*This is part of Ask Unfundamentalist Parenting series where I answer real life parenting dilemmas. You can submit questions to email@example.com*
Tanya asks Unfundamentalist Parenting:
My 13 year old daughter wants to attend her church’s summer youth trip this year. I am not opposed to her exploring her faith journey with her peer group of friends – however this trip is to the beach, and one of the requirements is that all girls are to wear shorts over their one-piece swimsuit. I am vehemently opposed to this expectation and have expressed this to my daughter. Is this something I should challenge with the church leadership? Or let go? My husband says we shouldn’t encourage her to defy the rule which would cause her to stand out. But I do NOT want to just go along with something that I feel perpetuates a system of oppression. She assures me she doesn’t care. But I feel like I am doing her a disservice by letting her comply. Please advise. I am so discouraged.
My first reaction is the same as yours—angry, indignant, and then discouraged. And that is because we know patriarchy is alive and well and it has inevitably encroached upon your daughter in the form of modesty rules, enforced through a religious institution. It’s infuriating and unacceptable for those of us who demand equality for our daughters.
But first, let’s regroup a little bit and consider our strategies for both long term and short term gain. The long game is to fight against entrenched patriarchy, the battle is this specific, immediate situation with your daughter’s church youth group.
If you challenge church leadership by demanding they change the rules so every girl can wear whatever beachwear they are comfortable in, and they comply, it would be a tremendous gain both in the short term and the long term. A win against patriarchy in this battle and a stride towards equality overall.
Realistically speaking however, this may not happen. Because what we know about institutions of power is that it will squash every voice of resistance and will not easily die without decades, even centuries, of costly revolution. So, if you decide to go the route of challenging church leadership–be prepared, both for yourself and your daughter, for the very real possibility of losing this battle.
But this is where the bad news ends and the good news begins. You and your daughter may lose this fight but you have already won in significant ways. The insidious nature of patriarchy is such that it plants lies within the hearts and souls of women and girls so that we actually believe our worth is less than men–that our bodies are objects to be consumed and therefore need to be covered up, and that we can’t discern for ourselves how to dress.
And you, fierce mama, have already exposed that lie and refused to acquiesce. Before your daughter has had a chance to internalize those subtle but toxic ideas, you’ve helped her see the deceit for what it is.
One important thing to remember in our fight against patriarchy is that we cannot resist alone. Together, we’ll go much farther, as an African proverb wisely reminds us. And unfundamentalist parenting is about empowering our children and partnering alongside them to live justly in our world.
Therefore, it is vital to shift our attention to the role your thirteen year old daughter plays in this story. The long term goal is to ultimately empower and partner with her to resist patriarchy, but the first step to raising a feminist is to give her autonomy to make choices that impact her own life.
You say, “I am vehemently opposed…and have expressed this to my daughter… She assures me she doesn’t care.” I assume this means she is willing to wear the shorts over her swimsuit and still attend the beach trip to have a good time with her friends. She has made her decision according to her desires.
I am concerned if you go against your daughter’s wishes and confront church leadership, that you may be sacrificing the long term gain of boosting your daughter’s autonomy. Not to mention the blow to her spirit should the results of the confrontation not turn out in your favor.
This is not to say if she decides she is ready to confront leadership, that you don’t throw yourself 100% in support of her decision to do so, even if the possibility of setback is real. But the key difference in this scenario is that it would be initiated by your daughter. Her life. Her choices. Her resistance.
You see, even if this church changes their mind, there will be other churches that continue this oppression of young women and girls. And if not other churches, other organizations, institutions, and systems of patriarchal power. We can expend all our energies whacking moles and winning small battles, but better to invest in the surefire strategy of smashing patriarchy: letting our girls thrive in all of their God-given beauty and resilience.
If your girl knows how much she is valued, from the deepest parts of her soul to every inch of her body, it won’t matter what oppressive institutions try to cover up, her light will still shine.
If she cultivates her character of strength, courage, vulnerability, and kindness; no force on this earth can keep that suppressed, she will still rise.
If she listens to her own heart and holds tightly to the truth against the lies of hate, no one will be able to silence her, she will still speak.
Just as you have learned to do so. You’ve spoken your truth over her. You are her number one line of defense against the ridiculous, sexist modesty standards.
Regardless of your decision, I end this piece feeling hopeful knowing you exist and are raising your daughter so fiercely and thoughtfully.
Cindy Brandt for Unfundamentalist Parenting
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