Gail Horalek, the mother of a 7th-grade child in Michigan in the US, has made international headlines by complaining that the unabridged version of Anne Frank’s diary is pornographic and should not be taught at her daughter’s school. At issue for Horalek is a section detailing Anne’s exploration of her own genitalia, material originally omitted by Anne’s father, Otto Frank, when he prepared the manuscript for publication in the late 40s.
I had to look up what age kids are in the 7th grade. They’re 12 to 13! They’re only about a year younger than Anne was when she wrote of her vagina: “There are little folds of skin all over the place, you can hardly find it. The little hole underneath is so terribly small that I simply can’t imagine how a man can get in there, let alone how a whole baby can get out!” There cannot be a 13-year-old girl on the planet who hasn’t had a root around and arrived at this exact stage of bafflement.
It’s easy to dismiss the Horalek affair as just another mad utterance by a wacko zealot, who no one even agrees with, being whipped up into a media story so that the internet’s eternal feedback loop has something to recycle. However, I think there’s something slightly deeper going on.
Horalek is, of course, wrong to call the passages pornographic. Pornography is material intended to arouse sexual excitement, and I very much doubt that was Anne’s intention when she wrote to her imaginary confidant Kitty about her journeys of self-discovery. But the reason Horalek gives for complaining in the first place is that the passages made her daughter uncomfortable. I can well believe this. I can imagine that if, age 13, I had been asked to read or discuss the passages in class, I would have felt deeply uncomfortable (my own nocturnal explorations notwithstanding).
Anne is going through puberty, and she describes her changed vagina in honest detail, saying, “until I was 11 or 12, I didn’t realise there was a second set of labia on the inside, since you couldn’t see them. What’s even funnier is that I thought urine came out of the clitoris.” (Oh Anne, we’ve all been there.) She continues: “In the upper part, between the outer labia, there’s a fold of skin that, on second thought, looks like a kind of blister. That’s the clitoris.” It’s beautiful, visceral writing, and it’s describing something that most young women experience.
And yet I can understand that the junior Ms Horalek would have squirmed and wished herself elsewhere when this was read in class. We live in a society in which young women are taught to be ashamed of the changes that their bodies undergo at puberty – to be secretive about them, and even to pretend that they don’t exist. Breasts, the minute they bud, are strapped into harnesses, and the nipples disguised from view. Period paraphernalia must be discreet, with advertisers routinely boasting that their tampons look enough like sweets to circumvent the social horror of discovery.
For my generation, removal of post-pubescent hair on the legs and underarms was mandatory. For Ms Horalek’s generation, it is mandatory for pubic hair too. Anne writes: “When you’re standing up, all you see from the front is hair. Between your legs there are two soft, cushiony things, also covered with hair, which press together when you’re standing, so you can’t see what’s inside.” How must reading this feel for pubescent girls who’ve already internalised the message that they must spend the rest of their lives maintaining the illusion that their body hair doesn’t exist?
This media event should do more than teach us that there are laughably prudish parents out there. It should encourage us to reflect on why, when confronted with the reality of the female body and female sexuality, girls can be made to feel uncomfortable.