Can We Please Stop Telling Young Girls What They Can And Cannot Wear?

Image provided by Mélanie Berliet
Image provided by Mélanie Berliet

It’s virtually impossible for anyone with a vagina to avoid being judged for her personal appearance. Males, on the other hand, tend to skirt such dissection — by way of having penises, presumably.

Recently, an Australian news anchor reaffirmed this phenomenon. Tired of the scrutiny to which his female colleagues were subjected regularly, he decided to conduct a social experiment. The idea was simple: He would wear the same suit on-air until the public called him out for his style crime. Twelve months passed without a soul taking note, cementing his theory that men and women are held to drastically different sartorial standards.

When it comes to the great wardrobe divide, the main problem may be that our expectations of women are absurdly unattainable. We have so many contradicting, Madonna-Whore ideas about how females should and should not dress at every age. Look cute and desirable, but not promiscuous! Attractive, but not threateningly so! Clean-cut, but not prudish or uptight! Not even the President’s children are safe from attacks rooted in these impossible-to-meet standards. “Dress like you deserve respect, and not a spot at the bar,” wrote Republican House staffer Elizabeth Lauten in a Facebook post lambasting the Obama girls for their appearance at the nation’s annual turkey pardoning ceremony.

It’s no wonder that one of our favorite ways to dismiss a woman is to accuse her of looking “inappropriate.” Given the pervasive, conflicting parameters, is it even possible to look appropriate? Regrettably, the inappropriate slight doesn’t refer to season pushing or over- or under- dressing as often as it suggests that someone’s dared to wear something deemed too revealing. When we deride women this way, we feed the narrative that looking, feeling, and/or being a sexual female is wrong, and that looking, feeling and/or being a sexual female precludes being intelligent, kind, educated, and worthy of respect. We teach that a woman who wants to celebrate her sexuality is “bad” or “slutty.” Above all, we teach that what a woman wears is necessarily an indication of her character.

The truth is, unless you ask directly, there’s no way to know why a lady is wearing a form fitting red dress with a deep plunging neckline on any given day. She may have woken up feeling especially beautiful and decided to toast her awesomeness with an attention grabbing dress. She may have neglected to pick up the dry-cleaning for too long and reached for the one item left hanging in her closet that morning. She may harbor an acute fear of menstruating through her panties, and it’s that time of month again. Whatever the wardrobe choice and the reason behind it, a decision about attire constitutes a mere sliver of who someone is as a human. This is an incredibly easy concept to grasp, and yet we can’t seem to stop making snap judgments about women based on their outfits.

Typically, we blame the media for perpetuating problematic dress-centric stereotypes. But the more time I spend around people with children (full disclosure: I am not a parent, though I’d like to be one eventually), the more I believe our misguided attitudes are shaped closer to home, by well-meaning parents given to policing their daughters’ wardrobes.

Girls are often scolded for wearing short skirts while things like bikinis and red nail polish are banned outright. Parents must believe they’re protecting their children by imposing limitations, but from what? Cold weather? Fine. Bug bites on a humid summer night? Okay. Pushing the boundaries of a school’s dress code? Understandable. In many cases, however, I’d argue that such regulations are designed to prevent young girls from drawing attention to their bodies (because how dare they!), or from distracting and/or attracting members of the opposite sex.

Ironically, when we shake our heads at the 8-year-old who wants to paint her nails cherry red and wear a mini dress while mimicking the gyrating moves of her favorite pop star, we sexualize her. Through blatant disapproval of what a girl wants to wear, we imbue certain looks with sex-negative associations. We also validate society’s fixation with clothing-based appraisal, masking the disservice we do along the way as good parenting. Meanwhile, the implication that boys can’t be expected to control themselves around girls who are dressed a certain way is, at best, an insult to the male sex. At worst, it’s a kind of permission slip for them to misbehave. How far of a leap is it from there to blaming the victims of rape for dressing provocatively?

In other words, parental clothing restrictions might just substantiate the very forms of judgment we should be working to eradicate.

Of course, what people wear does matter to a certain extent. Fashion can be an incredibly satisfying form of self-expression, and most of us wouldn’t wear the same thing to an interview as we would to a wedding, a fancy restaurant, or a club. That said, I think we can all agree that what we wear should never be the main criteria by which we’re evaluated. When we institute arbitrary rules about nail varnish and subtlety shame girls for their wardrobe choices, we groom them to remain forever mindful of where their outward appearance might land them on a stranger’s supremely subjective prude-to-sexy scale.

Why not emphasize comfort—mental, physical, and emotional—and consideration of one’s environment (school versus the backyard or a party) instead of advancing the notion that some clothes are okay while others are inherently bad? Why not empower girls to figure out what comfort means to them in different scenarios by giving them room to experiment in curating their individual appearance? As a childless adult, I recognize this might sound a lot easier to do than it is. But if parents abandon the counterproductive policies that further destructive gender specific clothing biases, aren’t their kids more likely to grow up in a world where judging people for what they wear is a thing of the past? The way I see it, society needs moms and dads everywhere to stop telling their daughters what they can and cannot wear. TC mark

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