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.
A few months ago, I began attending services at a progressive Protestant church. What I found was a welcoming, positive, and politically engaged spiritual community, which has been so helpful to me in these difficult times.
Here’s my problem: There’s one guy at my church whom I can’t stand. I find him rude and a bit creepy. But he seems to want to develop a friendship (or a relationship) with me. He always sits next to me during services, and he frequently asks me if I want to hang out. I usually make up excuses to get out of it, but sometimes I feel guilty and agree to do something, and then I end up hating every minute of it. This guy has pretty reactionary politics, and he’s so socially clueless that we can’t even go to a coffee shop without him, say, accidentally insulting the barista. What’s more, because he is socially clueless, he is completely unable to take any kind of hint.
I didn’t grow up attending religious services of any kind, so I have no precedent for how to deal with an aggravating person in this context. If someone creeps me out in the secular world, I usually give the person the cold shoulder. But shunning someone because I find them unpleasant doesn’t seem very Christian. Plus, I’m a convert, so it seems especially bad to turn my back on a member of a congregation that has welcomed me. My question is this: Do I have to keep hanging out with this guy? What would Jesus do?—Confused Convert
Channeling Jesus’ opinion is above my pay grade, so I called up Elizabeth Bruenig, a Washington Post writer with a degree in Christian theology. She thinks Jesus would tear this guy a new one: “Jesus would rebuke this guy. Balls to the wall. He would dress him down.” She also points out that your church acquaintance doesn’t treat people well and has reactionary views that probably contradict Christian teachings. “Jesus is not about bourgeois manners,” she says. “He calls his disciples stupid. He’s a very tough customer.” However, you may feel awkward being as rude as Jesus and might not want to do exactly as he would. Yet you don’t have enough in common with this man—or like him enough—to form a genuine friendship, and, as Bruenig wisely says, “friendship can’t be faked.”
Christian teachings, she adds, point to a middle ground between shunning this guy and accepting all his unwanted attentions. Ostracizing him would be cruel, and at odds with the kind of community you value and are also seeking in this church. Do continue to be friendly and sociable when you find yourselves in the same place. There isn’t much harm in letting him sit by you in church.
But Bruenig stresses that you shouldn’t let your convert status intimidate you. You’re fully Christian; you belong in this church and this community; and you shouldn’t let anyone make it uncomfortable for you. “She is allowed to stand up for herself,” Bruenig emphasizes. If his attentions get more annoying—shading into overly persistent courting or harassment—don’t hesitate to go full Jesus and tell him off.
Have a question? Ask Liza here.