Fathers in Girls’ Dressing Rooms: What’s Appropriate?

Fathers in Dressing Rooms With DaughtersA friend of mine, an involved father in every way and a sometime stay-at-home dad, was shopping for clothes in the kids’ department of a large department store recently with his wife and two daughters. When his daughters, 8 and 5, needed to try on clothes, he did what he’d always done, and what many of us would have done—followed them into their dressing room Except this time, something different happened. A manager came and asked him to leave the dressing room area, saying there was a complaint from a mom about his presence.

My friend, shocked, complied, not wanting to make a scene at the store, though he did ask the manager what would have happened if he was a single father. She said she wasn’t personally bothered but that she was acting only on the other woman’s complaint. (Why a store manager can’t exercise judgment and must blindly comply with a complainer’s request is another story.)

That’s all the information he got, and all the information I have, but he and his wife were outraged, and so am I. Was that woman objecting because she worried something inappropriate would go on between father and child in the dressing room? That would mean she saw a father with his daughters and immediately assumed he had horrible things in mind. Or was she concerned that a man might somehow see her  daughter changing clothes in her own dressing room, even though the dressing rooms were all private? Aside from the supernatural abilities that would require, this assumes he would even have interest in doing so.

What happened, it seems clear to me, is that the other woman saw an involved father enjoying time with his children—enjoying shopping for clothes with his children, which so many dads don’t (guilty as charged here)—and immediately thought, “Pervert.” And not just thought it, but acted on it.

Part of me wishes my friend fought back and stood up for himself, and by extension for all dads implicated by such treatment. But I fully understand why he chose to comply rather than have his daughters witness what would likely have been an ugly argument.

The incident remains baffling and enraging to me. Yes, the statistics on child abuse are horrifying and unacceptable and I mean in no way to be dismissive of this reality. But I fail to see how that connects to what happened in the dressing room. While not everyone has experienced humiliation on par with what happened to my friend, so many dads have had strange interactions with people when they are out and about with their kids, ones in which strangers clearly have some suspicion. In less insidious cases, it may not be suspicion of abuse, specifically, but an implication that a man’s place is at work and not home with his kids, that there is something unusual about a dad breaking traditional gender stereotypes. A stay-at-home dad I met at the Dad 2.0 Summit earlier this year talked about the questions he frequently gets from strangers about why he is at the park on a random weekday with his kids.

We hear lots of welcome support for involved dads and the amazing changes that are taking place in modern fatherhood. But we can’t ignore the inescapable fact that some people look at involved dads as weirdos—or, worse, as suspects. For shame.

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