A few weeks ago I overheard my husband bark at my daughter, “Just choose an outfit. It shouldn’t take this long!” My sweet tween flower was having a fashion crisis because finding the right outfit to feel safe and comfortable in at school was challenging her. Knowing that this situation was so much more complicated than creating a look, I sent him to feed the dog and took over.
It doesn’t take much to trigger the agonized feelings associated with being a tween girl. Unless you were one of those few floating goddesses, there is likely a bit of flinching involved when reflecting on your adolescence. I am sure that the road to manhood is equally bumpy but I have no point of reference.
I would argue that the years from ages 11 to 18 have the capacity to produce a gal’s most scarring memories and photos. We are so aware of our bodies and so is everyone else. Girls and boys are studying each other often with an undeveloped sensitivity chip. It is a time of crazy growth, and often in a physically unbalanced way.
A trip to the mall can easily become disheartening when children’s clothes don’t fit properly anymore and the women’s section is ill-suited to an adolescent body. Danger lurks in the hallways at school as one clothing malfunction could lead to major social upheaval. Being noticed for wearing a bra or not wearing one is equally devastating. One period-related mishap could make the sight of white shorts traumatizing for life. Modesty, identity, awkwardness and emerging sexuality collide and no two shapes are the same. Hormones raise tiny perceived physical imperfections to levels of epic travesty. Skin, hair, and underarms join the rebellion until muffled defeat is declared from under a duvet.
I have always adored the armor of my clothes and most moments in my 42 year history are mentally catalogued according to outfit.
Roller-skating was a breeze in red and white Dolphin shorts. George Michael and I can attest to their silky comfort. Speaking in church for the first time was made easier by a hot pink turtleneck, black pencil skirt, and matching patent polka dot shoes. Most of our grade eight family trip to Washington was spent looking down with love at my Converse high tops. And although I did once have to write a letter to my father, pleading my case for Guess Jeans, I don’t think my passion for fashion was driven by materialism.
I know I am not alone in this. Reflecting, I asked my cousin whether her Fame jeans, of middle school years, were white or red. She replied without missing a beat, “Both! I had white capris and red jeans.” This feat of recall is not small from a woman who claims she forgot to take her second son to the start of kindergarten.
Clothing continued to play an essential role in high school. Centennial C.V.I. was terrifying to me and divided, Breakfast Club style, into uniformed social groups. Wearing too much of another group’s look meant crossing lines into places where you weren’t wanted.
Part of what got me through those years was sharing clothes with my high school best friend. She was braver than I was and wearing her clothes made me feel protected. A silent message that said she belonged to me and I to her. This practice also resulted in me being stuck in her tapered army pants for a full, panicked forty minutes. We took turns wearing a white Roots sweatshirt until it became a stained and ripped map of memories. When she died seven years ago, her mother sent it to me because she knew its value. And while the ratty sweatshirt brings me comfort, I had to give away every single piece of the new outfit I bought for her funeral.
There is no doubt that life experiences have equipped me with enormous empathy for my daughter but I do often wonder if my perceptions of girl world are outdated.
I decided to seek the professional opinion of Rachel Simmons, co-founder of Girls Leadership and bestselling author of Curse of the Good Girl and Odd Girl Out. Having read and loved both books, I knew her to be an expert on young women today.
When asked if clothing still matters to girls, Simmons replied, “Yes. If you walk around any middle school everyone is dressed very uniformly. There is no denying that clothes are part of a girl’s identity.” However, is seems this reality is not necessarily a bad thing. “Clothing can be a nice tool to have at your disposal. What you wear can make you feel good about yourself and more comfortable when your brain is freaking out.”
Sadly, some things have changed. When I was a teen girl, our behavior wasn’t always demure but fashions were extremely modest. We partied in wool ski sweaters and oversized Levis. During our chat, Simmons and I shared memories of our respective beloved and oversized Benetton rugby shirts. My friend Jackie still swears that she felt her most vexing in high school wearing her new khakis, turtleneck and Cotton Ginny sweater.
Despite the rising embrace of girl power, Simmons shares that clothing for girls has actually become increasingly sexualized and revealing with fewer style choices available. It has also has become more acceptable for girls to dress sexually at a younger age. One has only to go shopping for a Halloween costume to illustrate this point.
Although I am hopeful that the return of grey work socks, baggy track pants and messy buns bodes well for the future, I feel it is important to plan for storms. Therefore I added to my research and compiled a list of tips to help all of us get our girls dressed and out the door feeling strong and brave.
That being said, Simmons also believes that is it okay teach girls that they still live in a world where women are judged by their looks and are not yet treated equally. “Instead of saying, ‘You can’t wear that!’ try ‘I am concerned that your clothing is sending a message.’ Instead of criticizing, try to give her a larger consciousness about the world in which she is getting dressed.”