Discover the do’s and don’ts on how to effectively manage changes in your teenagers wardrobe while maintaining an open and positive relationship with your daughter.
In her younger years, your daughter might have been desperate to wear pretty dresses, pink headbands and glittery T-shirts, but fast forward a few years and my how things have changed. The sparkles and glitter are gone, and in their place are cringeworthy low-cut jeans, short shorts, and midriff-baring crop tops. Your daughter’s experimentation with fashion — if you can call it that — will make your head spin: there’s the attention you’re worried she’ll attract from boys, your concern for her reputation and (if you’re really honest) fear that you’ll be judged negatively by other parents for the way your daughter dresses. But while these concerns are front and centre in your mind, they’re not even on your daughter’s radar. Your daughter wants to be accepted by her peers; she wants to fit in, get noticed and be popular. She’s seen her friends amass hundreds of likes for their near-nude selfies on Instagram and it’s sparked her interest in short shorts and low-cut tops. Thanks to her gross over-exposure to advertisements featuring scantily-dressed teens in provocative poses, she’s desensitized to the suggestiveness of revealing outfits and completely unaware of the inappropriateness of her wardrobe choices. When you tell her that her shorts are too short, she rolls her eyes and tells you you’re over-reacting, because her shorts aren’t any shorter than what her friends wear, and they’re definitely no more revealing than the shorts she sees on models in shop windows. Your daughter won’t see her wardrobe as problematic, but if her outfits show more skin than they hide, it’s an issue. Getting noticed might initially make her feel good, but when she seeks and receives attention for her appearance, it reinforces the toxic ‘sexy is the new pretty and appearance is everything’ message she receives from the media, and this increases her risk for low self-esteem and body image issues. A provocative wardrobe will also make her a target for lewd comments from boys and bitchy remarks from other girls. The negative effects of this will initially be offset by the burst of confidence she feels when she’s in the spotlight, but ongoing scrutiny will make her question her worth and fracture her self-confidence.
The important bits to remember (quick read!)
+ Thanks to her over-exposure to sexually suggestive images in the media, in your daughter’s teenage years, short shorts and midriff-baring crop tops will likely be ‘essentials’ in her wardrobe.
+ Speaking to your daughter about her wardrobe is a delicate conversation, so choose your words wisely.
+ DON’T use negative language, such as words like ‘slutty’ and ‘cheap’, to shame your daughter into wardrobe changes.
+ DON’T go overboard with wardrobe dos and don’ts.
+ DO help your daughter to understand that, like it or not, people will judge her based on what she wears.
+ DO help her to see that boys who only notice her when she’s in a short skirt aren’t worth her time.
+ DO encourage her to make wardrobe choices based on comfort.
+ DON’T try to make your teen dress like you. Give her the freedom to develop her own personal style.
What not to do if you want to be effective
Your daughter’s wardrobe is a delicate topic of conversation with a number of potential minefields. Her choice of outfit may give the illusion of body confidence, but her body confidence is fragile at this age and she’s highly sensitive to comments about her appearance. Other people’s opinions, including yours (despite her attempts to make you think otherwise) strongly influence how she feels about herself, so how you phrase your objections is important. Outfits that leave little to the imagination might make you cringe, but it’s not helpful to draw her attention to the inappropriateness of her outfit by telling her she looks cheap. The words ‘you look like a prostitute’ definitely shouldn’t leave your mouth. Your intention may be to help your daughter understand the impact of her wardrobe, but your words will leave her feeling angry, humiliated and unsure of herself. Think of it this way: if a sales assistant told you the outfit you’d tried on looked ‘a little young’ for you, would you be grateful for their honest feedback or embarrassed and self-conscious? Shaming your daughter might be effective insofar as it motivates her to change her outfit, but it can also have a damaging effect on her self-esteem and body image. As a general rule, avoid any ‘slut’ based references when talking to your daughter about her wardrobe. A lot of parenting books will advise you to solve your wardrobe wars by telling your daughter what she can and can’t wear. If you have a teenage daughter who diligently listens to your advice and does what you say without question, this approach will probably work. This teen is a rare gem — if you have one, cherish her. If you have a daughter who’s fiercely independent and resistant to listening to anything you have to say, this approach won’t work. Your teen will see your wardrobe regulations as an attack on her independence, and she’ll sidestep your rules by sneaking in a wardrobe change after she’s left the house. Attempting to control your teen’s wardrobe with rules alone won’t work, but that doesn’t mean you’re powerless. You can regain authority with a different approach.
Talk to your teen about the power of her wardrobe … effectively
There’s no one ‘right’ way to talk to your daughter about her wardrobe. Your goal is to help her understand the consequences of her wardrobe without shaming her in the process, and there are a few different ways you can achieve this. That said, there are certain things you need to not say if you want her to listen and take your guidance on board. ‘Other people will think badly of you if you dress like that’ is one of them. True as it may be, phrasing your argument this way will make your daughter think you’re telling her to dress differently because you’re worried about what other people think. She’ll take issue with this and passionately argue for her right to express herself and the injustice of slut shaming, and you’ll wonder how the hell a conversation about her wardrobe spun into a debate about women’s rights. If you want her to understand the power of her wardrobe in shaping other people’s opinions of her, you’ll need to pitch your argument differently. Tell her that you want to have a chat about her wardrobe and if she starts to get defensive, reassure her that you’re not criticizing her, you just want to speak to her about the consequences of her wardrobe choices. At some point, she’ll argue that other people should judge her for who she is and not what she wears, and when she does, use this as an opportunity to side with her. Tell her you agree, people should ignore her wardrobe and judge her only on her character, but humans are flawed and nudity is distracting. When a streaker runs across a sports stadium, people can’t help but look — no one keeps watching the game. When a woman sunbathes topless at the beach, people stare. When women wear revealing outfits, it’s hard not to notice. The reality is, certain outfits are distracting. Make it clear that you’re not talking about spaghetti straps on singlet tops or mid-thigh length shorts and skirts, or she’ll think you’re over-reacting. Give her specific examples so she knows exactly what you mean: shorts that aren’t long enough to fully cover her butt cheeks, skirts so tight you can see the outline of her underwear, and see-through tops paired with brightly coloured push-up bras that amplify her cleavage. And make sure you stick to neutral descriptions like this and not general judgmental descriptions like ‘slutty clothes’. If you’re too disparaging, she’ll tune out and refuse to listen to what you have to say just to spite you. Your teen needs your help to understand that, like it or not, there are unwritten rules that dictate what teenage girls can and can’t wear if they want to be judged on more than their appearance. She needs to realize that when she wears clothes that barely cover her body, it’s hard for the people around her — male or female — to see past her naked skin, and therein lies the problem. When people are distracted by her near-nudity, they miss the opportunity to see what’s really important: who she is and what she stands for. Help your teen to see that if she really wants to stand up for women’s rights and be respected for more than her appearance, she needs to change her wardrobe. Dressing slightly more modestly will help other people to see her for who she is — funny, kind, intelligent, passionate, strong — and this is how she can teach people to be less focused on appearance.
Her wardrobe as a screening tool
‘Wearing that sends a certain message to boys; you’ll give them the wrong idea’ is another argument to avoid. She’ll instantly see it for what it is — you trying to subtly tell her she looks like a slut — and this will likely trigger an explosive argument. Avoid this issue by reframing your argument. Tell her instead that if used correctly, her wardrobe can be a powerful screening tool for weeding out crappy boyfriends and jerks who aren’t worth her time. Your daughter will deny dressing to impress boys until she’s blue in the face, so sidestep this argument and tell her that whether she dresses to get noticed by boys on purpose or not, revealing outfits will draw attention from players — the boys who pretend to be interested in starting a relationship when they’re really only interested in sex — and these guys aren’t worth her time. They boys who notice her when she’s in her girl-next-door clothes — they’re boyfriend material. These guys will appreciate her for who she is, not just what she looks like. They may not be the most popular guys or the guys with the greatest stage presence, but they’re definitely the guys most worthy of her attention.
Having a male perspective can help your daughter better understand the intricacies of the relationship between her wardrobe and male attention, so dads, get involved. Share your wisdom and teach your daughter about the workings of the male brain. Your words will carry quite a bit of weight on boy-related issues, so make sure your daughter knows that while you want her to wear whatever she feels most confident in, you think she’s too amazing to have her skin be the only thing other people notice about her. She’ll need to hear this from you more than once, but what you say will matter. Make conversations about your daughter’s worth a regular part of your dialogue.
Dressing for comfort
Encouraging your teen to dress for comfort is another option if you need to address her wardrobe. Instead of drawing her attention to other people’s perceptions of her, encourage her to think about which clothes she feels most comfortable in. Ask her whether a miniskirt will help her to feel relaxed and confident or self-conscious and insecure if it means she can’t sit down without showing her underwear. Encourage her to think about whether her strapless top will allow her to switch off and enjoy the party or if it’ll be an ongoing distraction if she has to constantly check it hasn’t slipped. Be prepared for your teen to seem indifferent and uninterested in your advice and resist the urge to keep talking to reinforce your point. If you’re too emphatic in your approach your teen will tune out and your words will fall on deaf ears. Say your piece and then leave it. Trust that your teen will think more about what you’ve said in her own time.
Don’t expect your teen to dress like you
Your daughter needs your help to make wardrobe choices that don’t make her vulnerable to feedback that will negatively affect her self-esteem and body image, but she also needs freedom to develop her own personal style. If her shorts are too short and her tops too tight, you might need to step in and set firmer boundaries, but make sure the boundaries you set are motivated by a genuine need and not just your preference for her to dress in ways you like. You might not like jeans with rips in them or tops with the backs cut out, but if she does, and if her outfits are overall pretty tame, give her the freedom to express herself and develop her own sense of fashion.
What if my daughter’s wardrobe continues to cause conflict?
If your daughter’s outfits are deliberately promiscuous and she doesn’t respond to your indirect attempts to encourage her to change, you might need to step in and set firmer boundaries. If you usually give her money for clothes, stop. If she buys promiscuous clothes with her own money, take her to return them. If this doesn’t work either, think about why your daughter is so hell-bent on dressing the way she does. Is she deliberately pushing your buttons to punish you for something? Is she feeling suffocated by you and exercising her independence by deliberately dressing to spite you? Uncovering her motivation and addressing any underlying issues will help you to reach a truce.
This is an extract from Skip the Drama by Dr Sarah Hughes B.Psych(Hons), D.Psych(Clinical)/PhD (Exisle 2018)
Dr Sarah Hughes completed her clinical training at the University of Sydney and holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a PhD in child and adolescent anxiety disorders. Sarah is the founder of Think Clinical Psychologists and has 10 years of clinical experience. Her new book, Skip the Drama, is available from www.exislepublishing.com and wherever good books are sold.