I was walking my son to the park a few blocks from our apartment; him, asleep in his stroller and me, attempting to stay cool on a particularly humid day. Wearing a newly-purchased sun dress and drinking water with a tenacity I imagine a camel would appreciate, I enjoyed my somewhat-solo stroll past modest homes and convenience stores and beautifully green patches of grass.
Next to the playground is a skate park. Mostly young men, attempting tricks that make my mom-marrow curdle, spending their time talking and smoking and skating with reckless abandon. In order to reach the vacant swings that put a particularly adorable smile on my son’s face, I have to walk past the skaters and the area they’ve clearly, and rightfully, claimed their own.
While on said walk, I heard three young men—probably in their late teens, early twenties—comment on my appearance. As a woman, the fact that complete strangers decided to criticize me physically was hardly a shock or surprise. It was the caveat they insisted on attaching to my presence that got my attention.
She’s hot, for a mom.
The sexualization of women, to me, is fascinating. Culture demands that women present themselves in a certain way, always displaying an allure of sex and desire and wanting, without ever actually having sex, particular desires, or consuming wants. A woman must put forth a conscious effort to appear attractive but loses her allure if she admits she has put forth said effort to appear attractive. She must enjoy sex, but only with you and only when you decide it is appropriate for her to do so.
And while the aforementioned had occurred to me much, much earlier than that humid afternoon, the depth at which our culture abhors women, their bodies, and the choices they make with said bodies, felt overwhelmingly apparent in that moment. A group of young men, arguably future husbands and fathers, had a preconceived notion of a woman’s worth that relied solely on the choices she made with her physical being.
Because I decided to have a child, I somehow lost a certain sexual allure. I was no longer mysterious or available. My body had undergone a well-known, well-documented, and probably still-visible change, perpetuating the misogynistic concept that sex — or the consequences of it—had ruined me. I am tainted, used, less than; a shadow of what I could have been, had I decided to forgo the responsibility of motherhood.
To determine a woman’s worth based on the decisions she makes with her body is to deny her basic humanity. On the opposite side of that coin is the belief that a woman is broken or ruined if she cannot and/or does not want to have children. Her body doesn’t do what it is made to do, so she has lost her purpose. And if she doesn’t want to use her body to house another life, she’s labeled selfish. Sweeping generalizations are painted over her personality, all because she isn’t using her body to follow a predetermined societal standard. What is she, if not an incubator for the coming generation?
We treat women as if the decisions they make are either in direct conflict or thoughtless adherence to a mindless, physical entity that society is constantly shaping, judging, and exploiting. A vast majority of men can’t seem to handle or appreciate said entity, so it’s automatically assumed that the very people who inhabit it— women—are incapable as well.
Whether I am attractive is relative. To some, I am beautiful. To others, forgettable. I have no problem with a wide range of reactions expressed by a wide range of individuals, all unique in their preferences. One’s standard of beauty may be different from my own, or anyone else’s, and that’s what diversity and preference and beauty is all about. I have no problem with someone looking at me and deciding I am less than appealing.
But to look at the choices a woman makes with her body and assign a tangible value to her worth and sexuality, is as appalling as it is concerning. To determine a woman’s worth based on the decisions she makes with her body is to deny her basic humanity.
Preference and worth are not the same, which is to say a woman’s worth is not dictated by someone else’s preference. It’s telling an entire population that they are nothing but skin and bones and veins. They are organs and bodily functions; a glorified flesh-robot that is empty and programmed with certain necessities that assist in her achieving mass, simplistic identification.
It’s assigning value to a vessel, while consciously ignoring the being that steers said vessel. Admiring a ship as it passes while simultaneously pretending it steers itself. It’s both ignorant and ludicrous.
Preference and worth are not the same, which is to say a woman’s worth is not dictated by someone else’s preference. Perhaps you find parenthood unattractive. That doesn’t mean a woman who happens to be a parent—and has used her body to do so—is automatically de-sexualized. Or, maybe you find perpetual singledom depressing. Okay, but that doesn’t make the single, childless woman less passionate, meaningful, or fulfilled.
Of course, I didn’t stop and say any of this to those three young men. Perhaps I should have. Half of me believes it isn’t my job to educate the ignorant male masses, while the other half believes a single moment of clarity is worth exploring.
In the end, I ignored them and made my way to the swings. I wanted to see that particularly adorable smile my son wears when the wind hits his face.
And in that moment, I smiled too. I knew I was raising a man who would know better.