“I’m not letting you leave the house looking like that,” said her mother, Tara Bloomer, telling her daughter that she looked like an “easy girl.” A “prostitute.” Seeing his daughter walk down the driveway, Sky’s father, Bryan Bloomer, tried asking her to change. But the teenager didn’t budge. She got into her friend’s car and left for school.
Minutes later, Sky’s father called her cellphone. He asked her what kind of message her outfit would send to her teachers and classmates on the first day. Truly powerful and intelligent women, he told his daughter, “don’t have to show off everything they have.”
“Okay, misogynist,” she replied.
Sky’s clothing choices have become a frequent point of tension between the teenager and her parents since the beginning of the semester at Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland. Fights like this one are, in some ways, an inevitable part of high school. For generations, rebellious teenagers and their parents have clashed over what clothing is appropriate for school.
But this is high school in the age of the #MeToo movement, of hashtags about body positivity and campaigns against “slut shaming.” Teenage girls today are using the language of female empowerment to defend their outfit choices to the adults around them, claiming autonomy over their bodies and calling out clothing restrictions they see as sexist.
Amid this generational shift, parents are wrestling with how to talk to their teenage daughters about the clothes they wear. How do parents draw a line between what’s suitable for school and what isn’t? Should that line exist at all?
“We used to make the argument that she was participating in her own objectification. Now girls are arguing back that this is a form of power they want to claim,” said Lisa Damour, a psychologist and the author of several books on parenting adolescent girls. “I’ve watched parents get completely stymied by this.”
In schools across the country, girls have staged protests against dress codes they say are unfair and unevenly enforced, disproportionately targeting black, brown and curvier girls. Last month, girls at one school in Montgomery County, Md., responded to a new dress code by wearing exactly the kinds of clothes it prohibited.
At Sky’s school in the same county a few years ago, female students protested the dress code by posting photos of their outfits on social media with the hashtag #WhoAmIDistracting. In recent years, students say, teachers rarely call out dress code violations. These decisions instead usually fall on parents — and the students themselves.
“It feels like an enigma wrapped inside a riddle,” Damour said. “What’s the right way to empower my daughter? I don’t think that’s so clear anymore.”
These conversations are made murkier by the pressures teenage girls face to look a certain way on Instagram and other social media platforms, which often encourage them to seek validation through likes and comments.
Sydney Acuff, a 17-year-old senior at Blair High School, started wearing more revealing clothes last school year after a breakup with a boyfriend who was “very controlling and very manipulative,” she said. “I wanted to rebel against him. That was one way I did it.”
She stopped wearing bras and started wearing “a lot of semi-see-through tops, a lot of camisoles,” Sydney said. “My midriff is almost always showing to some extent.”
When she was coping with the breakup, she noticed that she was posting more selfies on social media. “Am I doing this because I want to, or am I doing this because I know these people are going to make me feel good for a certain amount of time and then I’ll go back to feeling sad?” she reflected. “That’s something I have to be careful with and have to be mindful of.”
But as the teenager has grown more confident in her body, her clothes have been a way for her to experiment, to be creative, she said.
Her mother, meanwhile, has struggled with Sydney’s crop tops and short skirts. She has tried explaining that certain clothes are disrespectful to her teachers and are a better fit for the beach or a party.
“My friends and I, our generation, we consider ourselves feminist,” said her mother, Mary Denham, a 56-year-old social worker. “I would think things like that would be the opposite of being a feminist.
Her mother, Sydney argues, views the issue through “a very second-wave [feminist] lens” peppered with “internalized misogyny.”
“Even if we’re dressed completely respectably, we still face the same stuff we would face if we’re dressed half-naked,” Sydney said. “We still get assaulted, we still get belittled, and we have our intelligence knocked.”
Through their conversations, Denham has begun to understand Sydney’s views. “I’m trying to bite my tongue more and more,” she said. “I try not to be as judging of it as I was.”
For other senior girls, even in the same friend group at the same school, decisions about what to wear are complicated further by differences in culture, religion and body types. Khushboo Rathore, another 17-year-old at Blair, would like to be able to wear crop tops and bandeaus like other girls at school do, like the girls on Instagram who post the caption “hot girl summer” and like the “VSCO
girls” who look beachy and effortless with their short shorts, scrunchies and Hydro Flasks.
These trends are “basically just meant for skinny girls who can pull those clothes off,” Khushboo said. Not only does she feel uncomfortable in many of those clothes, her parents, who grew up in a more conservative culture in India, often call her out for shirts that are too low-cut. Even when she’s not trying to highlight her curves, her mother makes comments about covering up her cleavage, Khushboo said.
“Anytime I’m in the house without a bra on, she says, ‘Put a bra on before your dad or father or grandfather sees you,’ ” she said.
Sometimes, parents can send mixed messages about their daughters’ clothing.
Jenny Granados-Villatoro, 17, says her Salvadoran mother usually doesn’t approve of shirts below the collar bone for school. But for prom last year, when Jenny wore a dress with a low V-neck, her mother encouraged her to buy a new bra that would better accentuate her curves.
“I was like, ‘No, I feel comfortable in my dress like this,’ ” without the new push-up bra, Jenny said. “It kind of threw me off, and I was confused and I thought about it a lot.”
Jenny said she understood where she was coming from. Her mother grew up competing in beauty pageants in a small town in El Salvador, in a culture with more traditional expectations of women.
“She was dolling me up, I guess, to make sure I looked good enough for someone to come to me and have a conversation,” Jenny said.
Accommodating a culture
Sky Bloomer says clothes are a way for her to show off her confidence, her “aesthetic.” On her Instagram account, mirror selfies of Sky in a lime-green bikini appear next to photos of the teenager at swim practice or performing at Cambodian cultural events, a nod to her mother’s heritage. She says her outfits are about expression, not the likes she gets from her peers, the friends who post flame emoji and comments like “queen” and “so prettyy.”
But her parents worry about her motivations behind outfits like the one she wore on the first day of school.
“Honestly, Sky, I do not want us to use our bodies . . . to get attention,” Tara Bloomer said as the family sat around a table eating Subway sandwiches on a recent afternoon.
“Who said that my outfit was to get attention?” Sky responded.
“So what were you thinking when you got dressed that way?” her father asked, with genuine curiosity in his voice.
“I looked good! It fit me well, the colors matched,” Sky said.
“So, say more about ‘fit me well,’ ” Bryan Bloomer said.
“It was tight, it was a nice, tight outfit!” Sky said.
“Uh huh, in the literal sense of the word ‘tight,’ ” her father said. “It totally showed off all of your shape, leaving very little to the imagination.”
Sky told them that “literally everyone” at school wears clothes like that and no one commented negatively on her outfit.
Her mom acknowledged that they don’t have these same conversations with Sky’s older brothers. “There’s a gender bias here,” she said. She wishes she could trust that the boys and men in Sky’s orbit will be respectful of her in any clothing. But she and her husband can’t help worrying that someone could take advantage of her.
“We have this ideal for what we’d like our society to be, and then there’s the reality,” her father said.
The reality terrifies Bryan Bloomer. In conversations about Sky’s clothing, his mind quickly spirals to fears about the porn industry, human trafficking and the dark corners of the Internet “trying to suck these young, beautiful women in,” he said. He worries about the modeling requests Sky received after performing in beauty pageants recently. He thinks back to one of his friends from high school, a girl who was kidnapped at a 7-Eleven and whose body was later found in a field.
He told Sky about the newspaper articles he’d read recently in which a man accused of sexual assault used the defense that the victim “was dressed a certain way and she was just asking for it,” he said. “It’s so offensive, but yet they’re getting away with it. They make it about the women’s look.”
“Sky, it’s not an excuse for anyone to hurt you in any way because of the way you dress,” his wife interjected.
“Absolutely, it’s not an excuse,” he said.
“But it’s partly the environment that’s out there,” the mother said.
Sky pushed back, refusing to accept their argument. “If we all want women to be able to dress how they want . . . and feel comfortable in what they’re wearing, you just have to go for it and do it.”
“The question I have is whether that’s really coming from the inside out, or whether that’s influenced by this rape culture that’s sending the message that your power comes from your looks and you have to put it out there in a way that’s sexy,” her father said. “How much of that is really them?”
“What she’s saying is you and I are cowards, instead of fighting what people are doing that’s wrong,” Tara Bloomer told her husband.
But she asked Sky, “Do you think maybe 75 percent of you is doing this to claim your ownership of your right to dress nicely . . . and the other 25 percent is you being influenced by the culture where they manipulate women to show their bodies?”
“I don’t think I feel manipulated into showing my body at all,” Sky said.
Her mother said she was proud of her daughter for standing up for herself. She agreed that “we should not accommodate this culture.”
“I just want you to have a bit of a balance,” Tara Bloomer said. “Keep track that your choices are yours.”
The day after their conversation, Sky turned 18. On Instagram, she posted a photo in the birthday outfit she chose to wear to school. It got more than 570 likes and 200 comments.
There she was, posing and smiling in front of her high school, wearing the same black-and-red Urban Outfitters crop top.