Today’s Feminist Parent: I hate the words coming out of my mouth

My mom raised a feminist. I’m not embarrassed by the word. I don’t need any “pc” new term that “today’s generation” will like and be more comfortable with. When my college students get all itchy scratchy and weird about the word “Feminist” we unpack their feelings and I ask where they heard “feminism” was a bad word. We read the pro and con sides of what different politicos and ladies and men say about women’s rights and feminism. Women are powerful. And yet, every day in the media and on reality TV women and young girls are aching for attention and love, it seems — and they use their bodies to get it. One of my favorite and least favorite pieces of feedback on a student evaluation once was when one student wrote, “Don’t take her class! She’s a feminist.” It made me sad and it made me laugh too.

I grew up in the 80s and wore all kinds of crazy clothes. I punked out my hair, I wore mini skirts and insane make-up. I let my bra straps show unapolitgetically and I argued about how pop culture female icons of the 80s were changing things (insert Madonna, et al.) My mom, ever the supportive mom, said little about my clothes except when I chose outfits for school that showed off my body in a way she felt I was asking for attention for my body and not me.

She sat me down and had a serious discussion with me on many an occasion about representing myself at school. She asked me questions not just about the why and how of an outfit (who was I wearing it for? What was I hoping people would say, think or feel about me in my clothes? What kind of reaction was I going for?) This kind of talk gave me an amateur interest in fashion and empowerment, and I kept that lens through the 90s grunge era when wearing very little was the norm. It was an interesting time to be thinking about how women didn’t have to “dress like men” to be taken seriously, and how women could change the conversation from “what I look like” to “who I am.”

I read about empowering designers like Diana Von Furstenberg whose mantra “be a woman! Wear a dress!” had me thinking deeply about what we wear as women and what it says to the world about us as individuals and as a group. I’m still exploring those ideas when I read magazines and go to events where everyone’s number one question for women is “who are you wearing” but the men seem to get complicated questions about “tell me how you approached this character” and so forth. Yes to Amy Poehler and #askhermore.

So when my niece came to live with me several years ago and I became a defacto parent of an 11 year old who is now 15, I find myself occasionally cringing when I comment on her clothes and share with her the books, articles and ideas my mother shared with me. It’s not that it’s “not okay” to wear certain things. It’s that being conscious and thinking about what we wear is a thing at all. My mom said “Yeah, I know it sucks. We shouldn’t have to worry about it, but we live in a world where. . .” . . . but now I watch my 15-year old niece go out in the world with her beautiful smile and heart and her beautiful body and I have fears. She comes home with stories about the catcalls and the whistles and the cars that pause at the busstop and shout “nice ass” or “smile baby”. I walk down the street with her and I notice when men look her up and down. My fiance and I talk often about the momentary feelings of wanting to punch someone in the face when they look at her like she’s a piece of meat.

How do I share this with her? How do I have conversation with her about the see-through tank tops and the black lacy bra straps and the short skirts and more about what today’s generation wears and why she needs to be a conscious dresser? It makes me wish my mom were here and still alive to guide me in conversation that doesn’t begin with “are you serious? That’s what you’re wearing to school?”

I can see in my niece’s eyes and face the occasional “oh brother” look of “you just don’t understand” or “you’re so out of touch” that I’m sure I occasionally gave my mother when she said such things to me. It’s not my niece’s fault; she should be able to wear whatever she wants and not have to worry about being objectified. I re-share the ridiculous facebook stories about girls getting sent home or put on detention for wearing completely appropriate clothes at school that administrators deem inappropriate. We should, as a nation, be training and educating our young boys to engage with and to interact with women and girls in respectful ways — in ways that say “I see you as a human being.”

Still, as she’s walking out the door each morning, I look her up and down too, and I often hear myself saying things like “No, not today. Go put something else on” and she sighs and thinks I’m a ridiculous old fart. What she doesn’t know is that every moment she’s not with me, I worry. I worry about what people think of her; I worry if she’ll be safe; I worry about whether people will listen to her seriously at school when all they can see is the black, lacy straps and backless shirts and short skirts. But most of all I worry that she will grow up thinking the only way to get noticed is with her body, and not with her remarkable brain.

And I think, mom — my God, how did you do it — raise me without losing your mind. #AskHerMore.

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