How should a feminist mom deal with an 11-year-old daughter who wants to dress as if headed to an audition for an early scene in Pretty Woman?—Worried Mom
I feel quite sympathetic to everyone involved. It is a delight to dress in a slutty manner at all ages, but your daughter is still a little young. She likely wants to do this partly because she has fun fantasies about grown-up life. Many of us remember this. Susie Bright, feminist “sexpert” and co-author, with her daughter, of Mother/Daughter Sex Advice, recalls being eager to be alone in the house so she could raid her mom’s closet and try on her heels, loving the idea of “having everyone be entranced by me, being alluring.” Bright urges you to affirm your daughter’s pleasure in her appearance. Tell her how great she looks. And pick your battles; if you’re on the fence about an outfit, err on the side of permissiveness. Yet it’s also important, for her safety and her sense of realism about the world, to set limits. Tell her she can’t get her Julia Roberts on at school or on public transit, for example, but explain why. Bright recommends, “Not everyone is mature enough to handle your dressing that way, unfortunately,” or “Some people are stupid, and will think that when you dress that way they can touch you. Because some people are sexist.”
Discussing school attire, consider extending Bright’s “some people are sexist” argument to the idea that, because girls are not always viewed as smart, and because some people are weird about sex, dressing like a super-sexy girl in some situations can lead the jackasses of the world to think you’re not intelligent. When you and I, Worried, were growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, girls were told to present in ways that commanded seriousness. One of my high-school teachers (not the best messenger, since her own attire resembled a burlap bag) used to admonish girls in short dresses, “This is a school, not a beach!” That sounds harsh, but she was right: Girls seeking respect (sadly) have to learn that not everywhere is the right venue for our hottest outfits.
Still, don’t let patriarchy stop your daughter from enjoying and expressing her own aesthetic and sexuality. Make clear that there are spaces in which she can dress exactly as she pleases, no matter how you feel about the getup. Girls want to wear slutty clothing at least in part to impress other girls. Bright suggests letting her have parties at your place, at which everyone is allowed to dress in whatever manner they prefer. Or if you’re giving her a ride to a friend’s house for a movie night, propose that this might be a good time for a wild ensemble, since she isn’t walking down the street alone or trying to impress anyone with her scientific hypotheses.