In the age of “body positivity” and campaigns against “slut-shaming,” how do parents navigate conversations about teenage girls and their clothing choices?
“Parents that consider themselves to be progressive can feel very stymied in these conversations,” said Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and author of “Under Pressure,” a book about anxiety in girls.
Perhaps most important is what not to say, Damour said. She urged parents to avoid bringing shame into the conversation with words like “slutty.”
“What teenage girls almost invariably hear is, ‘You think I’m a slut,’” Damour said.
Parents should not imply that a teenage daughter is “somehow responsible for regulating the male gaze.” Don’t focus the conversation on how a girl’s outfit might make her male peers or teachers uncomfortable in school, she said.
“Shaming your child is not helpful and it’s not going to make you feel better,” and it might make a teenager dig her heels in more, said Joyce McFadden, a psychoanalyst and author of “Modern Mothering.” “Rather than saying, ‘That’s a slutty thing to wear,’ say, ‘Is school the place you want to wear that?’”
Mothers can try using examples from their own lives, with comments such as, “Those don’t look like school clothes any more than I would wear a cocktail dress to work,” Damour said.
Instead of criticizing or judging the girl for her clothing choices, parents should instead try to ask questions about why she wants to wear a certain outfit, McFadden said. Open the door to a broader conversation about her style and what she’s hoping to get across.
“What they think is their agency might really not be their agency. It might be something that oppresses them,” McFadden said.
These desires are often complicated by the expectations of girls on Instagram and other social media platforms where teens seek validation based on the way they look.
“Let’s say a girl is taking a selfie and she wants to express something, but what really is it that she wants to express?” McFadden said. “Feeling body pride is fine. Spending 15 minutes curating an image of yourself in a bikini with your stomach sucked in, standing in a pose you would never stand in otherwise, that’s not body positivity. That’s conforming to a societal expectation for you, for sexiness.”
McFadden emphasizes the importance of teaching girls to think critically about their choices, so they can distinguish between what they actually want and what “culture is feeding them.”
“Teach your girls that they can discern between those two things so they can more authentically actualize their agency,” she said.
The conversation will be messy, but parents should fumble through it, both experts said. They should try to convey that self-expression is important and acknowledge when certain dress codes and rules are arbitrary, sexist or unfair, McFadden said.
And remember that any debate over clothing with a teenager might be a losing battle. At the end of the conversation, your daughter is very likely to walk out the door wearing whatever she wants to wear. And that’s okay.
“At some level, this is pretty low-stakes stuff. A crop top isn’t heroin. … We’re talking about a decision that can be made and unmade in a day,” Damour said. “Where this can go best is for adults to use it as grounds for conversation around questions of empowerment and objectification and who’s calling the shots.”