I received several comments about my column “Young Granddaughter Dresses Sexy”.
The mother of a 13-year-old girl comments that “I think an important point is that different clothing are for different environments – hanging out with girlfriends in short shorts at a sleep over is different than wearing a push up bra that powers up your breasts when going to church. I feel there is the issue of respect when it comes to covering your body.” I would add that young girls are not born with a sense of respect for oneself or with an understanding that fashion choices are situational. Some young girls need more guidance in this department than do others.
For example, here are a reader’s observations about the young girls she knows well in her neighborhood: “There are two 11-year-old girls who wear very age-appropriate, cute practical outfits and wouldn’t be caught dead in trash clothing. Their parents spend time with their daughters exposing them to travel, culture, and lots of reading and books.”
“Then there is another neighbor who has a daughter, age 11, who just bought leopard-print high heels. Her grandmother took her shopping and I think she thinks the choice is as inappropriate as I do. These shoes set off the rest of this young girl’s tarted up outfit like she was playing Sweet Charity in a school play. Her family has very stressful, serious issues with her younger sibling and my guess is that the parents just pick their battles with the daughter and clothing choices aren’t top of the list.”
In this situation I think the grandmother who purchased the questionable high heels would be justified to say, “You need to know that I consider these shoes inappropriate for a girl of your age. I will not buy them for you, but I would be happy to buy these other kinds of shoes . . .” Parents and grandparents need to be clear about how they are willing and not willing to spend their money on kids’ and grandchildren’s clothes. Of course the kids can use their own money and sneak off to buy shoes, or other clothes, but the point is that certain values are being communicated and reinforced when adults refuse to make certain purchases – values that may be rejected in the moment, but may be accepted at a later time.
For example, one dad became fed-up with his daughter’s fashion choices and decided to fight fire with fire. The mom had asked their daughter to put on longer shorts for the family dinner at a restaurant, and the daughter refused, so the dad decided to dress similarly.
As the evening went on, the daughter’s embarrassment became obvious. The dad writes: “There was no ‘Dad I get it’ or ‘Dad you’re the best . . . thanks for that awesome lesson’ . . . [but] my daughter will always know that her dad loves her and cares about her enough to make a fool out of himself.”
Another reader shares her experiences of feeling sexualized in her own home by her family. “When I was around 10 I developed big breasts. My older brother started referring to them as my ‘mammoth melons.’ Everyone laughed, even when I told them it hurt my feelings. It didn’t stop until I was in high school and my brother used that term in front of a nice guy I was dating. My date said to my brother, in front of my parents, ‘What a disgusting and disrespectful thing to say.’ We never talked about it, but no one in my family ever again used that phrase.”
This is an example where parents (and grandparents) need to pay more attention to family humor and jokes to make sure hurtful and sexualizing behaviors and comments aren’t being ha ha-ed away. If someone in the family isn’t laughing, chances are that what’s going on isn’t really funny. Both parents, and especially dads, need to monitor sexist and sexualizing comments and explain why they are not permitted.
Another readers writes: “I know stranger rape has nothing to do with appearance and is about power and control, but I am wondering if date rape is affected by a girl’s appearance. This is a slippery slope because it’s NEVER the victim’s fault, but it may be helpful for parents of girls to know that how a girl dresses is a safety issue (and if there are stats to back this up if this is, in fact, true).”
To address this comment, I cite research conducted by law professor Theresa M. Beiner that indicates “that despite decades of ‘she was asking for it in that skirt’ commentary, no one has ever been able to show a correlation between how a victim dresses and her chances of sexual assault . . . harassers look for more passive or submissive women – women who are provocatively dressed may appear more confident and are therefore less likely to be considered appropriate targets by potential harassers.” She suggests that people want to believe dress is a critical factor in sexual assault, contrary to research, because this creates a sense of control: If I don’t dress sexy, I will be safe.
However, young girls do need to be aware of non-verbal clues – they need to be aware that if they dress sexy and flirt, some men may think they want to have sex. This doesn’t mean their dress or actions are wrong, but their choices may create misunderstanding.
Moms and dads alike can help bring clarity and minimize potential misunderstanding by asking their daughters this question: What are you trying to say about yourself in that outfit?
I close with a comment from an exasperated young man after he read a Ms Magazine blog, “What Do Dress Codes Say About Girls’ Bodies?” “ . . . But c’mon, folks. Let’s strike a BALANCE!!! Now this article speaks almost exclusively about women, and that is what my comments have addressed. For balance, let me also say that guys walking around with their asses hanging out of their pants is equally as inappropriate and, to me, offensive. What is even sadder is that we even have to have this conversation in the first place. How friggin’ hard is it to dress appropriately!!??!!??”
Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.
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