I’ve tried to raise my daughter with feminist values but I’m struggling with the clothes she wants to wear. She and her friends all like very tight, very short shorts. It’s great that they’re comfortable enough to wear this kind of clothing (I certainly wasn’t at her age) but I’m concerned it will attract attention she isn’t ready for. She’s 13 and her body has changed fast this year.
When we’re out together I see the looks men have started giving her. She doesn’t seem to notice and while I have tried pointing this out to her, she usually rolls her eyes as if my concern is hypocritical and not for her wellbeing. I know if I try to enforce rules it will make her want to break them. Is there a way for me to make her understand that while women should be allowed to wear whatever they want, at this age she isn’t a woman yet, even though she’s starting to look like one?
Eleanor says: Daughters aren’t born knowing what happens to women. No part of their own experience with their body will tell them that it’s – apparently – so worthy of derision and desire that eventually it will be hard to tell how much of the derision is desire, and how much of the desire is derision.
So daughters eventually have to find out. And the awful reality for you as a parent is that it will either happen because you insist to her that this is her lot, or she will find out on her own. Both are horrible experiences. And if I’m reading you right, you feel caught between wanting to convey two messages: bad things might happen if you show your body, and it’s not your fault if they do.
I don’t think we solve this by trying to fuse those messages. We should look at the messenger instead. What does she need from you, her parent?
I think what she needs from you – doggedly, constantly, over and over – is to hear that when men do bad things it isn’t her fault. Let the rest of the world convey the message that she’ll get sexual attention and disapproving judgment when she shows her body. She is 13 so I am sorry to say that is probably already happening: in the porn that her male friends are already watching, in the terms the bullies use for the girls the boys all like, in the eyebrow-raise of a friend’s parent saying “Those are very high heels!”
The world will drip-feed this message in the suggestion that she deserves to be judged and objectified for trying to look pretty. It will tell her that this must be what she really wants. And if – heaven forbid – something on the serious end of the scale ever happens to her, she will be very likely to have internalised the message that she should have done something differently to prevent it. So don’t worry that she won’t eventually learn about the bad things that might happen – the world is very keen to teach her.
But you are her parent. You can and should amplify the other message, the one that so rarely survives to adulthood: Nobody is allowed to tell you that you should make your choices by first looking at yourself through male eyes; it is not your responsibility to take men’s reactions into account.
Let her have one loud, clear voice at home to counteract all the insidious whispers – let her have at least one person who teaches her that her body isn’t to be feared, because as she grows you might be the only one. At least if she has a parent who engraves that message on a cowbell to ring loudly in the faces of stupid boys she will have a talisman to take with her.
The cold truth is that there is no length of short that will keep her totally safe. She can spend 10 or 15 years trying them all; trying different personalities and titrating her appearance to provoke the right balance of respect and desire. But you know and I know this is a lie that wastes women’s time. There’s no right dose. Some men are just going to be bastards. You can at least save her from worrying that it was up to her to stop them.
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