The Washington Post
Should I let my 14-year-old daughter wear what she wants?
Q: My 14-year-old daughter is starting high school. The school’s dress code allows pretty much anything, including crop tops, pajamas and hoodies. I don’t want her wearing crop tops to school. My daughter loves that style and highlighting her small waist. I told her I don’t want her wearing them to school, but I’m worried we are going to fight about it every day. Should I let her wear them? For what it’s worth, she has been wearing a uniform for the past three years.
A: A story: I wore a uniform from preschool to 12th grade. On the weekends during high school, I would leave the house in respectable jeans and a shirt, and, as soon as I got into my friend’s car, I would wriggle out of my jeans and use a belt as a skirt. A black stretchy belt. As a skirt. I thought I looked cute (and I’m sure I did), but the sneakiness opened the door for other things I could hide.
I wanted to express myself. I wanted to feel pretty and try something new.
What your daughter wears depends on the culture we live in, the culture you grew up in and how well you know yourself now.
And, to be clear, almost every culture I can think of is interested in controlling, commenting upon and creating rules for what goes on a woman’s body. America, in particular, has a complicated relationship with women’s bodies and clothes, and this has seeped into your subconscious and your daughter’s, as well as the subconscious of almost every parent I know.
Mix that in with how our culture polices Black and Brown bodies and hair, such as by not allowing hair to be worn in braids or puffs and by suspending girls for “short” shorts and spaghetti straps, and your head will spin at both the written and unwritten rules governing the lives of you and your daughter.
My first bit of advice is for you to spend a good amount of time determining how you feel about your body and how it relates to clothing. When you were a teen, did you want to try something else? Something more modest? Something more showy? Were you free to feel like yourself ? It’s important to understand your own stories and biases before talking to your daughter, because they can become triggers when you see her “small waist.”
For instance, if you were shamed for wanting to look pretty or sensual (which is different from sexual), you may also shame your daughter. (Shame is funny in that, even though we know it isn’t good, our brains will revert to what they know.) Conversely, if you were shamed when you were a teen, you may feel frozen and be unable to offer guidance, boundaries or insight into your daughter’s clothing preferences, leaving her adrift in her choices.
To be clear: Every family is different, and every family has the right to uphold certain values and traditions. However, figure out what you were raised with and how you feel about those ideas now. The clearer you are, the more confident, straightforward and flexible you can be with your rigidity. When it comes to teens, rigidity equals resentment, so watch for that in yourself, first.
As for your daughter, focus on the larger picture. If you nitpick her crop tops, what will happen to your relationship? Is your daughter the type who will feel ashamed and shrink? Or will she sneak her clothing? Will your disapproval drive a wedge in your relationship or bring you closer? The answers should lead you to some conclusions about how to proceed.
Also — and this is important — lest you think this means you have no voice or say in your teen’s life, think again. This clothing discussion is an opportunity to co-create decisions that make you both feel heard and seen, because the reality is you are not really in the driver’s seat of your daughter’s life anymore. Whether you like it or not, you have moved into the passenger seat, and your goal isn’t to be prescriptive and controlling, but to be present and collaborative.
When you talk with her about her clothing, put your cards on the table: “I’m a little uncomfortable with the crop tops, because they show a lot of skin. And I recognize that this is the style today, and I want you to wear what makes you feel confident and happy. How can we work this out together?” Do more listening than talking, and see whether you can reach a compromise, which means both parties sacrifice something. Again, the goal isn’t to control your daughter; it’s to have a dialogue.
In my coaching practice, I have found that parents are particularly uncomfortable around how young women have been sexualized by clothing as children, which can lead to a great deal of friction as their daughters get older. I suggest checking out resources such as amaze.org to help you honestly face how you feel about your daughter growing into a sexual being. Is it showing a tiny waist or showing her belly? Are you worried about the attention she may attract, willingly or not? Take the worry and empower yourself to be an advocate for your daughter to take exceptional care of herself and her body.
Become clear about her burgeoning sexuality, then meet with her. Your goal isn’t to control her clothing or body; it is to help her mature without adding shame. Good luck.
Also at washingtonpost.com Read the transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice, where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Sept. 29.
Send parenting questions to Leahy at firstname.lastname@example.org.