Opinionista Sisonke Msimang 28 November 2013

Fight the boxes tooth and nail: A letter to my daughter

I won't do 16 days because this isn't a once a year struggle for me, but I will tell my daughter a few things one day.

Today you are five, but soon you will be grown, and so I want to talk to your twenty-five-year-old self.

The world that I grew up in is both different from and radically similar to the world you now inhabit. I want to say gently and without rancour (so that I do not alarm you) that the contours of power that shaped my life will remain stubbornly resistant to change, even in your lifetime.

You might insist that this is not true, that I do not understand what it feels like to be you. You are correct, but I know some of the detours on the road that you will travel, even as I accept that you have to walk that road alone.

You used an iPad before you could read and write and you taught me where the volume button was on the thing before you were three. Yet it has been my job to teach you other things about the context in which this technology operates. It has been my job to warn you that the image of something does not replace the thing itself. It has been my role as a mother to teach you that the triumph of the visual over the real is the cross that you and your generation must bear.

This frightens me – the way in which your peers have been steeped in the cult of Kardashianism (or whoever will follow Kim and her sisters). The sassy soundbite, the glossy lips, the taut belly and just-so bum, these have all become the girl. These glimpses of the girl matter more than who she really is, what she wants, what she doesn’t want, what she believes.

Mostly, though, even as I see your strength, I fear that for your generation, violence and objectification cannot be torn apart from sex. They are clasped in an intimate embrace, and the implications of this for you, for who you think you are, are profound.

For your generation every stereotype that has always existed about women has been crystallised and is now on display on-line in its purest form. We are stupid and irrational and only valuable if we are attractive according to standards set by misogynists. And of course if we are black or brown like you and I are, then we can only be domineering or sexpots or asexual Aunt Jemimas.

I have watched the startling speed with which a sexed-up girl has flourished in the virtual world. I have seen her influence spill out into real life – into your life. I saw her when you were three as you cradled a millennial Barbie whose curves made Pamela Anderson blush. I saw her in the impossibly long hair you wished you had, in the make-believe bra that you fashioned by pulling the bottom of your t-shirt through its neck just a few short months ago.

I saw all this and I remembered myself what it felt like to be a brown girl navigating a world in which girls were set up to win only up to a certain point; a world in which if you stood too tall, or put your head up too high, you would get dragged down, pulled by the hair and put in your place. A world in which even staying low and playing small was no guarantee that these things wouldn’t happen to you.

I am talking to you like this now because you are already a woman, so you will know what I mean. You may disagree with me about the viciousness of it all – goodness knows I hope that you do – but you will understand nonetheless what I fear and why I fear it. Its name – the thing I fear – is violence. Having lived two decades you will recognise raw violence; you will see aggression in the eyes of those who wish to physically hurt you. This violence is easy to spot, even if we sometimes see it too late.

But then there are the acts that are meant to violate us, to cut us down to size, to make us afraid, without actually touching us. I have learned that the key to surviving this violence is to name it, to call it what it is. Once you have named it you can survive it.

But if you don’t, if you listen to words and think that they describe you, if you see images and understand them to depict you, when in fact they are the opposite of what you are, then you will be lost. I have learned too that help doesn’t always come when you call for it. I know only too well that even in your electronic world, the violence acted upon you in public – on the twitter streets – needs others to validate it, to witness it, it needs voyeurs to help to tear you apart.

I want you to know that people are being violent when they tell you that you are ugly, that they are violent when they say that you are beautiful or sexy when you are trying to be smart, that they are being violent when they insist that you are something when you know you are not that thing. They do this because they want to put you in a box, and you must fight them and their boxes tooth and nail.
More importantly, I want to tell you that there still isn’t any inoculation from the treachery that awaits a twenty-five year old brown girl with her head full of dreams and her heart faced towards the future. Being hurt in particular ways is part of our lives.

When the malevolence with which every woman I know is familiar, hovers near, the best you can do is to be ferocious and resilient and querulous and insistent that you will not let it harm you in the ways that matter the most.

Train your mind and your body so that you have legs fast enough to outrun the bad guys, wits quick enough to outthink them and a heart strong enough to outlive them.

Mostly, I wish for you a life far more free and simple than the one that even I, your ‘liberated’ mother has thus far lived. DM


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