I was directed to an article in the Daily Mail this week, reporting a mother’s concern about what her teenage daughter chose to wear to her 14th birthday party and luckily, as I have no imagination, the Mail helpfully published a photo of what a teenage girl actually looks like in tiny gold lame shorts. Thanks guys!
I felt for the mother and her confusion – she was upset that other girls were calling her daughter a slut, but she couldn’t help thinking they were right. This summed up for me the dilemma we parents face these days in a culture which pressurises our daughters to always look ‘hot’ and then damns them if they do, and puts the blame on them if they suffer any sexual assault, for dressing ‘too provocatively’. We are left with the task of giving our daughters two conflicting messages:
1. sexual assault is never your fault no matter what you are wearing
2. but please don’t dress like a slut
Our daughters are merely reflecting the highly sexualised culture in which they are growing up, so let’s empower them to navigate that culture with intelligence rather than allowing it to unconsciously influence their choices.
First of course, we have to get unconfused ourselves. Then we can confidently have those day-to-day What Your Clothes Say About You conversations in a ‘this is a really interesting subject’ tone of voice, rather than an ‘oh my god you’re not going out looking like that’ tone.
So here’s my teenage girls clothes advice:
There is a difference between ‘sexy’ (good!) and ‘sexualised’ (eeeurgh..!) and we all instinctively know the difference when we see it. The first one is a mixture of looks, clothes, style, personality, character, humour, individuality…. etc etc, and the second is ONLY YOUR BODY. The first is empowering because it’s you as a whole person, the second is degrading because it’s ONLY YOUR BODY.
‘Sexy’ keeps the power with you, ‘sexualised’ hands it over to the other person. ‘Sexy’ feels good, ‘sexualised’ diminishes, reduces and inhibits.
The first sends out the message ‘I am confident in myself’, the second sends out the message ‘I am desperate for the sexual attention of boys’. That’s not a good look. The first is way cooler.
It’s fine to dress with the boy you fancy in mind but also be aware that the boys you definitely DON’T fancy will be looking at you too (eeeurgh..!)
You wouldn’t fancy a boy who was a tart, so the boy who gets the honour of your fancying bestowed on him probably wouldn’t fancy a girl he thought was a tart either.
Once you set the bar to ‘very revealing’ it’s really hard to get it down again, and you will trap yourself into having to continue wearing clothes like that just to feel good. Anything less will start to feel dowdy.
Although in your culture the media everywhere you look sells you the message that ‘sexualised’ is good, remember that the media is mostly controlled by middle-aged and old men (eeeurgh..!). Go for self-expression, not ‘sleazy tabloid culture’-expression.
And of course, never go near a Daily Mail photographer.
Brilliantly written article Steph, all girls of any age should read it never mind their parents! Boys too for that matter! I’m going to read it to mine. Cath
Very good! I couldn’t agree more and you have really summed up well the (often subtle) difference between being sexy and sexualised. I will remember this for when my son is older.
Thanks for your comment. I think this is very useful for boys to know too, it gives them a choice about whether they are willing to be manipulated by media images.
Really good insight and clarification. I hopefully won’t be having those conversations for at least 10 years but good to bear it in mind.
Thanks Amanda. I think if we get clear and confident ourselves first we can really empower our daughters to be aware of this culture as they grow up, and then it’s much less likely to influence them unconsciously.
Brilliant! That’s really made it clear to me about the choices I have in the way that I dress and the decisions I make about what is appropriate for a woman of my age. Oh and it would be useful for my daughter too…
It really is a conflict of messages, isn’t it? You describe it well.
Very good subject… excellent conversation suggestions for parents to have with their children. However, my first question or statement is who purchases and give permission for daughters to wear the clothes in the first place. Parents must remember that we have the power and keep it as long as we are making the purchases and monitoring (as much as possible) what they are wearing. The conversations about valuing themselves and considering others is critical. But parents need to take back their power. I have three daughters and inevitably we had to have the conversations. Not often because when we shopping we agreed on what was being purchased. This minimized access to over sexualized and revealing garments. As they grew older they were able to make decisions for themselves based on those exchanges we had all their lives. Moreover, I modeled the difference between sexy and sexualized clothing.
Thank you. I do wonder who the parents are who buy their young girls sexualised clothing. But I think that many women themselves are confused about this issue, or see it as just the way things are, because it’s crept up on us over the years getting worse and worse without us really noticing. I do think the modelling is important, and keeping the conversation open, making it a subject up for discussion like any other. That way it loses its power, and as in your experience, by the time they are buying clothes for themselves they are able to make fully-informed decisions.