Kristen Hewitt started an honest and important discussion on her blog recently, explaining to readers “Why Our Girls Don’t Wear Short Shorts.” She expressed dismay over the sexualized shorts sold to young girls and the pressure our daughters face to wear bottoms that don’t “keep their fannies covered.” I feel this same frustration and I can absolutely relate to staying up worrying about the balance between individuality/autonomy and my parental responsibility to instruct and protect my children. I don’t want my daughter to wear overly mature clothing because of media and peer influence, but I simultaneously don’t want her clothing options to be restricted because other people sexualize her body. Parents sometimes dread shopping with their growing daughters because of so many pervasive cultural influences that send conflicting messages to girls. The reality is that it’s not about the shorts. Not really. The shorts simply represent a cultural problem we wish our daughters didn’t have to face, but we are responsible for preparing them for.
The Shorts Are a Symptom
The shorts are a symptom of a greater problem of sexualizing and objectifying women from an early age, not the cause. I can implement rules about clothes in the short term, but this will just be a temporary solution to a complex minefield women face every time they open their closet to get dressed. I’m glad we have writers such as Hewitt to help facilitate honest, open conversations about these minefields. My long-term parenting strategy involves talking with my daughter, listening to her ideas, and empowering her to understand the bigger picture, ie. it’s not about the shorts. We’ll navigate these minefields together with communication, love, information, and support.
How Can Babies Be Immodest?
Our society begins struggling over physical modesty from the moment girls are born. People fuss over small girls exposing shoulders in tank style tops or wearing bikinis that show their round, infant bellies. Media often portrays young girls in irresponsible ways, inappropriately sexualizing them. Girls consistently receive mixed messages about their bodies.They are encouraged to not grow up too fast, yet media and social pressures encourage girls to dress and act in mature ways at an early age. It’s a no-win situation. Just as the Birds and the Bees is not a single talk, children need to be engaged in conversations with their parents that help them to understand where cultural pressures to wear or avoid bum-baring shorts come from.
A Girl’s Body is Not Her Own
It’s a strange world when the length of a girl’s shorts have to do with anything but her comfort and ability to play. It’s an odd culture where bum-bearing shorts are even available for any gender at any age. I hate that my daughter has to understand that the length of her shorts is embroiled in unfair and demeaning portrayals of girls; that her shorts carry assumed messages she can’t control and open her up to unfair scrutiny.
A girl’s body is not her own from the very beginning, but the center of a complex, confusing, often hypocritical, cultural war over female bodies. This is a frustrating reality that she must understand if she is going to make informed choices and if she is going to work for change.
Encouraging Informed Decisions
When parents fret over the length of a young girl’s shorts, it’s not really because wearing them is inherently immodest or because a young girl should feel self-conscious about showing her legs. Parents recognize how our culture objectifies women’s bodies and the despicable fact that some men will view a 9 year-old girl’s legs as sexual. But how much should our daughters be controlled and influenced by these factors? Just like I don’t want my daughter to wear short shorts to fit in, I also don’t want her to feel as though she can’t choose to wear an item of clothing because the thoughts of others are her responsibility. In order for our daughters to make informed choices, the conversation needs to be both ongoing and age-appropriate.
Since we know the shorts are simply a part of a larger issue, age-appropriate conversations should cover the following over time:
- Bodily Autonomy and Consent
- How the Body Works
- Using Scientific Names for Body Parts
- Media Awareness
- Critical Thinking Skills
- Self-Worth Independent of Physical Appearance
- Self-Expression and Individuality
It is essential that our girls understand the world that they live in, the choices they have within it, and the power they have to work for change. Websites such as Beauty Redefined and Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls offer excellent resources for broaching these subjects. I have also written about ways to talk to your kids about sex, which includes a variety of age-appropriate resources that lead to important conversations.
When I read Kristen’s post, it continually struck me that she and her daughter have an open, loving relationship. Tackling short lengths wasn’t fun or comfortable, but necessary. Kristen made a clear family rule about shorts, but involved her daughter in the discussion and decision about where and when to wear different types of clothes. This honored her daughter’s intelligence and growing autonomy and demonstrated that her parents trusted her to make choices about her own body. They were also honest with her about why they maintain certain rules regarding clothing in their home.
I think girls and women who view clothes as a form of individual self expression, as well as practical and purposeful, can more easily navigate cultural influences and peer pressure. I can talk about how shorts relate to dressing for comfort and activity and about resisting peer pressure with my daughter. I can talk to her about the dangers of shaming women based on how they dress, making assumptions based on attire, or judging anyone based on their clothing choices. I can also ensure that my daughter is confident in herself and aware of why she makes particular decisions. Does she truly want to bare her bum in shorts or is there something else going on?
I find that my daughter isn’t actually comfortable trying to run, sit, or play with her bum sticking out. This is simply practical. She also likes to be an individual and pick styles that suit her, rather than anyone else. Sometimes she lounges around, plays sports, or goes to the beach in shorter shorts. There is no one-size-fits-all situation or choice for every girl. While I also draw the line at shorts that expose the bum, I do want my daughter to resist a culture that sexualizes her body or normalizes body shaming young girls. It’s a complicated balancing act that I’m figuring out as I go.
Finding a Balance
The older I get, the more my closet is filled with the quirky and colorful. I’ve always had a distinctive fashion sense and clothing has always been a fun form of self-expression. I also grew up in a serious modesty culture, where my body was a temple to be covered and protected. I spent a great deal of time making sure my shoulders, thighs, and chests were covered so I wouldn’t taint my reputation or tempt others. Clothes felt simultaneously freeing and restricting.
There is actually nothing inherently wrong about wanting your private areas to be covered for life’s activities. This is about comfort and practicality. Sometimes it is about privacy. It can also be a means of taking control over one’s body and not allowing others to dictate what is attractive or sexy. Dressing in a way that is traditionally modest doesn’t mean a woman isn’t expressing bodily autonomy, just as wearing tighter, shorter, or more revealing clothing doesn’t signify anything about a woman’s worth.
Just as I want my daughter to consider why she is making a clothing choice, I also want to be aware of my own biases related to clothing or perceptions about how clothing defines women. Why do shorts shorts concern me so much? How do I balance teaching bodily autonomy with my responsibility to teach and protect? Would I apply the same rules to a boy? Why or why not?
I appreciated how Hewitt drew a line at bum-revealing shorts as too much for anyone, but allowed for flexibility and personal decisions about other lengths of shorts–even if they aren’t what a girl’s parents would personally choose.
It’s Not About the Shorts
Perhaps my daughter will have an eclectic style. Maybe it will be more conventional. Perhaps she’ll feel most confident in loose-fitting sweats or love rocking tight-fitting jeans. Whatever she chooses to wear, I want her to know that her clothes do not define her, even if conventional wisdom places emphasis on a women’s outer appearance. I want her to be media-savvy and confident in her own individuality. I want her to understand that girls receive mixed messages: Be simultaneously sexy and virtuous; wear sexy shorts, but don’t look slutty; be modest, but not uptight; enjoy your childhood while being careful to not tempt others with your body. I want her to recognize how shorts are used to distract, control, and exhaust women, so they are too worn down to fight bigger cultural issues.
Ultimately, I want her to choose clothes that she feels good in because they help her feel confident, unique, and capable. I’m cool with drawing a line at booty-baring shorts, as long as my daughter understands that it’s not about the shorts.