Parents Perspective

How to Talk to Your Daughter About What She's Wearing

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This one goes out to all the moms of tweens...

The subject of girls' clothing is so fraught, isn't it? In recent months you may have read the stories about girls' dress codes in schools, and the ensuing controversy because these codes are often put into place so that boys, and male teachers, aren't "distracted" by what girls are wearing. (The boys, meanwhile, usually have no such restrictions placed on them.) At best, this can make a girl feel as though her body is something to be ashamed of; at worst, some argue, it perpetuates a culture of rape. Dress codes generally tend to affect older kids, but last month a 5-year-old in Texas was made to wear a t-shirt over her sundress because its spaghetti straps violate her school's rules.

Even if you're not faced with strict dress codes, if you're the mom of a daughter who's approaching tweenhood, you've probably got plenty to worry about in your own home. In mine, I've got a 9-year-old who's trying to figure out who she is, who she wants to be, and how she wants to be perceived. More of this is wrapped up in her appearance than I'd like, but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised: It's been found that 42% of girls in 1st through 3rd grade wish they were thinner. 

When I recently went through my daughter's warm-weather clothes to find the stuff she could wear this year, she rejected all the cargo shorts, all the cute plaid knee-length ones, even dresses with sleeves. Now she wants to wear what she said "all the cool girls wear": short shorts and tank tops. Eek. (BTW, that's not her in the photo.) We've talked it through with varying degrees of success. We've compromised on a few pairs of sort-of-short shorts, which made her very happy; we've also had fights in the morning before school when I just couldn't let her leave the house wearing what she'd chosen. It's uncomfortable for both of us, especially as I think back to my own childhood and can still see the judgmental look in my mom's eyes when I was wearing an outfit she didn't like. I don't want my daughter to feel judged, least of all by me. But I do judge. And I do care what her outfits say about her... and about me as a mom. So yes, this is really fraught.

That's why I turned to Simone Marean, executive director of Girls Leadership, an organization that teaches girls how to figure out who they are, what they believe in, and how to express it, empowering them to create change in their world. Her first bit of advice on how to talk to your daughter about her clothing choices was simple but brilliant: Timing is everything. "When you're clothes shopping or when she's getting dressed in the morning, your daughter is in such a place of insecurity and in such a vulnerable mindset," Marean explained. Chances are, she's not feeling great about her body, or not feeling good about her social position. She's likely imagining how other girls or boys are looking at her. So if that's the moment you choose to put down her sense of style, you're just not going to get anywhere.

Whoa. How had I not put myself in my daughter's place until now? Yes, I'd always tried to spare her feelings when I had something negative to say about her outfit, but why didn't I get how personally she would take it? The better move is to talk about her clothing in a moment when she's feeling relaxed and not in the spotlight, like when she's in her pajamas, chilling on the couch, Marean suggests. I should come to her with a message that says, "I'm on your team, and I want you to express yourself." From there, she's more likely to hear you when you explain your reasoning.

We moms should also try to avoid the dressing-room showdown by setting the expectations up front, making it clear to your girl that she won't be trying on a certain top or type of dress, or you won't be going to a particular store. If you find yourself in the situation anyway, and your daughter's trying on stuff you can't stomach, Marean's advice is, "Take into consideration how fragile she is, and have buckets of empathy."

It's also critical to give our girls the right vocabulary when we talk about appearances and appropriate dress. Should your daughter complain that it's unfair that girls have dress codes and boys don't, you can agree, and introduce the concept of a double-standard. Around age 8 or 9, girls are just on the edge of being able to grasp the idea of objectification, so that's another term you can discuss. (For an excellent jumping-off point, read Marean's guide to talking to girls about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.) In my case, the next time my daughter tells me all the cool girls are wearing short shorts and tank tops, I can turn it into a conversation-starter: Why are the cool girls wearing that?

This is just the beginning for me and my daughter--and I've got a 6-year-old waiting in the wings--so I'm hopeful that Marean's advice will take me far. This is going to be one very warm week, which means I'm going to be putting it into practice right away. (But not tomorrow morning.)

Kara Corridan is the health director of Parents. She's gearing up for the double-standard and objectification talk.

Photo via Shutterstock.

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