How does your daughter learn about her body? From magazines that feature nipped, tucked and airbrushed size-2 celebrity cover models? From X-rated authors like Karrine Steffans and Zane, and the "Gossip Girls"? From music videos? From her boyfriend? Or from you?
This is a rhetorical question. Of course it should be you. Starting around school-age, parents should begin an open-ended, age-appropriate dialogue with their daughters (and sons!) Talking the talk isn't easy but it's no joke. Research shows that black moms are more likely to feel uncomfortable talking about sexuality and body issues and less likely to have these kinds of frank, probing discussions.
But we've got to: A new study also notes that the teen birth rate is up among our girls for the first time in 15 years. Girls who don't learn about their bodies from a trusted, knowledgeable adult early on are more likely to give it up before they're ready and end up pregnant or living with an STD, including HIV. It's not all about the big things either. Tweens and teens have questions about everything.
So sit down and talk to your daughter—and be sure to listen, too. For help, bring along "Body Drama," a brand-new book aimed at young women and girls, written by a real life beauty queen who has had plenty of issues of her own. Nancy Amanda Redd, a former Miss Virginia who was a top-ten Miss America finalist and even won the swim suit competition, says she's suffered from feeling bumpy, lumpy, funky and ashy all her life.
"I truly thought I was a weird stinky girl with a lot of body problems," says 26-year-old Redd, who now lives in L.A. "I wrote the book because I knew if I was up there in a Miss America pageant dealing with these insecurities, everyone else must be dealing with body drama, too."
Nominated for an NAACP Image Award, "Body Drama" features full-blown conversations about zits, nipples, discharge, cramps, bad breath, B.O., love handles, pubic hair, and other intimate topics that girls may be too embarrassed or too afraid to ask you or anyone else about. Redd, a friendly, smarty-pants sistergirl who majored in women's studies at Harvard, also doesn't shy away from weightier topics like virginity, contraception and sexually transmitted infections.
The book's centerpiece is a spread of two dozen girls and women of various shapes, sizes and colors showing everything God gave them. It's startling to see these young women in the raw, looking giggly and wholesome rather than juicy and seductive. There's also two rows of vulvas, some dark and lovely, one pierced and another sporting a Brazilian, pictured alongside 36 nicknames for the "coochie"—from kitty cat and punani to the wonder down under.
"I hope that my book helps desexualize women's bodies," says Redd. "Girls, especially girls of color, need to see naked bodies that are not in a porn pose. Too many of us only see naked bodies in videos or on Myspace. We have to fight the shame and see ourselves as more than just a vessel for a baby or for somebody else's pleasure."
Though Redd warns that she's only 26 years old and doesn't know everything, she stresses the need for open dialogue between women and the girls in our lives. "You've got to start from ground zero," she says. "The first step is to be a role model by loving and appreciating your body. You have to be able to discuss your own experiences, including the mistakes you made. If you're too embarrassed by what you've done and what you've learned, you won't be able to pass along the wisdom."
No matter how crazy or evil your daughter may seem as her adolescent hormones rage, remember that she needs you. "Girls are naïve, worried and hungry for love," says Redd. "I see the frustration and worry in their eyes. Too often I meet the kind of girl who didn't know anything until a guy hit on her. Then she's like, 'oh, this is what my body does.'"
Don't wait. You don't have to have all the answers; nobody expects that. Instead create a comfort zone for open, honest dialogue. And put "Body Drama" in it.
Linda Villarosa is a health columnist for The Root. "Passing for Black" is her first novel. For more go to her Web site.