Back-to-school shopping is something I have always enjoyed doing with my daughter. She has inherited my love for clothes and shoes, and we encourage each other (a little too much) to buy all the things. We usually meet my sister and her daughter out for a night of Chinese food, then proceed to blow up every store within a 20-mile radius. We start planning it in June; it’s one of the highlights of our summer, and a tradition I hope keeps going long after they have both graduated college.
As my now-tween daughter has gotten older, I have watched her gravitate towards clothes I wouldn’t pick for her. And when I suggest something that I like, I get comments like, “That looks like a private school uniform. I go to public school. Hello!” or “Meh, I liked that four years ago, Mom.”
She has a taste for things with patterns and lots of colors, while I am a little plain and boring for her. She likes jeans that are very fitted and not saggy. She likes to wear shorts over leggings with graphic T-shirts. Nothing is oversized, ever.
I am careful that she doesn’t choose things that are too tight because I want her to be comfortable and able to wear the clothes we buy for longer than a month. I have tried to get her to go with things with a bit more “give,” but as soon as I see her face when she looks at her reflection in the mirror, I am reminded that she doesn’t feel comfortable. She doesn’t like the fit, and she doesn’t feel good about herself. She has her own style, and she wants to express herself. I get that.
When I was 16, I had a job bagging groceries. I was standing outside the store one afternoon on my break, wearing a pair of cutoff jean shorts when a woman walked by and gave me a dirty look. She called the store as soon as she got home and complained that one of the employees was hanging out outside, wearing shorts that were much too short, and I should be made to go home and change.
My boss did not make me — he said they were fine — but I remember feeling angry and wondering what kind of satisfaction she got from calling me out for wearing something she wouldn’t have worn. How did it even affect her?
I was wearing those shorts because I liked them. It is hard to love yourself at 16, and there wasn’t much I liked about my body then, but my legs were one thing I did like. I would wear shorts and tight jeans with baggy, oversized shirts to hide the rest of myself. All the parts that (to me) weren’t right — the parts I hated. I dressed for me, in what made me feel good.
I wasn’t doing it for anyone else, and it certainly was not an invitation for anything other than for me to like the way I looked. I wasn’t “asking for it.” I wasn’t sending the wrong message. I wasn’t hoping to offend or piss off some pearl-clutching woman who probably disliked herself even more than I disliked myself.
I want my daughter to feel confident when she is faced with a situation like this because I am sure she will be. I want her to dress for herself. I will never tell her she is sending the wrong message or shouldn’t wear something because of what others might think.
It is not her job to make sure people don’t get the wrong message. It is not her job to keep boys or men under control by covering up or wearing generous clothing so she isn’t showing off her body too much. I want her to love the body that she has. I want her to grow up knowing it is hers and she is the only one who has the rights to it.
I will inform her that what she wears is not an invitation for inappropriate comments, touching, or another person telling her she needs to go home and change. I will make sure she is aware that people may judge her for what she is wearing. Unfortunately, nobody is exempt from that. They might say or do ignorant things, based on what she puts on her body, but she is never accountable for others people’s actions.
It is her job to dress the way she likes. It is her job to love herself and feel confident. It is her job to tell someone to screw off, speak up, scream, and kick if anyone touches her in a way she doesn’t like — regardless of what she is wearing.
It is her job to be who she wants to be, however that manifests itself, with no apology. Viewing herself as autonomous is essential to her self-esteem. It will empower her to know she can be who she wants and feel comfortable in her body. Her clothing does not mean she is giving up control. It is never an invitation for something she doesn’t want. She needs to make clothing decisions based on what she feels, and it is my job to support her even if she makes clothing choices I would not.