‘She’s quite a tomboy, hey?’

I had my own version of Taylor Swift’s epiphany at university, so I’ve been a feminist for a decade, but it wasn’t until a year ago that I discovered my body as its own subject.

Like a lot of girls, I grew up thinking of my body as an object without fully realising that I did. What I knew for sure was that the worth of my body was measured by the way it looked. That, to have value, it had to be thin in certain places and round in others, and ideally, had to be carried with confidence, and on high heels.

But then I started exercising properly for the first time in my life, and, in a few months, my body started changing from an object to be assessed on sight to something that could do things. Of course, being blessed with good health and youth and fully operational limbs, this should have dawned on me before … and yet it was only recently that I started regretting the energy wasted during my adolescent and young-adult years on worrying about my weight, denying myself the pleasures of pudding and pie, and measuring the circumference of my thighs in fits of Jonesian (as in, Bridget, obvz) insecurity. Until I got fit, I never thought of my body as the trusty, sophisticated piece of equipment it is. Instead, I imagined it as a soft, pale lump of dough that the world expected me to knead into a desirable shape. Something unfinished, and imperfect.

And because of this, I missed out on 15 years’ worth of endorphin-fuelled giddiness, and frankly, I’m more than a little bitter about everything I failed to experience until now. The misty early-morning trail runs that deliver you, sweating, into bright, brittle winter days. The weird communion you get to feel with a group of strangers by panting along with them on stationary bikes to thumping, dubious Tina Turner remixes, striving along with them to reach the burning, blissful obliteration of self that comes with physical exhaustion. The satisfaction of quaking your way to a few more push-ups every week, and being able to hold a punishing plank in Pilates class for longer than you did last Wednesday. The pride that comes with feeling your body getting stronger and fitter and more able.

But no matter how long overdue my realisation about “bodies for doing” was, I’m just glad it came before my toddler daughter started becoming aware of herself, as a girl.

There is no denying that people treat boy and girl children differently. Barbara Kingsolver writes about strangers’ reactions to her daughter Camille as a baby, depending on whether they took her to be a boy or a girl, in her essay “Life Without Go-Go Boots”. When Camille wore her cousin’s hand-me-down shirts with cars and trains on them, people would comment on how strong and alert “he” was. When she wore pink, she got compliments on her pretty blue eyes. And that’s just the way it is: little girls are praised for their looks, and boys are complimented on the boldness of their actions, their agility, their spirit of adventure.

So I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to compliment my daughter effusively on the able-ness of her body: how strong she is, how high she can jump, how fast she can run. I’ve started to dress her mostly in comfortable “boys’” clothes — because let’s be honest, major retailers peddle ridiculous clothing for little girls, choosing form over function, tulle miniskirts over zip-up hoodies — for maximum freedom of movement. I have to restrain myself from helping her climb jungle gyms or into swings, and from flinching when she runs straight through deep, muddy puddles in inappropriate shoes.

And I hope that in five or 10 years’ time, when strangers see her showing off by sprinting and jumping and generally being her spirited, exuberant self, they won’t say, “She’s quite a tomboy, hey?” Because why should loving your body, loving movement, loving activity and trying to push your physical limits be reserved for boys and that mysterious creature, the pseudo/“tom” boy?

Author Lisa Bloom wrote a few years ago about how to talk to little girls. The idea of discussing what they’re reading instead of what they’re wearing has value, but I’d like to take it one step further. The next time I find myself in a social situation with a little girl (which, to be fair, happens with disconcerting regularity these days), I’m going to steer the conversation toward her favourite sport, what she likes to do at the park, and her physical prowess. Even if they’re not preternaturally athletic, there are not many small children who are indifferent to playground equipment, and who don’t relish climbing up and jumping off things.

Whatever happens, I don’t want it to take 29 years for my daughter to feel free and confident and comfortable in her movement, and to realise that the most important thing about her body is what it lets her do.

Image – AFP