My daughter asked me why she has hair on her legs and I don’t.
A simple question, when we were sitting together on the lounge, our legs splayed out alongside each other’s.
I had no idea what to say.
Is this the moment to bring up the patriarchy, I wondered. Or do we just want to keep watching Operation Ouch?
The wisest parenting mentors in my life tell me that honesty is generally the best policy. That kids can smell bullsh*t a mile away, so just come clean.
If I had followed that advice, I probably would have said something like this:
“You have hair on your legs and I don’t, darling, because you are still at an age where you are not yet expected to conform to society’s long-held beauty standards.
“You are, as yet, ignorant of the judgement and ridicule that you’ll attract if you decide to buck accepted beauty norms.
“You don’t know yet that the natural state of your body is considered disgusting and gross, and that if you don’t take steps to alter and tame it, you will be considered a peculiar rebel, worthy of note.
“You are not yet aware that our culture considers the naturally hairy state of a man’s body attractive and manly, but the naturally state of a woman’s body smelly and unhygienic.
“But don’t worry, you have all that to look forward to. You go girl, etc.”
Of course I didn’t say that.
What I actually said was this: "Oh, I just like to shave my legs. Maybe you'll shave yours one day." And we went back to watching the telly.
But it bothered me. It bothered me because every day, my daughter's eyes are on me, watching for clues about how to be a woman. She's gathering data at all times. She's like a spy for the future.
And people, that's a lot of pressure. Because, I don't know about you, but I don't have good reasons for many of the 'womanly' things that I do.
"Why do you wear make-up?" Is another question I haven't worked out the 'right' answer to.
"Why do you wear high heels?" Yet another.
"Why are you standing at the fridge eating pickles out of a jar?" But I digress.
This stuff is basic. How to handle these questions should be taught in pre-natal classes, right alongside how to find the exact piece of teeny-tiny Lego your kid is tearfully demanding in a bucketful of identical bumpy bits. And how to deal with the inevitable, 'What happens after we die?', which is a question only ever asked while a parent is driving a car.
Yes, I could go into the fact that people have tried all kinds of ways to remove their body hair since ye olde caveman days, when early humans would shave with a sharp stone so that their hair could not be grabbed by an enemy in battle.
Or Roman times, when women and men would rub at their leg hair with bits of volcanic glass.
Or, I could talk about the fact that one of the reasons ordinary working-class western women started shaving their legs was because, during World War II, stockings were hard to come by and skirts had got shorter and somewhere a group of guys had decided that smooth legs would really help the war effort.
I could have told her about an excellent housemate I once had who didn't give a f- about her thick, dark body hair and, in fact, on special occasions would shave festive patterns into her leg-hair in lieu of leggings.
But I didn't.
I did ask for help though, via This Glorious Mess, the excellent podcast about family life that I co-host with Andrew Daddo. He told a slightly disturbing story about the amount of hair on display in a recently-sighted vintage collection of Playboys, but I got some excellent tips from listeners, like:
Robyn, who also says: "When the kids asked about make-up (seeing me putting it on) I told them it was a type of decoration that grown-ups choose to have or not. I have extrapolated that to cover hair as well. Men get to decorate their faces with beards if they want and we can choose how much or little hair to have on our bits. You get it when you grow up and get to choose."
Speaking of curious little ones and body hair, you can listen to this segment on This Glorious Mess right over here:
Nadja also takes the 'choose when you're older' route.
"My 5yo has asked me about my legs and hers. I tell her I like my legs being smooth and hair-free. I've also told her when she's a teenager she’ll have a choice."
Nadja has also worked out how to deal with the pesky patriarchy question. "I just try and make it all about me and my decisions, rather than telling her the patriarchy has instilled this into us! (She can read about that when she’s older.) For now, she thinks it's all about mummy doing what she wants to make her feel better."
DANGEROUS! Nicky, you are a fricking genius. Dodge the whole patriarchy situation with good old-fashioned first-aid smarts.
But another Nicole wins for honesty.
"[I told my kids] when I was in high school all my friends were shaving their legs and so I did too. We thought we were cool. But then I found out that some women and girls didn't shave their legs. I was a bit miffed because shaving your legs is annoying and a bit of a pain. I also realised that there are no rules about shaving your legs - it is up to us if we do it or not. It is easier not to but some people do it because they think they have to do what their friends are doing. I think it's best to do what feels right for you. You have to live your own life."
Please, share how you answer those big-little questions to the small people in your life, because seriously, sometimes it's those throw-away ones when you're watching Operation Ouch that will keep you up for days...
LISTEN: On our podcast about family life, we speak to Sara Zaske who says German parents raise the most self-reliant kids. Plus, what are JoJo Bows? And why are kindergarten kids taking cyber safety lessons.