Teaching Girls to Sense the Body

This article is part of a weekly series adapted from our latest book, “The 9 Lives of Women,” by our founder, Christine Marie Mason. 

From Chapter 1: Girl Child (Birth to Menses), Part 3

Teaching Body Sense

Pretty quickly after finding their fingers and toes, young children begin sexual exploration: touching themselves, exposing themselves, and touching each other. This is normal, and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s vital, in fact, that we don’t respond to any of this with shame.  

Author and social science researcher Deepa Narayan says that, to help girls arrive at adolescence ready to shine without shame, we must teach them about their body and all of its parts. Her guidance is  “have names for sexual parts, train girls to care for it matter of factly, and if you see self sexual play don’t punish, ignore, distract or talk, and make it normal and private.” 

Teach Her to Name Her Parts.
To know our parts, we have to have words for them. Body knowledge must include knowing the names of your body parts—and I mean all of them, including the intimate ones. Many adult women today don’t know the names of their own body parts.  The outside sexual organs are called the vulva, and this includes the labia and the clitoris; the vulva also contains the vestibule and the urethra. If a girl has an irritation, by the age of four she should be able to say “my vulva is red” as easily as “my elbow hurts.” Or, if this language seems too technical, you can teach her both the actual terminology as well as the newly-minted word “snippa,”a nickname created by Swedish sociologist Anna Kosztovicsto to help normalize the way young girls talk about their bodies. 

“Boys have nicknames for their genitals when they’re little,” notes Kosztovics. “When you’re small, you say ‘pee-pee,’ or ‘willy.’ There are children’s words for everything.” If there’s not a name for something, she observes, it’s as if it doesn’t exist.” And there was no informal nickname for the vulva, until the word “snippa” caught on. 
“So many mothers have told me, their little girl now says, ‘Oh, it tickles in my snippa,.’ says Kosztovics. “Before she would say. ‘My tummy, it tickles in my tummy.’”

Feel her body from the inside and know where it is in space.
After naming their external parts, it helps a child if he or she can actually feel their body from the inside. 

This skill is in part proprioception, or being able to feel your body in space, and it comes online as children gain control over their limbs and mobility , This stage can be stunted by trauma, numbing, or disconnecting. 

We help our child learn to trace energetic action in the body- what are you feeling in your body, we might ask them. They eventually learn to reply with things like, “my heart is racing, I have goosebumps, this part is tingling, my stomach feels fluttery, I can’t feel my feet really well.”

When kids learn early to trace sensations and to learn where feelings are located in the body. “Where do you feel that in your body” eventually becomes a clue for a girl to be in touch with her real desires, as well as to sense what’s safe and not safe.

Help Her Find her Body Joy.
My friend Wendy is a Persephonologist, meaning she she studies the myth of Persephone. As an investigator of Greek myths, she told me about the Little Bears: the preteen devotees of Artemis, who came to the temple for a period of three years to learn to fish and hunt and run and climb and serve the goddess of the wilderness.

This vibrant girl power—tied to the earth, knowing nature, knowing practical skills—has echoes in the Girl Scouts and Indian Princesses. It is an important part of a girl’s entrance into adulthood in love with movement, with knowing that she herself is nature. She is “the natural beauty and intelligence of the cosmos, arising as herself”, as yogi Mark Whitwell writes. When she is enjoying this mastery of her body—with nature, sports, dance, or activation of any kind—embracing this wildness, this ferality, this affection for moving…. let her be a Little Bear. If she wants to beam, sweaty and fearless, after a goal on her college team, or dance like a firefly in the night sky, let this begin at an early age. 

Comfortably receive and give nurturing touch, skin contact, and physical affection.
Touch is the first sense to develop in babies,and with good reason: It is literally life or death for an infant. The amount of touch sets a baby’s metabolism. Babies deprived of touch have stunted metabolisms, and don’t grow correctly. In nonhuman primates, touch is a vital part of their cooperative social compact: They spend between 10% and 20% of each day grooming each other. As adult humans, most of us don’t get enough of this! 

Touch calms cardiovascular stress, boosts the immune system, stimulates the part of the brain necessary for memory, enhances metabolic functioning, and stimulates lymph function. Touch is also called the primary language of compassion. It makes people feel more connected, cooperative, and less threatened. 

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