On the news this week, there was a story about a French clothing company that had created lingerie for children as young as four years old. If the concept weren’t disturbing enough, the magazine advertisements had young girls being depicted in poses that made them look like young women—not children. Being the parent of a daughter, the sexualization of young girls is something that has always disturbed me, and has therefore been something I have tried to prevent. This has included not putting her in bikinis—even as a toddler—or letting her wear super short shorts at the age of eleven. I know that most parents find themselves in some battle at one time or another with their children over their appearance—this has been mine.
Dressing my daughter stopped being easy when she learned how to talk. Before that time, I could put her in any clothes I chose—delicate dresses, bright solid tops, hats of all colors and styles. When she turned two, this all changed. Each morning she would find a way to assert her own opinion about what she wanted to wear. More often than not, this would lead to me straddling her on the floor, trying to pull her shirt on over her head, as she did everything she could to fight against me. When I would leave the room—completely disheveled—to go finish getting myself ready for work, I would come back to find her sitting once again in her diaper. The yelling that would ensue would turn our house into a war zone, usually with my husband in the middle yelling at both of us to stop our fighting.
When I was finally at my wit’s end, I had a sudden moment of clarity. I finally understood that my daughter wanted to be the one in control—it wasn’t about the purple plaid shirt I chose, or the corduroy pants I wanted her to put on—it was about the fact that I was the one telling her what to wear. Of course, I couldn’t trust a two year-old to pick out her own clothes, so I would pick out two outfits for her to choose from—which she would happily do. From that moment on, I was amazed to see the difference in our morning routine—life was peaceful once again.
Each of the subsequent years presented new challenges with my daughter and clothes. As much as I wished that I could just buy her something and she might actually wear it, this was never the case. I soon found that she would reject any article of clothing that I purchased without her consent. This progressed to not even being able to point out clothes while shopping with her. In the end, I had to establish some basic guidelines:
- It must be on sale, or at least reasonably priced.
- It can’t be too short.
- It should be age-appropriate.
- I have final say to spend the money, or not.
There have been moments while shopping with her that she has asked to buy shorts that are just a little too short, or to get something else that I just didn’t feel comfortable with. She knows how I feel, and usually asks with a slight hesitation in her voice. The expression on my face is enough for her to decide to move on to something else.
As much as I wish it were still possible to control every aspect of my daughter’s appearance—as I could when she was a baby—I have finally accepted that this will never again happen. I believe that in order to nurture her sense of independence and self-confidence, I had to give up this right to make her look a certain way—the way that I chose. The times I have found myself making comments about her appearance—when she looks like she hasn’t bothered to brush her hair, or she has chosen to wear sweatpants and a t-shirt out to dinner—I unintentially end up hurting her feelings, weakening our relationship, and in the end counteracting all of the other things I do to build her up. Something so simple as asking, “Are you really going to wear that?” could ultimately undo all of my efforts to make her feel good about herself. She is the one who has to find a way to navigate her world, and she doesn’t need me in her head causing her to have doubts about the way she looks.
It is a difficult balancing act between allowing my daughter to express her individuality, and worrying about how others may perceive her. Ultimately, I know that the confidence that she exudes will overshadow some of her slightly more eccentric choices. Just this week, we were at a Colonial village where my daughter saw a bonnet that she just had to have. It was only $6.00, and was made by local artisans, so I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t get it for her. I did, however, have a momentary vision of her wearing it to school or walking around town, and I was no longer certain of if it being a wise choice. In the end, I did know that even if she did wear it out, she would do it with such a joyful self-confidence that only she could pull off.
My advice for my daughter is to forgive me when I make a comment about how she looks that she finds critical—I am her mom, and I won’t always be able to control myself. My advice to myself is to remember that changing one’s appearance is a form of self-expression. It is also one of the few areas that a teenager may actually feel a level of control. As each new year passes, a new phase will begin and end—I just need to remember to look past the surface to see and appreciate the wonderful young women standing before me.
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