I’m seven years old and I feel what others call butterflies, though I remember imagining them as cockroaches skittering in my stomach. It’s Sunday afternoon and there’s a big family gathering underway, the kind that involves a Tetris assembly of card tables in our small lanai. The fans pull puffs of warmth from food plucked straight from the fryer. There’s a neat line of shoes by the door. Aunties float by with hair that stinks of the salon; uncles guard doorways with wide-legged stances. As soon as I step into the room with my gathered relatives, my mom ushers me forward. I bow formally, though none of them give me a second glance.
The cockroaches again. That feeling of performing in a play where I know none of the script, where I never wanted to step onto the stage at all.
“Go on; give them a hug,” my grandmother urges. I try to resist her pinching fingers, but my mother slides her eyes away from mine. I want to tell my grandmother that no one wants a hug from me. I’m not the sort of kid that adults want to cuddle. And, truth be told, I don’t want the cuddling either. But I approach each aunt and uncle, stretching out my arms, interrupting their conversations despite my deep embarrassment. They, too, seem uncomfortable, muttering, “Okay, okay, enough now.” Afterward, I go into the bathroom and cry.
With the double whammy of living in the South and being raised among Asian American immigrants with a strong sense of filial duty, growing up, I often gave more of my body than I wanted. I let myself be kissed by boys when I didn’t want to be kissed. I made myself offer hugs. It was what you did as a young girl: a smushy-sweet offering of affection to make others feel comfortable.
The truth is, I like affection quite a bit. But it pains me to be touched by anyone I don’t trust. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, in the context where I was raised, “boundaries” were never spoken of. If I’d resisted my grandmother at one of those family gatherings, I would have been seen as unnatural, defiant. Not a nice girl.
But I think now how my adult relatives rarely touched each other, not even in lighthearted affection. Siblings never hugged; even parents received little more than a quick pat on the back. So why was the demand so different for children? What is it about small beings that makes people want to impose their will?
Perhaps it’s because children require more bodily guidance when they are younger — diaper changes, feedings, help with dressing and putting on shoes. And then there’s the notion of politeness, a slippery concept that allows for any number of aggressions and sublimated emotion. These are all generous interpretations. Perhaps, we as a society simply like the idea of controlling others’ bodies. And children, with their various vulnerabilities, are easiest to control.
As I grew older, I noticed that the boys in my family were rarely asked to hug others. The expectation of offering physical affection seemed directly aimed at girls. And this, along with any distinctly gendered practice, makes me deeply suspicious. There’s a reason why female bodies, even at a young age, are expected to carry the burden of social diplomacy. And a reason why the refusal to play such a part makes some people so offended — so angry.
The body is political; we know this. Children’s bodies, just as much as the rest of ours.
Now that I have a daughter, I want to do things differently. My friends and I talk about consent with our children. We read books about not touching hair, giving people space, asking thoughtful questions. Saying no. Sooner than we’d like, we broach the topic of “bad touching.” To be clear, none of what I experienced as a child fell into that category. Yet—what contradictory messages we offer to children when we tell them, on the one hand, to give themselves unwillingly, and then to also stand up for themselves in the face of bullies and predators. Who could blame them for that confusion?
Since my daughter was a baby, I rarely handed her to others if I felt her clinging to me. I experienced panic when I imagined her passed around a party, as if she were an appetizer open for consumption. It made me uncomfortable when people stretched their arms towards her at first sight, as an expectation. I felt it was my duty to read her cues and interpret them. Her uncertainty was language enough for me.
Once at a restaurant, an older woman, a stranger, leaned down next to our baby as she was passing on her way out. She began stroking my daughter’s cheek, even though my daughter tried to pull away. I asked the woman to please stop. She smiled and resumed her petting. I asked her again, my husband echoing me now. She blinked several times before huffing away. “Well, I just—” she said, throwing her hands up in the air. The wounded, martyred expression of affection scorned. Of course, I understood the initial gesture to be one of affection. Many people love babies and are drawn to them. That’s not reason enough for me to allow my child to be touched against her will.
Another time, at a family gathering, a relative pulled my daughter into his lap, next to a child that made her nervous. She screamed and kicked to get free. Rather than releasing her, the relative leaned closer and said, “Oh, it’s okay! We’re all family!” I plucked my child away and kept her close to me the rest of the time we were there, her nails digging into my back anytime I shifted. There was a breach of trust, but there would be no apology that day.
With my husband and me, my daughter overflows with kisses and hugs. But for many, this is not a given, especially in unfamiliar situations. And yet—every time I shook my head at a relative, any time I pulled my daughter away from a doting stranger, I felt like a pariah. Unnatural for not wanting to “share” my child. Though for me, it was never about sharing, because I don’t own my child’s body. It was always about protecting her. Acting as her voice when she couldn’t speak for herself.
It’s tricky, sometimes, to practice what I preach. When my daughter was three, she befriended a pair of twins who met her at storytime at the library. They loved to crowd onto my lap—my daughter nestled in the middle—as they listened to the librarians reading. Afterwards, they chased bubbles together, nudging their fingers up to pop each before it hit the navy blue carpet of the kids’ rec room. One day after the reading, my daughter beamed towards her friends and opened her arms for a hug. The twins walked away from her, shaking her head. She followed, arms still open. Beseeching.
The twins’ nanny prompted, “Don’t you want to hug her?”
They shook their heads. They’d hugged her before, many times, so the reason for them not doing so that day could have been attributed to any number of things. But of course it doesn’t matter why they didn’t want to. A no was reason enough.
“That’s okay,” I choked, trying to smile. “They don’t have to hug her.”
To my daughter, I whispered, “Friends can choose what happens to their bodies.”
Her face crumpled. She asked, “Why don’t they like me anymore?” For all our talks on bodily autonomy, she only saw the part about the thwarted hug. I understand this. It’s human nature to feel the stomach-drop of rejection; the brush of mortification when offered affection isn’t reciprocated. Teaching lessons of consent is one of the hardest things we’ll have to do as parents, because so much of our self-worth is defined by reciprocity.
That day at the library, I swept her up and said, “I’ll hug you anytime.” But she still sobbed. I sobbed too, truth be told, recalling the incident later to my husband. It was hard to see her heartbreak and, at the same time, understand the rightness of her friends walking away from her offered hug. We can feel that hurt, and not let it determine the way we advocate for others in the world.
Recently, I was back in the South visiting family. It was a delicious, warm, loving visit with the people I liked best in the world. My daughter raced around the yard with my cousins. She ate a pyramid of chocolate wafers built just for her. The visit affirmed everything I loved about my family, complicated as our past may be.
At the end of the visit, I asked her to decide whether she would say goodbye to relatives with a hug, a high five, or just a simple thank you. I wanted her to know it was important to express gratitude for someone’s time, without feeling obligated to give more than you are comfortable. For some relatives, she chose a fist-bump or high five. For others, like my mother, she gave a big squeeze. When she got to my grandmother, she stopped and said, “Bye! Thank you so much!” with a shy smile. But my grandmother reached for her and pulled her into a tight hug that made her squirm. Her eyes opened wide, darting to mine.
I untangled her from my grandmother, and said the thing I wished someone had said for me as a child: “No, thank you. She does not want that.”
My grandmother did not take it well. She scowled and muttered to the other relatives. (Truth be told, she refused to speak to me for weeks afterwards.) And I understand her hurt; it never feels good to be left out. Yet adults are in charge of managing our own feelings; my only job, my only choice, is to help my daughter’s voice be heard, even in situations where others would prefer she drown it out.
Later, in the car driving away, my daughter asked in a small voice, “It’s my body, right? My choice.” Repeating the words we’d said so often to her. I gave her a reassuring smile.
“Always your choice,” I told her. This is something I’m trying to remember for myself, too. One thing I will tell her someday soon is that others may not believe in consent, as we do. That self-autonomy will require work and discomfort and sometimes outright rebellion. But she will never be alone when she stands up. I will be standing right behind her.