she’s just human—exactly how God made her and that’s good enough. She’s brave enough to be honest and kind enough to accept others when they’re honest. When two people are sexy enough to be brave and kind with each other, that’s love.
“Sexy is more about how you feel than how you look. Real sexy is letting your true self come out of hiding and find love in safe places. That kind of sexy is good, really good, because we all want and need love more than anything else.
“Real sexy is taking off all your costumes and being yourself. Fake sexy is different. It’s just more hiding. Fake sexy is just wearing another costume. Lots of people are selling fake sexy costumes. Companies know that people want to be sexy so badly because people want love. They know that love can’t be sold, so they have big meetings in boardrooms and they say, ‘How can we convince people to buy our stuff? I know! We’ll promise them that this stuff will make them sexy!’ Then they make up what sexy means so they can sell it.
“Those commercials you see are stories they’ve written to convince us that sexy is the car or mascara or hair spray or diet they’re selling. We feel bad, because we don’t have what they have or look how they look. They want us to feel bad, so we’ll buy more. It almost always works. We buy their stuff and wear it and drive it and shake our hips the way they tell us to—but that doesn’t get us love, because none of that is real sexiness.
“You can’t buy sexy, you have to become sexy through a lifetime of learning to love who God made you to be and learning who God made someone else to be.”
My girls are quiet, listening. I study their faces as they study mine. Amma tilts her head and says, “Oh. I thought sexy meant pretty.”
I answer, “Pretty is another thing that can be sold. What and who is pretty is also something those people in boardrooms decide. It’s always changing. So if what you want to be is pretty, you’ll have to keep changing yourself constantly—and eventually you won’t know who you are.
“What I want to be, girls, is beautiful. Beautiful means ‘full of beauty.’ Beautiful is not about how you look on the outside. Beautiful is about what you’re made of. Beautiful people spend time discovering what their idea of beauty on this earth is. They know themselves well enough to know what they love, and they love themselves enough to fill up with a little of their particular kind of beauty each day.”
“Like when I dance!” Amma says, spinning and twirling around me.
“Yes. Like when you dance. Many of the things you see me do each day, I do to be beautiful. It’s why I take time out to spend with good friends. It’s why I read and look at art and always have music I love playing in the house. It’s why I light candles in every room. It’s why I watch you climb our banyan trees in the front yard. It’s why I roll around on the floor with the dogs and why I’m always smelling the top of your heads. It’s why I drag you to watch the sunset each week. I’m just filling up with beauty, because I want to be beautiful. You girls are beauty to me, too. When you smile at me, I can feel myself filling.”
The girls look at each other, giggle, and beam. They nod and pretend to understand every word I’ve said. Then my husband calls out for them and Amma pinches Tish and they run outside.
I stand at the counter, listening to the echo of what I’ve just said to my girls. I consider the possibility that I’ve been right and wrong my whole life. I was right to want to be beautiful and sexy; I was just wrong to have accepted someone else’s idea of what those words mean. It strikes me that I need to throw out the dictionary the world gave me about what it means to be a mother, a wife, a person of faith, an artist, and a woman and write my own. I’ve finally unlearned enough. I have unbecome, and I am ready to begin again.
I pour myself a cup of tea and stand still in the kitchen. I look down at my hands cupped around my mug and my belly grazing the counter. I say to my body, “I’m sorry. This is me, making amends. I am going to love you now because you are the vessel through which the world delivers beauty and love and wisdom to my soul.”
My eyes take in the beauty of the Gulf, my lungs take in the freedom of the air, my mouth and stomach accept life from food and drink, my arms gather the love of my children, and my breasts, legs, and hands accept and return the love of my husband.
I say to my body, “You are the ship that delivers love from the shore of another being to the shore of me. I was an island before. I didn’t know how to let myself out or let others in. Thank you. Thank you for accepting all this love and beauty on my soul’s behalf. Thank you for being so patient with me.”
Adapted from Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle, © 2016. Used with permission.