Sally is five years old and will be heading off to kindergarten in the fall. She climbs trees and looks for worms in the dirt and gets bruises on her shins. She’s an active and perfectly normal little girl. On a recent visit to my parents’ house, Sally showed off a new dress to my mother. This dress, which has a slit up to the knee on one side, has become one of Sally’s favorites. Why? Because she says it makes her look like Elsa from the movie Frozen, of course!
“Grandma, look at my dress!” Sally held her skirt out proudly and sticking her grubby little girl leg out. “Do you like the slit?” she asked. “It’s just like Elsa’s!”
“You have to be careful about showing that much leg,” my mother responded. “You have to think about what men will see. You have to remember your modesty.”
Because apparently choosing clothes for your five-year-old daughter should involve thinking about what men will see when they look at her. Strike that, apparently your five-year-old daughter herself should be thinking about what men will think when they look at her in a given outfit. I’ve written before about growing up in the evangelical modesty culture, but it’s moments like these that remind me just how far that culture can take things.
At five years old, Sally’s concerns revolve around learning to ride a bike without training wheels and remembering something to bring to show and tell each week. At this age, Sally’s clothing choices should focus on what is comfortable, what makes her smile, and what is activity-appropriate, not on what men will think when they look at her.
It may surprise you, but I haven’t said anything to my mother about her comments. This is because I haven’t been able to think about anything I can say that will actually make sense to her. She sees the entire world through the lens of modesty culture. We speak such different languages on this topic that we couldn’t even communicate.
I did take Sally aside and talk to her. I told her that some people care very much about what girls and women wear, but that she shouldn’t let that determine her choices. I’m not sure what I said really got through to her, partly because I think my mother’s comments rolled right off her back. In fact, I don’t think she actually understood the comment. All she knew was that her grandmother wasn’t as enthused about her pseudo-cosplay dress as she was.
Sally and I will have more conversations about this in the future, because eventually it won’t just be my mother judging her clothing choices, it will eventually be her peers as well (middle school, anyone?). I want Sally to understand that what she wears is up to her, and that while others will judge her for her choices, she shouldn’t let them control her choices or stop her from being authentic. What is comfortable, what makes her smile, and what is appropriate for a given activity—these should be her guidelines when choosing clothing.
If it’s the former, I’d contend that the best defense against pedophiles is not covering your children up (I mean really? Is that actually a defense?) but rather raising your children confidence and other tools so that they will recognize harmful situations and know how to get help. A few years ago my mother made a huge deal about not letting my middle-school-aged sister have internet on her iPod because of the chance that she might end up raped and murdered by a sexual predator. It’s like she never even considered that she could simply talk to my sister about online privacy and internet safety.
But if it’s the latter—if my mother was simply referring to the need for women to always consider the effect their clothing will have on the men around them—it may be coming a bit early but it’s not something Sally won’t hear in the future even in mainstream culture. I could remove Sally from contact with my mother, but it’s not like messages undermining girls’ confidence are confined to conservative Christian circles. My best bet, as I see it, is to give Sally a firm foundation and confidence in herself and to teach her how to handle and respond to comments like these, regardless of who they come from.
Honestly, I was less upset by my mother’s comment than I was by my youngest sister making fun of Sally later on because Sally had a two-piece swimsuit. Listening to my youngest sister, only a few years older than my daughter herself, shame Sally for her swimsuit made me realize again how ridiculous it is to claim that bullying is only a public school problem. Yeah, no, homeschooled kids bully too. I put a quick stop to it, but it was hard because the truth is that my sister doesn’t know any better. She knows only what she has been taught and doesn’t have contact with people who believe differently—except for me.