By Bruce Feiler
My girls are barely in their tweens, but the wardrobe wars have already begun. I can’t win every battle over clothes that are too skimpy, clingy or cheeky, but that’s okay. I’m learning to make peace—well, sort of—with their fashion sense.
It first happened to me last year. My twin daughters, who had just turned 8, came bounding into the room to show off the new outfits they would be wearing to an extended-family gathering. My eyes bulged. The dresses drooped provocatively off the shoulder and offered other peekaboos of their bodies. Sure, I figured I would one day face clothing battles with my children. Politicians aren’t the only ones who draw red lines. But so soon?
As a father, I find these conversations particularly challenging. On the one hand, I’ve internalized all the messages that I should not criticize my daughters’ bodies, compliment them merely for their looks, or in any way stifle their emerging sexuality. On the other hand, I don’t want them to leave the house dressed as pole dancers.
For years, I had what I thought was a sly way of handling this issue. Whenever my daughters modeled a new piece of clothing, I would say: “I don’t care what you wear. I care who you are.” Recently they’ve begun throwing my line back at me: “But I thought you didn’t care what we wear!”
Time to get some new lines.
The issue of appropriate clothing for girls has been the subject of increasing academic and popular scrutiny, fed by the likes of skimpy panties printed with “Dive In.” Abercrombie & Fitch (whose CEO got in hot water recently for saying he wanted to sell clothing only to cool, attractive kids) was forced to back down after marketing “padded” and “push-up” bras to little girls. Walmart bowed to parental pressure and yanked girls’ underwear that was printed with the words “Who needs credit cards...” on the front and “When you’ve got Santa” on the back.
While it’s easy to put the blame on stores, the real issue lies at home. I feel as if I’m constantly struggling with where and when to draw the boundary line. Is this worth picking a fight over? How about that? According to Sarah Murnen, PhD, a professor of psychology at Kenyon College, parents today face greater challenges than in the past because girls’ clothing has become more revealing. Her survey of popular shopping sites shows that a third of items were “sexualized,” including more than half of dresses and two-thirds of swimsuits. This trend is particularly alarming because her research indicates that when adults see girls dressed in sexualized clothing, they take them less seriously. “Teachers might be looking at these girls and assuming they aren’t intelligent,” she says. Still, it’s impossible for kids to withstand sophisticated efforts by corporations that prey on their desire to be popular, says Joyce McFadden, a psychoanalyst and the author of Your Daughter’s Bedroom: Insights for Raising Confident Women. Parents can sometimes compound the problem. “We’re so afraid to talk honestly with our daughters about their sexuality that we end up leaving them out in the cold,” she says.
My wife, who selects the bulk of our daughters’ clothes in consultation with them, admits that she’s less concerned with what a particular dress or T-shirt says about the girls than with what the girls say for themselves. “My goal is to make them feel good when they go to school, so they can focus on what they have to say in class,” she explains. To do that, she prefers to let them pick out clothes they like, even if they’re a bit tight-fitting or short. About those outfits that set off alarm bells (not only with me, by the way, but with my mother- and sister-in-law too), she says, “My line might be drawn slightly differently from yours. I found those dresses to be a little mall rat, perhaps, but not risqué.”
But we agreed that we need to be more prepared for these battles in the future. So I came up with a few typical tween-teen retorts and then asked for expert advice on how to reply.
“Everybody does it.”
“Ooh, that’s a rough one,” McFadden says, “because it’s the precursor to ‘Well, Johnny is freebasing’ or 'So-and-so gets to stay out until 4 in the morning.’ ” A little pushback—as in, “Well, in our family we do things differently”—is called for here. The critical step is for parents to make sure they are on the same page before approaching their children. Even so, “you’re going to have to compromise on some pieces of clothing,” says McFadden. “I had to give in on push-up bras with my tween. But don’t let these items take over her wardrobe.”
“It’s the only thing they sell.”
According to Sharon Lamb, EdD, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston and co-author of Packaging Girlhood, children who make that observation actually have a point. “Still, it’s important to state your values,” she advises. “Say something like, ‘I don’t want to see you and your friends buying into these marketers’ schemes to sell teenage stuff to younger and younger kids. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The marketers are the body snatchers, and I’m going to fight them!’ ”
"You’re such a square.”
Maybe, but parents need to embrace their old-fashioned standards, Murnen insists. “I told my daughter that I hope she develops a wonderful body image and a healthy sexuality but I don’t think that’s what sexy clothes are doing,” she says. Murnen went a step further and adjusted her own fashion choices. “I’m not a conservative person and I like attractive clothing,” she says. “But I’m careful not to wear styles with sexualizing characteristics because I do feel like I need to be a role model.”
“Mom wears these things, why not me?”
The smart answer is to point out to girls that as they get older, they will have more freedom to make their own decisions. But you’ve got to put your foot down for now. “This generation of parents are such sissies when it comes to setting boundaries,” says McFadden. “They concede to their children’s whims to make them happy, but those children have no internal compass. Limits are what make healthy, happy adults possible.”
“Fine, but I’m just going to change as soon as I get to school.”
When your daughters threaten to peel off layers once they leave the house, it’s time to redirect the conversation. “I would say, ‘I’m not interested in controlling what you wear, but I am interested in getting you thinking about what it means to be an attractive person,’ ” Lamb suggests. In fact, she often tells her college students that the species would die out if boys only wanted to have sex with girls who looked like Victoria’s Secret models. “We’re built to be attracted to people with different looks, personalities, talents, senses of humor and lots of wonderful things, she says.
So back to that family gathering and those barely-there dresses. Our girls were clearly flashing their approaching tweendom, and my wife quickly heeded the message. Shawls were procured, and their outfits instantly became more age- appropriate. A few weeks later, the three of them did a little hunting and located some websites that sold attractive clothing with more modest yet trendy-enough slogans: “I Love Music” and “Bee-You-Tiful” with a bumblebee.
Still, as we’ve been warned, the big battles are yet to come. McFadden encouraged me to stay strong. “Remember, you’re raising two young girls who are going to live a whole life,” she says. “Just because one episode doesn’t go well doesn’t mean an accumulation of similar messages won’t somehow trickle down. Be brave. Let them have the freedom they deserve, but still set guidelines that represent your values.”
When I first became a dad, I figured I would decide on a few core principles, state them firmly, and my children would know how to apply them. Now I realize I was wrong. I have to constantly find new, subtler ways to remind them what’s really important. Sexuality may be the most vivid example of this change. When I was growing up, parents thought the topic could be dispensed with by a single awkward sit-down about the birds and the bees. But these days, sexuality is everywhere. As a result, it’s no longer “The Talk” for parents; it’s a series of talks. It’s a conversation. And it can’t begin when the kids turn 12. By then, it’s too late. Our kids are already tuning us out.
In that way, I’m happy I had this first showdown with my daughters while they were still young enough to listen to me. If nothing else, we got to practice what’s already becoming our little opera of daily life. They say, “I’m becoming a woman, Dad, hear me roar!” I say, “I’m a square, girls, but I can roar too!” And every now and then, I can even get them to smile, as long as I don’t rub it in that I can still make them laugh.
Bruce Feiler is a columnist for The New York Times and the author of the best-selling book The Secrets of Happy Families (William Morrow).