This topic is like a minefield: there are loaded opinions on all sides. The language that gets thrown around (“slutty” and “trashy” vs “shaming” and “oppressive”) positions the recipient in a bad light and puts the speaker on a moral high ground — in both directions. The discussion often pits women against each other — mothers and daughters, girls and their friends. Yet it’s worth acknowledging upfront that the issue only arises because of the imagined needs of (straight) men.
Who would care what a girl wants to wear if it they didn’t have to factor in the male gaze? By that, I mean what men think a woman’s attire signals or doesn’t signal. Every discussion of “inappropriate” clothing leads back to variations on the suggestion that the attire is “provocative,” the general idea being that an outfit “provokes” a man into sexual behavior. This notion is premised on two faulty ideas: that men are/must be helpless to contain themselves when aroused and that a covered-up body is suddenly safe from men’s sexual interest.
That’s unfair at its root, as it requires a girl or woman to choose how she presents herself based on how men look at her (or how other women feel about that). It impacts her ability to focus on what feels comfortable, exciting, fun, flattering, or expressive to her.
Naturally, many women choose to ignore male gaze norms and wear outfits that check all the boxes that make them feel good. But that choice must be made in awareness of the fact that sexist perceptions and standards do retain a stronghold on our culture, which is different than pretending one walks through the world unseen.
I have a sixteen-year-old daughter and we started talking about this when she was 12. When she’s at home or just hanging out, she’s a hoodies-and-sweats kid, and like many girls of color, she keeps her bonnet on much of the time. But if we’re going out, it’s a whole other ball game; she wants to be on point. She loves make-up and fashion, and her taste in both is mature.
I remember her first crop top that summer and how anxious I was about it — could I really let her go to day camp in that? I made her bring a sweater along, just to be safe. It was 80 degrees that day and, when we arrived, literally all the other girls were wearing similar tops. It didn’t look sexy anymore; it looked practical in the heat. If I had forced a battle over it and pushed her to wear something else, she’d have lived, but it would have been a useless win; her outfit was not only age-appropriate for her peer set but better suited to the conditions of the day.
“Age-appropriate” is a phrase that makes my daughter groan. When I told her about this week’s column, her first comment was, “ ‘Appropriate for your age’ is such an old person thing to say. It’s said by people who know what was appropriate when they were my age, but not now.” She adds, “Many things are less sexualized now. An older person might see a mini-skirt or a crop top and think ‘oh that’s too sexy’ but a girl my age sees that and thinks ‘oh that’s so cute.’”
My daughter isn’t dating anyone and isn’t in a hurry to, so when she dresses, it’s for herself, because she likes a look. But she’s also not under any illusion that other people won’t have opinions. “There are gonna be people out there who will judge you based on what you are wearing,” she says, “And they may form opinions about how you were raised, which I guess is An issue for parents, based on what they still think from how they were raised.”
I asked how she feels about the potential for judgment. “I think I have to be comfortable with myself. I have to know what my clothes mean to be. If you’re not comfortable with your outfit, don’t wear it, but if you are, you should be able to.”
She admits her level of comfort can change depending on how she is received in an outfit. Maybe it’s because of the seed I planted with that sweater a few years back, but she always brings a hoodie so she can adapt her look quickly if she starts to feel like she is getting unwanted attention.
Yet she points out that catcalls can happen no matter what she wears. She recalled the time she and two friends, all three wearing long-sleeve shirts and sweats, were walking together to a park when they started getting verbally harassed by strangers. It wasn’t exposure that prompted this treatment; it was mere existence.
She acknowledges that, sometimes, behavior can be a factor. “If you’re taking pictures, be mindful of the poses and the stuff you’re doing,” she says. There are definitely poses (lip licking, for instance ) which have long been used in movies and advertising to signal sexuality and are now mirrored on social media by my daughter’s peers. A girl might feel mature and cool when trying on these poses for her pictures, but she also needs to be aware that these are behaviors closely tied to seduction in media. (To clear: this is still never a justification for unwanted advances. Period.)
So what can mom and daughter do to feel comfortable with different senses of what is or isn’t ok to wear?
Mom: You can accept that separation (when teens start seeing parents as less godlike and begin to make lifestyle choices of their own) is a key stage of adolescence, and it is not the same thing as detachment (when your child is alienated from you emotionally). Instead of personalizing the choice as a reflection on your parenting, ask questions about what inspired the choice and how it feels for your daughter. At the same time, don’t make fashion the measure of her values.
Daughter: If you want mom’s buy-in, be willing to talk about what the outfit means or doesn’t mean for you. It will help if you can try to acknowledge the generational roots of the discrepancy between what you and your mom think about certain items of clothing. You don’t have to give up the fight, but you do need to help her see the difference between her fears and your experience (or your intent). But also be honest with yourself about what motivates you to go for a certain look.
Any way you slice it, the conversation will be key for both of you. I agree with my daughter that girls should be able to wear clothes they like without being responsible for the weight of other’s values and biases. As a dad, it’s my job to make explicit how those biases might impact her, but I’m not going to cater to them by putting the concerns of strangers I don’t know ahead of the girl I love.
This post was previously published on The Shadow.
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