Does your teenager wear clothing that you consider inappropriate? Melissa Thomas is a sixteen-year-old girl, who feels strongly about wearing what she likes, because she is comfortable in her own skin. Yvonne Spence is Melissa’s mother. She thinks her daughter still needs guidance in this arena and worries for her safety.
I’ll Wear What I Like
By Melissa Thomas
When I was about fifteen, I decided that I liked how I look. I don’t entirely know how I did it, considering I’ve grown up in a society that bombards girls with reasons to feel that their bodies are inadequate. But I did. Which isn’t to say I don’t have moments when I look in the mirror and see imperfections, but on the whole…I feel pretty good about my appearance.
I wear what makes me feel comfortable, and I know I look good in the clothes I wear, whether it is skinny jeans and a chunky sweater or a short, tight skirt with a sleeveless top. I also know that feeling good about myself on the outside has had an impact on how I view myself as a person. Wearing clothes that allow me not to worry about how I look takes off a huge pressure, and it’s sad to know that there are people who don’t wear what they want out of fear.
Wearing what feels good breeds confidence. Confidence helps me to feel good about what I’m wearing. It’s a cycle that can be difficult to break into, but once you do? Honestly, it’s the best thing, and we need to be doing more to help young people feel good about themselves.
I don’t want to oversimplify the issue by saying it is okay for young people to wear whatever they want, whenever they want. I do get that clothes have connotations, have consequences. That clothes can be seen as sexualizing and slutty. It’s important that girls grow up knowing the dangers they might encounter because they are girls.
I like to think I understand the dangers that I face. I do feel scared, walking on my own at night. I know to avoid quiet streets, and to hold my keys between my fingers. I had to walk through the middle of town on my own, on a recent Saturday night, and my mind was filled with hypotheticals. Maybe it’s silly that it’s at night I worry most, because the handful of times I’ve been catcalled have been during the day.
I’m not going to change the way I dress to “protect myself.” Maybe I would be safer if I wore more modest clothes—I doubt it, but I could never say for sure—but it feels like I’d be giving in. If I change the way I dress to avoid harassment, if I stop wearing tiny skirts or shorts or little tops, I’d be letting the part of society that oppresses women win.
In a smaller context, my school is one of the few in the UK that doesn’t require a uniform. one. The freedom to choose what I wear is part of the reason my clothing is so important to me. Every now and then, our school talks about introducing a uniform and for a week the students go into a frenzy of angry discussion about why it’s a stupid, stupid idea.
Usually, the arguments we come up with are simple. To force us to wear a uniform would take away our freedom, our individuality. We’ve cultivated an identity from our ability to choose. We can express ourselves through what we wear, and very few teenagers where we live are given the same chance.
I consider this a metaphor for wider society. I want to see a world where young people—or anyone, in fact—can wear what they want without the burden of prejudgments and meanings and dangers. I like little, cute dresses. I don’t intend for that to say anything about me other than “I thought this dress was cute.” Style shouldn’t be a measure of class. Style shouldn’t be a measure of who you are as a person or how you can be treated.
It is, though. I am judged by what I’m wearing, and while that needs to change, there’s no way to find clothes that someone doesn’t find problematic. It’s not about the clothes themselves. It’s about changing our culture’s mentality.
I know I’m an idealist when I say “we need to change” and that societal change can’t happen overnight. But I think the best way forward is to teach the younger generations to wear what they want, and not to judge others for what they choose to wear.
My clothing choices may put me in danger. But it doesn’t put me in more danger than I’d be in, so I’m going to keep wearing what I’m wearing—from the short skirts to the Doctor Who shirts—because that’s what makes me feel good. I just hope at some point in the near future everyone else will feel free to do the same.
Melissa Thomas is a school student, and plans to study History at university. She has been writing since she was 11, and last year won a Young Scottish Writer’s Award. She has had poetry published in Writer’s Forum Magazine. She is currently working on a novel. She loves cats.
She Still Needs Guidance
By Yvonne Spence
“You are not going out dressed like that!”
The clichéd words parents say to their teenagers, and words that I was never, ever going to use. Except that I just had.
When our daughters were small, I took up a couple of mindful practices that changed my outlook on life—I realized it is not what happens that causes stress, but what we think about what happens. As a result, I am mostly able to see both sides of any argument. Moreover, as a long-time feminist, I agree that a teenage girl should be able to dress however she wants without fear of insult, without any man using her appearance as an excuse to attack her. When that teenage girl is my daughter, though, maternal instinct triumphs over logic. In its grip, more than I want to allow my daughter the freedom to make mistakes, I want to keep her safe.
Skimpy tops and short shorts might keep her cool on a hot summer’s day, but they ignite that protective flame in me. I see grubby middle-aged men and stocky youths lumbering towards her, shouting obscenities. I feel fear, fear that I imagine she will experience, but that really is fuelled by memories from my own teens and early twenties.
I was followed three times by strangers, and attacked once by a man I vaguely knew. The irony is that on none of those occasions was I wearing a revealing outfit. Three times, I was wrapped in an overcoat and scarf. The fourth time I wore a sleeveless top and a calf-length skirt. In my experience, if a man is minded to insult, follow or attack a girl, he doesn’t care what she is wearing. That should make it easier for me to allow my daughter to wear whatever she wants. If anything, it makes it harder.
I have always believed in giving my children choices. When Melissa was six months old, we decorated her first bedroom. In the DIY store, I held up a few wallpapers and watched her reaction. She smiled at mice, boats elicited no response, and for the elephants she clapped her hands and beamed. Decision made. If I had gestured around the entire store and said, “Pick what you like,” she would have looked at me in confusion.
Children, even teenagers, need guidance to make decisions. While my daughter is able to do math equations I’ve long forgotten, her brain isn’t fully developed yet and won’t be until around age 24. She needs my help when it comes to understanding consequences. The brain also develops by practice, so it makes sense to gradually let her make her own decisions. Indeed, Melissa has been choosing what to wear since she was 18 months old—but in those days, like with the wallpaper, I held up three choices and she picked one.
Recently, British newspapers reported a survey that indicated over a quarter of people hold women who were drunk or flirting heavily partially to blame if they were raped. I read the comments below one article, and a large number said that girls wearing skimpy clothing in public were also partly to blame. It made for disturbing reading.
I remember, in my twenties, walking past a building site on a baking hot day and feeling furious at the semi-naked men who whistled and yelled. I decided we’d know we’d truly achieved equality when women could walk around with naked chests and nobody would bat an eyelid. However, in the intervening years, I’ve realized that I would rather men also kept their tops on in public. Like many, I have concerns about the sexualization of clothing—or lack of clothing—in general. According to the American Psychological Association Task Force (APATF), sexualization occurs when a “person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behaviour, to the exclusion of other characteristics” and when physical attractiveness is equated with “being sexy.”
It bothers me that in our culture, “being sexy” seems to have become the norm when defining attractiveness for women and girls. It bothers me that my daughter has absorbed this definition of attractiveness, though it doesn’t surprise me. Five-year-old girls wear bikinis and female children’s television presenters and teachers wear cleavage-revealing tops. I’ve seen girls as young as seven redo their make-up at parties. When my daughter, in an extremely short skirt or tight leggings, says, “Everyone wears it,” she is correct. She has grown up surrounded by the sexualization of attractiveness, so of course she sees it as normal.
That something is seen as normal doesn’t mean it is healthy or that we should conform to that norm. A third aspect of the APATF’s definition of sexualization is that “a person is objectified, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making.” I don’t want that for my daughter, which is why I think her clothing choices matter.
Back when I held out a few outfits from which my daughter could choose, she sometimes reached the wardrobe before me. There was one dress she particularly liked, and she’d tug it from its hanger. In those days she dressed in clothing she loved, not to fit in with her friends or to rebel against society’s prejudices.
I do recognize the irony in wanting my daughter to make her own choices, and then sometimes complaining about the choices she makes. We can’t go back to the days when I limited her choices, so it’s an irony I’m prepared to live with as we negotiate her path to adulthood. Now, instead of shrieking, “You can’t go out like that,” I try to help her to see that the opposite of conforming is not rebelling, but in finding choices that are truly our own.
Yvonne Spence is mum to Melissa and her sister. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies and magazines. She has published a novel, Drawings in Sand, and a short story collection, Looking For America, as Kindle ebooks. She has an MA in Creative Writing, and blogs at yvonnespence.com.