I’ve been speaking with the mom of a high school girl who was told at school this morning that her dress to her knees, cardigan to her elbows, and leggings underneath was inappropriate for school. The only skin this girl was showing was her forearms and hands. A school official told her boys were being distracted by her leggings and she would need to change. The girl asked if she should just remove her legs. The girl’s mother responded to the school official saying the problem was not her daughter’s legs but the boys’ behavior.
This is why I am against mandated t-shirts at pool parties, sexist dress codes, and the backwards Puritan belief our abstinence-is-best culture in the United States has – especially in our high schools and middle schools – that by forcing girls to cover up and not teaching kids about sex they won’t become sexual beings until they magically arrive at college and know how to behave, dress, and respond to each other. Girls’ bodies are not the problem. Our response to them, is.
Yes, I am profoundly against the sexualization of children and the media’s objectification of women. That is not the same thing as being anti-sex, or obtuse to the fact that our children will become sexual beings with sexual urges. That part I’m cool with.
I live in and am raising a daughter in a culture where men are attracted to every part of a woman’s body because I live in a sexually repressed culture, propagated by attitudes that females should cover up to avoid inevitable sexual arousal. I live in a culture where men are sexually attracted to my mouth, my eyes, my hair, my shoulders, my breasts, my hips, my butt, my legs, my toes….which is their issue, not mine. I will not hide away any part of my being – not my body, not my voice, not my mind. I dress how I want in a way that makes me feel amazing and I walk through my world with confidence and self-respect. I walk through my world in a way that very clearly sends the message to men they will respect me, regardless of what body part they may or may not be looking at. I am making sure my daughter is learning to do the same. I don’t view sexuality as a shameful thing. Acting disrespectfully towards another being in a sexual way is shameful. I am making sure my daughter and my son know that men and boys are intelligent beings capable of empathy, kindness, and self-control.
Sexuality in general means various people will find various body parts arousing. The basis to the argument that body parts should be covered up to avoid arousal places the onus on the viewee as opposed to the viewer. That argument feeds directly into Rape Culture and overall shaming of the female body as a vessel of sin and corruption of men/boys that must remain covered so as to avoid any sexual attraction. This leads to the removal of agency from females and gives entitlement to men as female bodies have shifted from sexual beings to objects they can police. This argument also leads to the expectation that boys/men cannot control themselves at any hint of sexual arousal and females must do all they can to not wake the beast.
Sexual arousal happens when women are fully covered – in military uniforms, burkas, business attire, a winter coat. Are we to stay completely out of sight?
I cannot disagree more with that framework of thinking. I do not believe in asking females to cover their bodies and being responsible for avoiding any hint of sexuality or sexual arousal.
I believe males are capable of controlling themselves. I believe human sexuality is not a shameful thing and should not be repressed.
I believe strongly we teach those becoming sexually aroused to control themselves, teach them to better understand the nature of sex and how to respond appropriately and respectfully to it.
I would never make my son nor my daughter wear a t-shirt to cover their body. I will make every effort to teach them openly about sexuality in a sex positive way.
Yes, students should dress appropriately for school. Don’t wear Saturday on a Wednesday. Yes, we should teach our girls the difference between objectifying themselves sexually and feeling, experiencing their sexuality.
But when we live in a country where day after day girls all across our nation are being told by the media to be sexy all the time, being told by their hearts to find the person they are, being told by their schools their education is less valuable than a boy’s and to cover up/go home/sit in detention because their distracting body caused a boy to look at them even when they are covered from elbow to ankle……we’ve got problems.
Bigger than any baggy t-shirt can cover.
UPDATE: The following question was asked during our Facebook discussion and I thought it would be important to add it here. From Tristin, “Okay I have a question. I 100% agree with everything you wrote above (and read your book and recommend it to everyone). I read in your book about talking to our daughters about establishing the personal brand they’d like to convey to the world, and I think this is a great tool. My question is, though, about what happens when our girls decide that a particular brand they wish to convey doesn’t fit with what we as parents deem age appropriate? Who is to say that 14 or 15 is too young to wear such and such outfit? It’s her body- shouldn’t she have the right to choose how much skin she shows? What happens when I as a parent disagree with her decisions about how she chooses to present her body? And also, who gets to decide what is age appropriate? Shouldn’t a school have some say in this? But where is the line between making these decisions and policing girls’ bodies and choices?
My answer: When girls choose a brand that we know to be age inappropriate or overtly focused on sex appeal vs whole being it is our job to coach and consult with them until they get it. It may take blood, sweat, and tears on our part, but we have to strike a balance between allowing her to develop into her own sexuality and keeping her age appropriate and not buying into copying what the media is grooming her to do.
If she is dressing in a sexually provocative way that is age inappropriate she clearly isn’t choosing that for herself, she’s been groomed to do it and is parroting what she’s learned – probably from the media and other girls. Since this decision isn’t coming from a place of authenticity it is okay to say, “No, you won’t be wearing that and here’s why. Please go choose a more appropriate outfit for an 11yo girl. When you are 19 and come home from college, that outfit will be fine. Today you are 11yo and you will dress like it.”
Again, not shaming, just teaching her there is a time and place for sexy. 11yo is never it. 14/15yo isn’t it. 16, 17, 18….I think that is generally the age where girls are moving beyond having crushes on boys (or girls) to really understanding the want to have sexual encounters and figuring out how to facilitate that. I remember that age. I remember knowing exactly what I was doing.
All I can say to that: each family needs to approach that in a way that feels comfortable for them. That will be different for each family. I am very open with my kids about sexuality and the human body, but that doesn’t mean they watch sexualized media now and that doesn’t mean I’ll want them feeling free to have sex in high school. The hormones will certainly be there, the emotional maturity a sexual relationship requires will not be. In that sense, they can wait.
Allowing her to develop a personal brand doesn’t mean she gets to do whatever she wants. It means you let her show you who she wants to be in the world and then we act like parents and say “I think you’ve made great choices” or, “I think that outfit sends some strong messages that you may not be aware of, or are aware of and then I’d like to talk to you about why you seem to focus on that one small part of you instead of all of you.” So it isn’t about shaming her, rather teaching her she is more than the sum of her parts and that there is more to life and one’s self-esteem than getting sexually-motivated attention from guys (or girls).
And you have to allow her to make mistakes. Talk to her about them and help her learn from them. As well as, help her learn from the mistakes of others’ because in high school I was sexually objectified while wearing my normal clothes, my cheer uniform, my soccer uniform, my uniform at the grocery store I worked at……you get the picture.
As you can see – these are all private, delicate conversations with a trusted individual that for 98% of girls will not be their school. This isn’t one conversation, it is ongoing little convos that help a girl develop her brand and in that, allow her the space to come into her own and allow her sexuality to actualize. That is a beautiful part of life and being a woman.
And I don’t want my child’s school having any part of that, nor policing it.
Melissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of “Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween”. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009 www.pigtailpals.com.