A mother of an 11-year-old daughter recently noted that her daughter was eager to wear tight-fitting shirts and dresses designed for older girls. The mother said she wanted her girl to choose her own clothes and develop her own sense of style, but was also concerned about what messages the girl might be sending out and what kind of attention she might attract from older boys. How to talk to her about this without scaring her unduly?
It’s a common concern, and I admire the textured and respectful way that this parent approached it. Talking about safety is always difficult, and talking about sexual issues is harder still. An 11-year-old girl may not be aware of the signals that wearing revealing clothing sends to some people— especially if she isn’t yet interested in dating or in being perceived as sexually attractive.
Sometimes girls’ bodies develop ahead of their feelings and their perceptions of themselves, so that they still feel very much like girls even though their bodies say sexual and woman to others. And even when girls are aware of what happens in our culture when females wear revealing clothing, they may be irritated or angry at the limits this puts on their own comfort and ease.
A young friend of mine, bicycling on a hot day, debated whether to take off her outer shirt to cycle only in a tank top. She knew from experience that the tank top would elicit catcalls from boys who caught a glimpse of her as she sped past. She hated having to conduct this internal debate, and I don’t blame her.
But as hard as it is to talk about safety and the possibility of unwanted responses, there’s another possibility that might be the hardest of all, especially for parents: A girl may be quite aware that her clothing has sexual connotations. She may want to dress in a way that makes her sexually attractive to others. If her parents tell her, “Those clothes may make boys respond to you in a certain way,” she may find that an intriguing prospect. She may have been aware of it even before her parents pointed it out. She may want to attract boys.
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