May 26, 2013

Motherlode: Are clothes too sexy or is the problem our baggage?

By KJ Dell-Antonia

Bruce Feiler, This Life columnist for the New York Times Styles section, has a problem he never expected to confront so soon. When his twin 8-year-old girls appeared recently to show off the new clothes they planned to wear to a family function: "My eyes bulged. The dresses drooped provocatively off the shoulder and offered other peekaboos of their bodies. Sure, as a parent, I figured I would one day face clothing battles with my children. Politicians aren't the only ones who draw red lines. But so soon?"

As he describes in "A Line Between Sweet and Skimpy," the Feiler family dealt with the issue immediately by covering up (for 8-year-olds, at least, the pashmina-style shawl is still stylish) and in the long term by coming up with a plan: family values that didn't involve sexualized clothing for girls too young to understand the messages they were sending, and a series of expert-provided answers to all the excuses the girls might offer, as they grow older, for wearing clothes that send those messages.

You can (and should) read his suggestions for responses to everything from "everybody does it" to "you're such a square." But before I could deal with the question of whether I thought his approach was the right one, I had to call Feiler (a friend and colleague) and ask one question: Who bought the clothes?

The answer? His wife ordered them online, and once she realized what they looked like on the twins, she organized the shawl project. Hers was a mistake I've made as well. You can send the item back or adjust it to suit your needs, but you have to ask yourself, why make these clothes for 8-year-olds in the first place?

Because they sell, and not just to parents who didn't look closely enough at the thumbnail image on the website.

Feiler's is one side of the "too-sexy clothing" story. The other side comes from parents, and young girls and teenagers, who argue that it's not the clothing that's too sexy, but the baggage we bring to the clothing that our daughters want to wear.

When a middle school teacher, Jessica Lahey, wrote for The Atlantic about enforcing a middle school dress code, in part because she worried that her female students were learning to value themselves only by the attention that their skimpy clothing could bring, the online response was swift: "If you don't want girls judged by their hemlines, stop judging girls by their hemlines," Amanda Marcotte wrote on Slate's XXFactor blog.

On XOJane, S.E. Smith suggested that the problem was Lahey herself -- and, by extension, concerned parents like Feiler everywhere: "For girls, (dress codes are) all about reminding young women that their bodies are shocking and need to be concealed. Their bodies are dangerous. They should be ashamed of their bodies, saving them for That Special Someone, and shouldn't go around spilling their sexuality willy-nilly where anyone might see it. Because obviously 11-year-old girls are totally sexual."

Are the clothes "too sexy" or is it our perception of what constitutes "sexy" that needs to change? I'm inclined to side with Feiler, but then, I'm not there yet. My daughters, although close to his in age, barely care about matching colors in their clothes, let alone following fashion trends.

Do you worry about your daughters' clothing choices? And if you do, how do you draw the lines in your family?

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com


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