18 December 2006

on modesty and responsibility

Okay, so blogging is obviously the last thing I should be doing right now, but I do need the occasional break from laundry and errands and packing. And I've actually got a real post in mind today! It's something that I've come across repeatedly lately, and something to which I've already admitted being somewhat shallow about, but it's provoked a conflict between my maternal side and my feminist side, which usually manage to co-exist quite nicely, but once in a while I run into a hurdle.

One of the biggest reasons I've always been a little bit sad about having only boys is the clothes. Sure, I have an adorable neice who I can buy clothing for, but I hardly see her, so it's not quite the same. Boys' clothes are all dinosaurs and rocketships and vehicles and sports, which gets pretty old pretty quickly. But girls have skirts and dresses and lots of colors and styles and accessories! (Like I said, shallow. I should probably just get a doll.)

But for a while, I've been noticing a trend in girls' clothing. Styles that used to be marketed only to adult women have started being marketed to teenagers, and now pre-teens and younger. It's always been the case, I think, that little boys' clothes are imitations of men's clothing, and now girls' clothes are starting to imitate women's clothing. The difference, though, is that there's an element of sexuality in women's clothing that doesn't exist in men's clothing, and that sexuality is beginning to trickle down to younger and younger girls. There is something that really makes me uncomfortable about seeing young girls in halter tops and miniskirts and teeny bikinis, about seeing thongs and tiny bras in the girls' department in a clothing store. It's not that I think girls shouldn't be comfortable or wear whatever they want to, but I think that the sexualization and objectification that is imposed on adult women by American culture shouldn't be pushed onto young, pre-sexual girls.

I've been browsing some parenting blogs lately, and recently came across the Moms for Modesty statement. I agree with a lot of what they say: encouraging modesty and refraining from sexualizing girls, teaching girls to value inner beauty, supporting retailers who sell age-appropriate clothing. But one part of their statement really caught my attention: "I believe that it is unwise and unfair to taunt boys and young men by permitting my daughter(s) to dress in an immodest manner. "

As a mother of boys, I have a real problem with this statement. Sure, I believe in keeping girls' clothing girlish, but not because I believe that girls have any kind of duty to protect boys from being "taunted". Something I firmly believe, and which I've already begun to teach James, is that you cannot control or change the behavior of anyone else; all that you can do is control your own reactions to the behavior of others. I believe it's unwise and unfair to assume that all boys will react the same way to seeing a girl dressed "immodestly", and I also think it's unwise and unfair to expect girls to have to predict and prevent the emotional and hormonal reactions of boys. I think it would be far more effective to encourage boys to control themselves no matter what a girl is wearing.

This attitude is something I've seen before, primarily from right-wingers and particularly from religious types. It's this idea that men and boys are somehow unable to control themselves in the face of hormones, and so it's the job of women and girls to lead them not into temptation. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a former neighbor of mine, which makes me cringe every time I recall it.

We were talking about this very issue: modest clothing for girls, and particularly teenage girls. She was in favor of modest clothing, not, apparently because of any benefit it might have for the girls involved, or even because of her religious views. No, her husband had told her that men are so visually stimulated, much moreso than women, that to see a young girl in a midriff-baring top drew his attention not only to the exposed skin, but to the suggestion of skin covered as well. In my neighbor's words, seeing a teenage girl in revealing clothing at the mall turned her husband's thoughts to that young girl's vagina. She believed that girls should dress modestly to prevent the visual temptation of men.

I was pretty appalled, and practically ran home to ask Greg whether that was really a universal male quality, as my neighbor's husband claimed, and Greg was as weirded out as I was. Either Greg is a very convincing liar, or my neighbor had managed to convince his wife that his disturbing reactions were not only not disturbing, but normal and typical. And perhaps he really does believe that all men are like him. But my experience tells me that this is not true.

So as a mother, as someone who thinks children are exposed too soon to the ugly things in this world, I would like to see young girls dressing more girlishly. The rampant sexuality of American pop culture is creeping into younger and younger minds, and I'm really uncomfortable with that. Women are objectified at young enough ages already; we don't need to lower the bar. But as a feminist mother of boys, I believe that women and girls are deserving of respect no matter what they're wearing. To focus on and disparage the clothing choices of a person is to show disrespect for that person. I want my sons to be able to look at a girl in low-rider jeans with exposed thong and see her not as a walking vagina, but as a person. Above all I want my sons to understand that they are responsible for their actions. If a scantily-clad girl turns their heads and inspires lustful thoughts, she is not responsible for the emotions her appearance has invoked in them. My sons are the only people responsible for the thoughts that run through their heads, and how they express those thoughts.

To expect a girl to alter her appearance in anticipation of the reactions of boys is like expecting a restaurant to eliminate desserts from its menu for fear of exciting the gluttons. It's an unfair burden to place on girls, and it excuses boys from taking responsibility for themselves. If I were a man, I think I'd be a little insulted at the implication that I am unable to control myself in the face of temptation. So let's give men and boys some credit here -- human beings, regardless of gender, are capable of controlling themselves. The idea that they're not is harmful to both girls and boys.


kim said...

Excellent post. It's a pretty small step from encouraging girls' modesty so they won't titillate the boys to making women cover their heads or wear burkas so that they won't inflame men's passions. The same rationale of men being unable to control themselves lies behind both. I wrote about something along these lines awhile ago when I wrote about how "purity balls" for fathers and daughters encourage girls and women to bear the sole burden of being the sexual gatekeepers, rather than expecting boys and men to take responsibility for themselves.

I saw a book at Barnes and Noble today called Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes that I have to pick up sometime - it discusses how little girls' clothing is sexualized and lots of other interesting issues I need to prepare myself for.

Karen said...

amen. I agree that the clothing out there in the girl...GIRLS...section of clothing stores is uncomfortably inappropriate, and I have been privy to some astounding conversations being held by middle-school students. BUT, I also agree that our actions are our responsibility, and, unfortunately, that value seems to be gradually disappearing in favor of pawning the responsibility off on someone else.

see you soon!

Anonymous said...

I was looking for an online shopping website with reasonable prices for Magil clothing and I found Little Loungers. They have adorable cozy nightgowns matching sister brother and all your children can have the same designer clothing, this is really awesome.

Anonymous said...

happy new yeaaaar! i hope the celebration was calm and lovely :) and thanks for the email you sent the other week, it was great to hear from you. things have been busy here, mostly because i'm translating a website for this company, but i'll try and write back soon. till then... have a wonderful beginning of 2007, and the rest of it as well! :)
big hugs,

p.s. i love this entry