On skin, sex, and teenage girls
September 17, 2018 10:34 AM   Subscribe

My teen daughters looks good in, and like to wear, revealing clothing. Help me guide them and figure out my own feelings about this.

Apologies if this is a bit scattered; I’m not sure how I feel about this stuff and need help first educating myself and then guiding my two teen daughters.

Me: early 40s, single mother, raised in a conservative but not extreme Muslim-Canadian household. I’m considered conventionally attractive with a nice figure. I generally dress to accentuate it but am uncomfortable/shy about showing too much cleavage. I think this has to do with being teased about my DD breasts as an adolescent plus not being allowed to show much skin growing up. I was allowed to wear t-shirts and Bermuda shorts, for example, but not tank tops or regular-length shorts. So that’s the baggage I bring to this.

I’m no longer religious and religion has zero bearing on my values/decisions.

Daughters: 15 and 14; one is shaped like me (curvy, large breasted), the other is very petite, small breasted. They both look good in...well, everything. And they are pretty comfortable in everything. Especially the curvy one.

I feel like, on the one hand, they dress like tons of other girls their age - short shorts, tight jeans, crop tops, tank tops. Pretty bralettes peeking out. Etc. On the other hand...I don’t love seeing so much of their skin sometimes. And I need help figuring out why. Is it because I was raised upright? Is it because I worry about them being objectified? WILL they be objectified/harmed by this? How much cleavage is it ok for a 15 year old to show - and why? I consider myself a feminist but a really ignorant one. Help me learn. I want to raise strong, confident women who dress proudly but also appropriately. Also, because I have two daughters with two different body types, I want to be careful about my rules (something that looks “harmless” on one daughter can easily be described as “too sexy” on the other - but that seems unfair - right?).

Lots for me to learn and think through. Help?
posted by yawper to Society & Culture (25 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You're bringing a TON of baggage to this, which parents do, and part of that baggage is continually referencing that you AND your daughters are attractive and can thereby get away with showing yourselves. So you're saying that conventionally unattractive people should not be allowed to dress however they want? How attractive or not any of you are has no relevance here and is a bit offensive.

I really think you need to question why it matters whether or not they're conventionally attractive, because that shouldn't come into play at all.

I want to raise strong, confident women who dress proudly but also appropriately.

Then allow them to wear what they want without saying anything about how good looking they are. Presumably they go to schools with dress codes? They will learn what's considered appropriate dress there (not that the dress code itself is necessarily right but that there are dress codes delineating what's appropriate).
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 10:47 AM on September 17, 2018 [11 favorites]

I would try to relax, as the mother of a nineteen-year-old who wears a whole lot of tight, stretchy, revealing, whatever. It honestly has not seemed to me to have affected the amount of negative/harassy attention she’s gotten from men and boys much — I was a much mousier teen, much more modestly dressed, and my memories of street harassment seem pretty comparable to her experiences.

Mostly, I think you should try to make what you’re worried about concrete, and I bet it won’t look that bad, or your worries won’t look that realistic, when you spell them out.
posted by LizardBreath at 10:48 AM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

Lately I've been thinking about clothing as a chance to communicate, in a powerful, non-verbal way, what I want people to know about me that they don't get a chance to ask about. I haven't figured out how to actualize this yet, though.

Another thing I've been thinking about is whether I can put together different looks to 'pass' as different types of people; can I look like a lawyer? Can I look like a dancer? Can I look like an academic? Some of this comes from my being typecast in college (like, formally - a guest director came to our theater and told me what "type" I seemed like) and my being completely surprised (it was not a heroic/virtuous type... college theaters, don't do this).

So you're saying that conventionally unattractive people should not be allowed to dress however they want?

She could be worrying that attractive people have less leeway, since some people think they might be more likely to be objectified a certain way. She might also have more fear of her daughters' intelligence and character being underestimated (see: typecasting), or of other women behaving spitefully toward them.
posted by amtho at 10:50 AM on September 17, 2018 [12 favorites]

One thing that may help you figure out current standards / what a non-sexist dress code looks like is the Portland (OR) schools dress code. It is being used as a model in other districts, and it was created so teachers could spend less time policing student clothing and also avoid a lot of the sexist / racist stuff that comes with interpreting dress codes. It's been working for the district for a couple years now.
posted by momus_window at 10:52 AM on September 17, 2018 [23 favorites]

I honestly would not try to police what they wear, and allow them to express themselves through clothing that feels appropriate and comfortable to them. I also have a daughter and definitely understand being concerned about harassment, but I agree with LizardBreath that harassment can and does occur regardless of clothing. Instead, help your daughters feel comfortable in their skin and confident, which might invite less harassment and will definitely help them deal with it when it does occur. By supporting their choices in clothing, you're telling them that they have the autonomy to present themselves in the way they want to. If there are external boundaries around appropriate clothing (formal as in school; informal as in perhaps peer group) they will learn these and can navigate this on their own.
posted by DTMFA at 11:00 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Dressing a certain way won't stop them from being objectified. I am a professional scientist in my late 30s. I was always very conscious of dressing conservatively in order to be taken seriously in my male-dominated field. I quit my job last year after being told that I was 'too sexy for my job' basically. Having my female body in the laboratory was just too distracting for the Male scientists. So. Tell them to cover up if you want to, but when it comes down to it, covering up won't make one. Damn. Bit. Of. Difference. They will be objectified and judged whatever they wear. They might as well wear what they like.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:01 AM on September 17, 2018 [40 favorites]

I want to be careful about my rules (something that looks “harmless” on one daughter can easily be described as “too sexy” on the other - but that seems unfair - right?).

Unfair and profoundly damaging to tell your children that you, their parent, are looking at them with a sexually appraising eye, yes. You should not find either of your daughters more sexy than the other and -- although I sympathize with your position and understand this can be involuntary -- should not project yourself into the viewpoint of a predator and assess your daughters' bodies as a predator would. It may feel like doing so is only sensible, and is a way to keep them safe: it isn't.

I say "predator" because they probably do want to look sexy for any of their peers they may be attracted to. Or maybe not sexy, maybe just cute, or stylish, or good. This is not wrong and will not be harmful if they succeed, unless their peers are harmful people. They should probably be prepared for that possibility. Wardrobe choices are not part of that preparation.

You may want to talk to them about what boys and men say to them when you're not there. but you do not want to tie it to their looks or their clothing. as you probably know, dangerous people target girls for being girls and women for being women; if bad things are happening already -- they may be -- it is not because your daughters attracted it, either because of their progress through adolescence, their chest size, or their manner of dress. If bad things are happening already -- they probably are -- continuing to dress as they please is an act of bravery and defiance that should be applauded and admired, not criticized.

All this has nothing to do with dressing with an appropriate level of formality for formal events, which you can and should enforce (if you would tell a boy to button his shirt up to his clavicle, you can tell a girl the same thing. just, not because she's a girl.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:02 AM on September 17, 2018 [13 favorites]

Also- I would bet that your feelings on this don't have anything to do with being "uptight", and more to do with parental protectiveness and wanting to shield your daughters from unpleasant experiences, including harassment. And this a good thing to feel! Policing their clothing choices is just unlikely to help protect them, so it might be better to focus on teaching them to navigate such experiences.
posted by DTMFA at 11:04 AM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

As a former HS teacher and now the parent of a 16 yo boy, I would just try to remind yourself that they're just kids and what they're wearing is more about being "cute" and also about experimenting with sexuality than anything else.

I don't think there is anything women themselves can do to prevent being harassed. An extreme example is women who identify as Muslim (coincidentally, nothing to do with your personal history) who get harassed for wearing traditional dress in Canada or wherever. They get harassed for covering up too much.

It's an unwinnable situation, and men have to assume the responsibility for ending harassment. Not your daughters, who should be free to be kids who are making the transition to being adults.
posted by JamesBay at 11:06 AM on September 17, 2018 [14 favorites]

Let them do what they want with their dress. Provide guidance about situations where you, as someone with more life experience, might help with issues of formality (job interviews, presentations, etc). What kind of body either has, or their personal style, makes no difference in if they develop into strong confident women; freedom of expression, freedom to experiment, and control over one's body does. As someone who grew up with (and still has) a body that feels like the world is hell-bent on controlling, those things were essential.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 11:09 AM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I want to be careful about my rules (something that looks “harmless” on one daughter can easily be described as “too sexy” on the other - but that seems unfair - right?).

It is unfair, but it's also real life. There are plenty of types of clothes that I as a larger-breasted woman can't wear in a professional setting that my smaller-breasted colleagues wear all the time (wrap dresses, many button-down shirts, etc.) because showing that much cleavage isn't acceptable in that context. Your kids are old enough for you to talk to them frankly about these issues.
posted by coppermoss at 11:14 AM on September 17, 2018 [18 favorites]

Mother of 23 and 16 year old busty girls. Society (and religion) has said women must act and dress a certain way for so long and in so many ways it's insidious. I've had to confront some of my own bias and that is a good thing. My eldest wears as little clothes as she can, it's hot and humid here and she has pretty bad skin issues and she apparently cares nothing for fashion or color or pattern matching, she wears what she wants. She did follow school rules and she follows work rules (Scrubs are pretty easy rules)
I admit we had some arguments when she was a teen on clothes. I thought she should dress better (better for what?) In hindsight these arguments were about me and not her. I am almost embarrassed by them now. I built a wall that did not need to be there.

My youngest is very social, and picky about what she wears She wears tops that show her stomach, tank tops that are tight, lace bralettes that peek out.
I give her my opinion when she asks but give it as that, an opinion. and when we differ, I let her know that doesn't make me right, just that my view does not match hers and I don't build walls anymore.
posted by ReiFlinx at 11:19 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

I totally get what you're feeling in your gut, but I think it's a thing you're not going to fix by controlling the clothes.

But maybe the right thing to do is to arm them for the objectification (their own and other people's because this is also about having other people's backs and them having yours), unwanted attention etc. How to speak up, how to do risk/safety assessments, how to intervene, how to call it out when it's a systematic issue.

I do think it's okay to talk about choosing clothes appropriate to a situation, but this is also a lesson in the sexism they can expect to be subject to, and ageism too because a lot of what's loaded into the idea of "professional" is meant to provide opportunities to discriminate on as many angles as possible. Still, it's not bad to talk about, both to give them insight into what they're up against and might have an opportunity to change/intervene/subvert/disrupt and also to prevent them becoming part of the problem, because women are shitty about each others' clothes as a sport sometimes and that's not okay either.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:23 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also: something that might be enlightening to you would be to tell them, "Hey, I'm not going to police your wardrobe but here's how I grew up and what that means my brain says, do you and your friends even think of these styles as being anything other than just clothes that were at the store and the way they looked was appealing to you? Do y'all talk about this stuff?"

They might very well blow your minds and give you an entirely new perspective on it.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:26 AM on September 17, 2018 [19 favorites]

The only thing my mom did to me that was harmful was judge my appearance in a critical way like "you look better with makeup", "those clothes are not flattering on you", basically putting her own insecurities and critiques on me.

If I was wearing something revealing she would comment that I had better have shoes I could run in on and she wasn't wrong, I encountered a lot of street harassment and quickly learned to dress down a bit to avoid it as best as I could (although clothing is never an invitation for harassment and I got harassed in a parka in the winters). I think helping your daughters to be assertive and unashamed of calling people out or getting away/getting help is good no matter what they're wearing. I wasn't really prepared for what it was like when you're so young and being targeted by older men and wasn't sure what to do.

As a teenager you're trying to fit in with your friends and also experiment with different styles and looks as well as trying to attract potential dating partners and it's important that they can do that. However if my mom had seen some of what I was wearing outside of the house she would have tried to get me to change (in my day it was the midriffs and visible underwear that was trendy), and she told me she would hike up her skirt after leaving the house as a teenager, I think it's something a lot of teenagers do to push boundaries and define themselves as individuals and young adults. I think it's ok to share your feelings on it in a non-shaming way and have a discussion about it but important to let them experiment and see how dressing in different ways makes them feel.
posted by lafemma at 11:44 AM on September 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

What I would have wanted at that age was an ongoing dialog about objectification/existing in a female body. I would not have wanted it to be about my clothes. I recommend you don't approach it that way, unless you want to pass along the message that women "ask for it" with their clothes.

A good way to start the dialog about objectification would be to ask their opinions and experiences...I suspect their answers will be pretty sophisticated at their age. And their generation benefits from online feminism, where they learn terms I never did, like slutshaming, etc.

It is true that different body types get a variety of comments but it is incorrect to think that only busty/curvy girls will be objectified and sexualized. We all do. Many harassers target petite girls precisely because they look young.
posted by kapers at 11:59 AM on September 17, 2018 [6 favorites]

For what it's worth, I'm a 32 year old adult busty lady who works in an office at a normal company (not cool or edgy or in some hot industry) and I wear lacy bralettes that peek out of my clothes. No one cares. Better a lacy bralette than a bit of tit, imo.

I'm sure I've gotten plenty of negative comments about my clothes over my life, but if I'm being completely honest, the only ones I actually remember are the judgmental and/or controlling ones I got from my mom and grandma. (Those and endless arguments about what is or is not a t-shirt per my school's dress code with the administration, which gave me a lot of good skills I could take back to my debate team.)
posted by phunniemee at 12:07 PM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was once a teen girl with a teen girl for a sister and my mother was very nonjudgmental about how we looked and how we dressed. But she was very much involved in our decisionmaking. I think that's the important part. We did not have a "no [insert clothing item you're uncomfortable with] ever!" rule, but we did have conversations about our choices. Mom was perfectly within bounds to tell us why she would not make that choice and we were allowed to make them anyway.

Whether we want them to or not, clothes signal meaning in our society and we need to be prepared for the judgments that people will make about us based on that. Your job is not to forbid something because it might spawn a negative judgment, but talk about those realities. I like what Lyn Never said above, about asking them about their choices and thought processes.

My mother (who was a teenager in the 50's in the midwest USA whose parents were both born before 1920) used to tell us that her dad forbade her and her many sisters to wear nail polish because only loose women painted their nails. It was ridiculous to us (and to her in the 1950's when it had fully shifted to "glamorous") and she'd talk about how some of the things we wore registered to her eye the same way her dad saw nail polish. She was never telling us these stories in a tone to convey that girls in her day were ladies and we were not, but to show that it can be weird for parents to see their children having such a different attitude to a cultural signifier than they did.

I mean, I'm nearly 50 now and my dad still has a hard time believing anyone with a visible tattoo would ever be promoted or taken seriously at work!

Anyway. The point is--you already know that talking to young women about their bodies and how their bodies look in clothes is a minefield of harmful possibilities but you also know that being a young woman in public is a minefield of harmful possibilities. That's the point of talking to your daughters about their clothes--not trying to get them to be modest or conform to clothing you'd feel comfortable in, but getting them ready to navigate that minefield on their own.

For practical rules, I think you're best sticking to "appropriate for the occasion" and not "more skin than I'm comfortable with". You know, no bathing suits to the dinner table, no ripped jeans to your cousin's wedding.
posted by crush at 12:20 PM on September 17, 2018 [24 favorites]

One rule of thumb that a family friend had for her kids is that they must be able to "run" in their school clothes. (This was a few years ago, so the explanation was "because you go to school in a city" not "because active shooter incidents are a regular part of high school.")
posted by oceano at 12:58 PM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

So first of all, I don't think you need to worry that by failing to correct them immediately you will necessarily be raising daughters who don't understand why they shouldn't wear a crop top to the office. I wore a lot of halter tops as a teenager and now I'm a genderqueer weirdo who binds and wears buttondowns all the time. They've got time to experiment and figure this stuff out before their wardrobes start having professional consequences.

Second of all, you should talk to them about all this sooner rather than later, because I guarantee they can tell how you feel and that's something you want to get out ahead of. Teenagers can be surprisingly perceptive about that kind of thing.

Maybe it makes them feel powerful! Maybe it's hot out and they're comfortable! Maybe they're trying to fit in! Maybe they're secretly trans and trying to figure out how best to throw off suspicion ha ha ha not that I would know anything about that

You might feel differently about their clothes if you can hear more about their reasons for wanting to wear them. Plus, with more context you can make rules/guidelines that encourage their sense of control over themselves and their bodies, and that's the best thing you can do to help them develop the toolset to deal with objectification and all the other bs that goes along with being female out in the world.
posted by Basil Stag Hare at 1:44 PM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

Hmmm. Completely agree that no way of dressing will protect them from harassment, nor should one imply the same, or that harassment is ever person's fault. On the other hand, teaching appropriate kinds of dress for varying environments seems to me to be well within the responsibilities of parents. It's idle to pretend that our clothing carries no connotations. If it didn't, your kids wouldn't care what they wore, and neither would you. Presumably, the kids would like to know what meanings they are likely to be seen as conveying, which is useful information whether you choose to work with that or defy it. And, as long as they are just teenagers, you have a say in how much you want to enforce appropriateness, too. What you wear hanging out at home with family is different from what you wear to school is different from what you wear to work is different from what you wear to the mosque. E.g., clothing of the sort worn in the club to signal potential amenability to a sexual approach is not suitable for school. For 14- and 15-year-olds, I would have zero problem saying no crop tops and no visible underwear at school!

This is a very tough needle to thread because of all the blaming, shaming, and judgment attached to women's clothing in particular. It's almost impossible not to end up invoking them in these conversations. I would try to focus on decoding clothes, and working out what is considered the acceptable range of dress in given situations, and judging how to match up the two.
posted by praemunire at 2:03 PM on September 17, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think this kind of dress among teens is a thing right now, though not a good thing, and is dictated by very large forces in society which you and your daughters as an individual family will find difficult to oppose:
“We then looked at where in the world these things happened most. The number one way that psychologists usually look at women's preoccupation with their appearance is that it happens because of patriarchal pressures – that women live in societies that value their appearance more than their other qualities. The argument is usually that when you see sexualisation, you see disempowerment,” Dr Blake says.

“What we found instead is that women are more likely to invest time and effort into posting sexy selfies online in places where economic inequality is rising, and not in places where men hold more societal power and gender inequality is rife.”

The findings are consistent across different geographic locations, even after taking into account and controlling for other factors that could influence patterns, like population size, human development and internet access.

The researchers say that income inequality increases competitiveness and status anxiety amongst people at all levels of the social hierarchy, making them sensitive to where they sit on the social ladder and wanting them to do better than others.

“That income inequality is a big predictor of sexy selfies suggests that sexy selfies are a marker of social climbing among women that tracks economic incentives in the local environment,” Dr Blake says.

“Rightly or wrongly, in today’s environment, looking sexy can generate large returns, economically, socially, and personally.”

The researchers then found the exact same pattern in real-world spending in other appearance-enhancing areas.

“What we found in more than 1000 different economic areas in the US when looking at women’s spending in beauty salons and clothing stores is that income inequality is also predicting this type of spending,” Dr Blake says.
If they don't dress in revealing clothes they risk being on the outside of their social circles looking in, which usually has terrible consequences for the people who experience it.

But perhaps being more aware of the pressures they and their peers are responding to could help them control the look rather than be controlled by it.
posted by jamjam at 2:18 PM on September 17, 2018 [5 favorites]

I think your only job is to help them learn about dressing for the occasion. Hanging out with friends, whatever is fine. Going to school, whatever won’t get you in trouble. Going to work, depends on the job (some restaurants (and I’m talking about normal places, not hooters) require servers to dress like you’re describing, and probably the servers would dress like that anyway, it’s just the style). Dressy & formal occasions have their own rules. Etc.
posted by bleep at 2:57 PM on September 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

I dealt with something a bit like this when I was teaching high school, trying to articulate why (apart from, you know, school rules) it bothered me when girls wore their uniform skirts too high above the knee. What I eventually worked out through discussion with a few of them was that I wanted them to be aware of what they were doing--not just "it looks cute on me and all my friends are doing it," but also that, fair or not, there would be men who would assume "it means she's up for it," there would be people who judged them more harshly as minorities (my kids were Korean-Japanese), there would be people who took their appearance as a reflection of the morals of the school itself. And so on. None of these things were my students' fault or responsibility, and none of them took away their right to dress the way they wanted, but I wanted to be sure they knew the context they were in and could make their own judgments; if their reaction was "Yeah, I like my skirt like this and I'm ready to take responsibility for who I am and take care of myself," more power to them.
posted by huimangm at 3:16 PM on September 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

A (non-conservative culturally Muslim) friend just posted a link to this article on Facebook. I'm not sure it makes any points that haven't already been made in this thread, but it may help reinforce or frame them for you, and the author's blog (which I haven't looked at) might also be helpful.

Why This Mom Won’t Teach Her Daughters To Dress Modestly
Jessica points out that while some would find each of the outfits she and her daughters are wearing in the photo modest, others would find them unacceptable. Instead of adhering to an arbitrary standard of modesty, she uses a series of practical guidelines that her daughters can take into consideration when choosing their clothing.

For instance: “Can you participate in the activities you will need to do without worrying about your clothing?” and “Is it practical for the weather?” For older children, the conversation might include something like: “Are YOU comfortable with the parts of your body that are showing and that others may notice those parts and though we are not responsible for the actions of others, how will you feel if someone says something about that?”...

“We really just wanted to show that there is another option in how to approach this topic without promoting toxic ideas that the human body, specifically the female body, is dangerous and to be controlled, hidden and punished for being sexual,” Jessica told HuffPost.
posted by lazuli at 6:31 AM on September 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

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