BEHIND DOMESTIC LINES
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‘The Dress-code Minefield’
By Jami Ingledue
Leave it to a teenager to use your own words against you.
“Don’t you just LOVE the men out there who consider their comfort more important than the comfort of women?”
I made this exact argument about public breastfeeding. A week later, my daughter posted this on social media in response to high school girls who were protesting their school dress code by going to school without bras.
And I agree. And so we enter the minefield that is teenage girls’ clothing choices.
As a feminist, I think she is spot on. Women’s bodies are our own, and we should be able to dress for our own comfort and self-expression without worrying about how a man will react. The onus should be on them to control their own reactions. When we put this responsibility on girls and women, we are in essence making them responsible for men’s actions. Which leads to blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt. We should be able to express ourselves, and our sexuality, through our clothing choices without fearing for our safety.
But even if you had the right of way, would you step out in front of a fast car? No. Just because you have the right doesn’t mean it is the safe or wise choice. (BOOM! Welcome to the minefield.)
As parents, our main priority is to keep our kids safe. This trumps everything else. And we know that our daughters might not be dressing for the gaze of the creepy 50 year old man up the street when she wears skin tight yoga pants out jogging alone—but she will attract his gaze nonetheless. At 14, she is not completely aware of the dangers of the world. It is our job to set boundaries to keep her safe. It is her job, unfortunately, to test the boundaries. (BOOM!)
And so although I completely agree that girls should be able to express themselves through their clothing, and part of that is expressing sexuality, I have on more than one occasion sent my daughter back to her room to change into something that did not allow her butt cheeks to hang out.
But protecting girls from possible predators and the dangers of the real world does NOT mean that we do not also work for societal change. Boys and men must be held accountable for their own actions. We must STOP blaming girls and women when they are attacked and raped. The “boys will be boys” mentality must stop. Because deep down what it’s saying is that men have a right to a woman’s body. Over and over in our society we receive subtle, and not so subtle, messages that a woman’s body is not completely her own. That men, government, etc. feel they have some ownership of women’s bodies. From restrictions on birth control to the slap on the ass.
I experienced this recently from an old guy in a local store who was helping me choose a primer; he gave me a paint stirrer, but first he hit me on the butt with it. Would he have done that if my husband were with me? No, because then my butt would have “belonged” to another man. Since that was not apparently the case, he seemed to feel some sense of ownership, like my body was then up for grabs, available to be touched.
Yes, my ass looks pretty good in those jeans. But I should be able to wear jeans that make me look and feel good without the fear of getting my butt slapped.
And I think my teenage daughter should be able to do the same. And we need to work tirelessly toward a world in which this is true. But at the same time we have to prepare for the world as it actually is. It should be completely unacceptable as a society for a random guy at the store to slap my ass. And we must teach our sons and our brothers and our friends that a woman’s body is her own, at work, at school, at Wal-Mart, at a frat party. We must take it seriously enough as a society to give serious consequences for these actions.
But unfortunately there will always be rapists and sociopaths. So we must prepare them for that reality as well. Because we want them to be safe. And we want them to LIVE. We have to do both at the same time.
There is another issue at play as well, and it comes back to parental judgement and instinct. We all know that young teenage girls don’t dress the way they do with only comfort in mind. There is a fine line between healthy sexuality and objectification.
If a girl is confident and has self-respect and feels comfortable with her body, then of course clothing choices can be a healthy expression of her sexuality and sense of self. But that is not always the case. The hard truth is that some girls objectify themselves in order to gain social status or validation. (BOOM!)
Sometimes a girl tries to fill her black hole of low self-esteem with the easy validation she gets by wearing clothes that show her body. And that’s completely understandable; the newfound power of a suddenly developed young woman’s body can be intoxicating. We all like to be admired when we look good. But how quickly admiration can turn into leers that make girls feel like nothing more than a piece of meat. Like an object to be used.
Attention, desire, acceptance, love, sexuality: they are all mixed up when we are young, and most of us do not have the ability to separate them out as young teenagers. And they certainly have to learn many of these lessons on their own, the hard way, by wearing a tight dress to the mall and then feeling objectified and gross. But sometimes their choices can cross the line into unhealthy and risky self-objectification.
Where is that line? This is the judgement call that every parent has to make. We know our daughters best. We need to take the time and effort to really listen, to understand them and their motivations and desires. And then all we can do is follow our gut instinct. This looks different for every family, as it should.
At 17, my daughter is now mature enough to make those calls on her own and learn her own lessons. And as she heads off to college, I can only hope that the many conversations we’ve had about love, sex, respect, objectification, etc. will stay with her. And I hope that she will still come to me for supportive guidance and advice.
Because now she must navigate that minefield on her own.
Jami worked as a librarian for over a decade before choosing to stay home when her son, now 4, was born. She also has a 17-year-old daughter. She makes all-natural soap and body products and sells them through her company, Dancing Bee Farms (dancingbeefarms.net). She lives with her husband, daughter, and son on an acre of land in rural Ohio, where they keep bees, garden, and brew beer.