Does letting your daughter wear a bikini increase her risk of becoming anorexic or bulimic? If your daughter wears high heels, does that means she’s on the path to sluttiness?
As a mother of two daughters, and a former girl myself, I think these questions about apparel are absurd. Issues facing girls today about sexuality and body image are far more complex than how much material one’s bathing suit contains, and whether your shoe has an extra piece of leather under its heel.
But based on conversations with other moms, and recent articles in mainstream media, it seems some people give these age-related clothing values real credence. Take the debate over girls and heels that played out in the New York Times:
Tina Hambly, the founder and designer of a line of girls’ footwear called Valentina Shoes, not only refuses to let her 9-year-old wear heels, she has taken the moral high ground by refusing to create high heels in preteen sizes.
“We as moms have to work at preserving our daughters’ youth,” Ms. Hambly told the New York Times.
Another mom-retailer, Sarah Cannova of the Sassanova chain of women’s and children’s shoes and accessories in the Washington area, said that she was not going to buy girls’ shoes with heels — either to sell in her stores, or for any of her three young daughters.
“You’re basically giving the green light to expediting childhood and going full speed on to womanhood,” Ms. Cannova said. “Childhood is over soon enough as it is.”
True enough. Girls need to be GIRLS. But sheesh. I remember my first pair of “high” heeled white sandals. The heels measured perhaps ½ an inch. But they made my calves swell slightly, and more importantly made me feel the exhilaration of teetering on the brink of tween-ness. One day, I too would be sexy like Farah Fawcett or the woman in the Anjoli perfume ad! I never became quite that appealing, but those first dreams of womanhood were sweet.
So too for my first halter-top, a colorful striped number that I wore all summer until its polyester ties unraveled. I don’t remember my first bikini, but in my mind’s eye I will never forget a white crochet number I wore the summer I turned 17. The power of a few inches of clothing!
I am so grateful that my mother didn’t try to take that joy away from me. If she had said I was too young for the white strappy heels, or the hand-me down halter-top, I would have felt put down, embarrassed, and ashamed about my dreams of trading in my childish Treetorns for heels.
Here’s a different view from one of today’s moms, quoted in an online Disney publication (do try to overlook the irony of banning a two piece while pushing Cinderella pining for Prince Charming in her castle):
“So much of a female’s beauty, she thinks, is placed on how she looks,” Shepard [Vernisha Shepard, a psychotherapist and clinical coordinator for the eating disorders clinic at Texas Children's Hospital] says.
“This is the way society has socialized her to think. In today’s society, being the thinnest is equated with the best. Being the best to a 10-year-old girl may mean looking the best in a cheerleading uniform or soccer shorts. In the summer, these girls are not usually participating in athletic events, but the competition is still there. They may not be doing a lot of swimming, but they have to look the best in a swimsuit.”
The logical conclusion: no bikinis for girls. But what’s next? Burkas for preteen girls? A movement to bring back chastity belts? Because we need to shield girls from what exactly?
Here is the big question. What are we protecting our daughters from? Themselves? Awareness of their own future sensuality? The pedophilic eyes of creepy men? Our fears of our daughters’ impending adolescent rebellions?
The truth is we are trying to protect them from a culture that devalues women and girls. Sadly, no amount of rules regarding heels, bikinis, makeup or hairstyles are going to change this reality.
In fact, placing too much emphasis on clothing is a double-edged sword. If your daughter is chaste because she didn’t wear heels until 16, does that mean my daughter is a tramp because she did? It’s a short hop from that clothes-labeling logic to “well, she deserved it because she had on a short skirt.”
Yes, raising daughters with self-esteem is serious business. It always has been –long before Suri Cruise wore heels at age six and eight-year-olds modeled bikinis that belong in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. The delicate work of helping a girl understand and cherish her femininity, her sexuality, her beautiful body, in a culture where female exploitation is rampant, is no easy trick. It takes patience, candor, and courage.
It’s a cheap way out to think that restricting bikinis, heels, short shorts and tube tops until a certain age will guarantee self-esteem in our daughters. Because what girls growing up really need are people in their lives, most particularly moms, dads and other adults who value women’s brains, our imperfect bodies, and our collective femininity.
None of that precious stuff comes from shoes, clothes, good hair or skillful makeup and the sooner girls come to appreciate the limited power of a good pair of heels or a sexy bikini, the better for all of us.