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The other night at dinner when we were reflecting on our day, Eliana came out with a doozy. 

“Well, my day wasn't that great,” she said.

“Why? What happened?” Usually her reports are all fairies and gnomes, so I was a bit concerned.

“Well, Billy called me a name,” she continued.

“What? What did he call you?” I asked.

I've known all of the kids in her class since preschool. They are a very sweet and diverse bunch and we've been spared a lot of the social drama that can go down between school-age children. I was confused.

“He called me saxy. Yeah, saxy. And I just don't really like being called that!”

The drama was expanding here. Her blue eyes were big and sincere with a hint of baffled incredulity. 

Jeff and I were taken aback. It was one of those times where it's just not appropriate to laugh but it's all your body seems to be able to handle. I literally had to jump up from the table and pretend to need hot sauce. I proceeded to kind of hide inside the open fridge to gain composure. I pulled it together and said something about Billy just trying to get her attention because they are buddies and sometimes boys like to tease  I couldn't really deal with the 's' word just yet. Especially the incorrect form of the 's' word.

But then it came up again the other day. Eliana is a very innocent six-year-old girl. She's the youngest in her class, she loves to wear dresses and she's way into musical theatre. She isn't in to pop music or trendy things just yet. She has wild hair and a gap where her teeth should be and she likes to mix bold colors with prints. I think that's pretty fantastic and I want her young in all ways for as long as possible.

So when I found her looking in the mirror, hands on her hips, her little hips moving back and forth as she said, “Oooh, saxy!” I decided is time to tackle this one head on. 

“Eliana, come sit on the sofa with me.” I asked.

“What, mom? Did I do something wrong?” Again, her blue eyes grew wide and concerned.

“No, no, honey. Just come sit on my lap.” My tone was even, though my speech wasn't at all prepared.

Her hands dropped back to her sides, a big chunk of matted curls fell over one eye, and she found her place on me, her body just a bit too heavy for extended lap sits. 

“Eliana, do you know what saxy means?” I asked.


“Well, first of all, saxy is not even a word. The word that I think Billy meant to say was, 'sexy.'  Sexy is a word for grown-ups and it's not really an appropriate thing for kids to call other kids,” I continued.

“Is it a bad word, mama?” My daughter is a pleaser. She hates breaking rules. 

“No, babe.  It's not a bad word. It's just a word for grown-ups and not even a word that I really like all that much. I don't really say it, honey.” When was the last time I had used the word 'sexy.' I really don't know.

“But what does it mean, mom?” I guess I had still avoided the actual definition.

I started to flounder a bit. I'm an English teacher. I teach oodles of vocabulary words every week.  It brings me great pleasure to explain the meanings of words. Except when the word is sexy and the kid is six.

“When someone describes someone else as sexy, it's sort of like a fancy, grown-up way of saying that the other person is pretty. But it's like more than pretty. But it's not like pretty on the inside, it's just about being pretty on the outside. Does that make sense?”   was starting to go on a bit too long.

“Yeah, mom. Like Elephaba is green but she's pretty on the inside. So she's saxy?”

Even with the vowel clarification, saxy seems to be the preferred pronunciation for my girl. And I'm way good with that. 

“Not really, honey,” I continued.

“But it doesn't really matter what you look like on the outside, right mom? What counts is kindness.” She looked serious and pure and earnest. “Can I go play with Soli now?”

Eliana has always had an after-school-special quality about her word choice. She's always been very articulate and able to play the innocent quite well. Most of it is legit, but sometimes these sentences are almost too scripted sounding. So while she seemed to have found a morally righteous closing for our little discussion, I let her scamper away. But the whole thing left quite a funky taste in my mouth. 

We want our daughters to be confident. We want them to feel strong. To feel bright. To feel capable. 

Part of that is how they present themselves to the world. We want them to feel beautiful. I don't want Eliana going to school without having her hair brushed. I love it when her leggings actually match her dress and she doesn't show up total hardcore Punky Brewster. But am I wanting her to be saxy? Is matching socks and clean ponytails the early stages of eyeliner and short shorts?  I don't think it is. It's what my mother would call, well-groomed. But for women, for girls, often it comes down to being saxy. Even in the first grade.

So here is my reminder. My reminder of my feminist roots and Ani Difranco blaring headphones.  My reminder that my daughter's middle name comes from the protagonist in an Alice Walker novel. My reminder of how outraged I was the first time I started to understand basic feminist theory. The rallies and marches. The poetic diatribes and spoken word mics. This mama will work hard to define saxy for her daughter in a way that resonates with depth and strength. Eliana will know that at the end of the day, we are nothing but our integrity, our honesty, our creativity, our knowledge. That, why it's okay to go forth in the world with some saxy sass, it's the grit and sincerity beneath that really runs the show.




About the Author

Gillian Kessler

Gillian Kessler can be found dancing to loud music, teaching exuberant children to appreciate language, writing in the early morning when everyone is asleep and exploring the wilds of Montana with her beautiful family. Read more about her eclectic and full life at .

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