african american girl pointing

“Mommy, look at her big ole’ butt. It goes boom ba boom boom.” We are standing two feet away from the dollar store patron that my daughter has noticed and the store is quiet enough to hear a mouse giggle.

I drop to my knees, dying at least five times on the way down. The edges of my whisper are sharper than I’d intended them to be when I say, “We don’t talk about people’s butts.” It was the best I could come up with in the moment. The speech won’t get me a mother-of-the-year award but I’m hoping that it will get me out of the store unscathed.

Butt difference is an American obsession, all wrapped up in White supremacy, sexism and hypersexuality. After all, the cartoon princess story (animated records of White American racial consciousness) is responsible for my daughter’s sound effects. We’d recently watched The Little Mermaid, in which the villain’s big butt moved with the percussion to her song. We don’t talk about butts.

I’m angrier at my own lack of preparation than I am at my three-year-old’s observation. I survey my heart. What are the things I know in this moment? The woman has a big butt. It is impolite to say so in her hearing. A big butt is not a bad thing and young children don’t judge difference in the same ways that adults do. Adult observations are weighted with ideals to which children don’t yet subscribe, ideals that are fortified by seemingly innocent moments like these. There is a fine line between teaching children about rudeness and teaching them about hierarchy. In my failed whisper-speech, I tried to get at what was rude about her observation without giving her any reason to believe that big butts were necessarily bad. I wanted her to know that butts come in different sizes, that some butts are flat, others round, some wide, some narrow, some small, some big and that all butts were equally off-limits. But she’s smart enough to see the lie in my attempt at “colorblindness.”

If only butts were the end of it. There are so many ways that bodily differences are separated into simple binaries of “normal” and “monstrous.” In telling my daughter that “we,” don’t talk about butts, I was trying to avoid the binary by ruling out all butts from conversation. It didn’t work. It only makes her more curious about the taboo, and she plays along its edges now, trying to figure out which butts we can talk about and which are off-limits. Big butts? Skinny butts? Horse butts? Cat butts? Hers? Mine?

How do I give her space to notice difference with childlike wonder while teaching her that we should be more than consumers of other people’s bodies, more than “us” looking at “them”? How do I make the connections between her voiced observations and her own discomfort with strangers’ attention? 

Perhaps I should have celebrated the ways that all butts can move. Maybe (out of the other woman’s earshot) I should have giggled and made my butt go, “boom boom da boom” or asked her to do the same. Maybe I could have simply said, “Butts come in all sizes,” and saved the matrix lessons for later. Maybe I should have picked her up and run. 

We are finally at the counter where I’m playing my part in this capitalist system by handing over my bank card for things I may not need. My daughter looks up at me and says, “Mommy, I’m not talking about butts right now.” She reminds me that I still have work to do, that to say that “we” don’t talk about butts is to mean that “we” always are. She reminds me that silence is more telling than the words, and that my own discomfort may be the butt of this joke.

Asha French is a writer and mother living in Atlanta. Tweet her: @afrenchwriter