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A lesson from 1985: Raising "good" girls the "good" way (Hump Day Hmm for August 20, 2008)

Last week, I wrote about 1984 meeting up with 2008 and noticing it simply looked like a slightly more weatherworn version of itself. I'm put in mind of what my teen self might think of my nearly middle-aged self. Shudder.

Then some people said they hoped that 1984 (or whatever year) could be a topic for writing because what they had to say exceeded a comment. (So I am looking forward to some posts here!)

So here we are, the topic is:
. . . several people asked that the topic be related to my last post, about 1984. It doesn't have to be political, it doesn't have to be 1984 (keeping in mind that not everyone was born or much aware at that point). But choose a time that was an awakening for you, select a year or an event that year, that you invested in, although you might now have been quite old enough to understand it fully, and that affected you down the line. Or write about 1984, the election or your life then.
Obviously I've already written about 1984.

So let me hit another year: 1985.

That was the year I got my first job, which I got in order to earn money for a summer trip to Europe. Along with a young teacher, her friend, and about 10 other teens I enjoyed a whirlwind (emphasis on whirl) tour of Europe in the summer of 1985.

One of the girls who went was Ashley, age eighteen. I've lived a lot of years since 1985 and I still don't think I'm half as sophisticated or wordly as Ashley was back then. Ashley took me under her wing that summer and taught me how to handle come-ons, an invaluable skill that served me well for many years after that. She started her lessons with theory, and then insisted we put it into practice---in bars and clubs (aka discotheques). First practical application? Italy.

I can't tell you what all went down in Italy but suffice it to say Ashley was a true asset.

Not half as big an asset as in Amsterdam, though.

We concluded our tour in Amsterdam, and Ashley, a couple of other girls and I were waiting in the hotel lounge for our bus. It was time to head home and we were ready, but sorry our big adventure was over. We wearily and drearily sipped sodas, heads drooping as badly as our eyes.

Apparently nothing says "come and get me big boy" like exhausted young teen girls drooping over a corner of the bar, because we hadn't been sitting for longer than five minutes before a man---probably in his early 30s but to us anciently old---came up with a come-on line. We simply pretended we didn't speak any language he threw at us and kept showing him our watches, as if he were asking the time. After an annoying level of persistence, he finally gave up and left with a good-natured laugh, as if we'd all been having a fun time, equal participants.

We hadn't, and that experience prompted Ashley to conclude with her "Edification of Julie" course. This final chapter of the learning unit was titled, "Creeps and Losers." She could have called it: Predators.

I think about predators while I raise my girls, and I know what I experienced so I try to figure out how to arm them without spoiling the good.

This topic came up last night between me and my husband. We were out shopping and a girl, maybe 18ish, walked past in a short and tight skirt with a barely-a-shirt, cropped up to here and unbuttoned down to there. She'd hopped out of a Volkswagen beetle decorated with flowers, so had caught my girls' attention.

"Her skirt's ripped," Patience said.

"Ummm, well, that's called a cutoff. It's meant to be that way," I said

"Oh, okay..." Patience said, "But maybe it's time for her to hand it down to her little sister. I think it's too small for her."

Yes, it was too small for her, but I don't think she had any plans to hand it down. Later, this stimulated an intense conversation with my husband, as we discussed how to handle the issue of clothing, perception and sent signals and messages (regardless of intention). In other words, we talked about the link between sex and clothes.

"I'm going to tell them that if they dress like that they're telling men they're open for business," my husband said.

Sure enough, a man had walked past and openly stared, even bothered to look back over his shoulder at the girl dressed so skimpily.

But was that the right approach? I've never used it, and it's not just about my kids' ages. I've never felt comfortable with how this approach implies that controlling sexuality is a burden that rests on the shoulders of the female.

"It's not reasonable to teach our girls that they have to take care to make sure men don't interpret any sexual signal from them. What does that do? I mean, that's crazy. Some men need very little. Just being a woman is enough for some guys. And then what? They dress modestly act appropriately and some guy still hits on them---then they're thinking it's their fault. That's really a terrible message; and it's not at all the angle and approach I want to take here. I want them to think that they can have their own style and be safe, and if for some reason some man can't respect that, then it's his problem. I want them to know they have the right to say no and the right to move on. I pray mothers and fathers of sons are out there teaching their boys the same thing. But a big part of that is language, and that means being thoughtful about how we speak about other people---how they're dressed---in front of and to our kids."

I shared that I'd recently read an article about empowering girls and teaching girls about appropriate dress without denigrating other girls.

One of the most valuable things I learned from Ashley that summer is that I have a choice---she empowered me. One of the other valuable things I learned from her is that some men have issues and while they might try to make (or succeed in making) that your problem, it will never be your issue.

I want to be cautious in creating an opening for my girls to think that anything dysfunctional that they might experience is their fault. I know the odds, and I know the odds are against my hopes that my girls will never experience a jerk, a creep, a loser, a predator, or similar who mistakes power and control for sexuality, or who mistakes his own sexuality and desires for theirs.

Someone out there right now is raising a boy who will grow up not respecting women as people. However, someone out there right now is also raising a boy who will grow up to respect women as people.

I want to teach my girls more about the way they should be treated and respected, so that when someone doesn't fit that, they know it, and move on. I don't want to focus solely on teaching them to watch for monsters in people.

My husband wanted to know what I planned to do.

"Play it by ear, mostly," I said, "Give a good foundation, and deal with any situations as they come. I buy them clothing we find appropriate now, and we skip all the sexualized kiddie clothes. I do my best to keep inappropriate influences out as best I can, and do my best to avoid communicating that things we find inappropriate are cool. I hope that helps, and we'll see."

I agree it's important to arm girls with knowledge and information, but not at their expense or other girls' expenses, also not at the expense of the male.

So...what's your approach to this situation? What do you think?

And make sure to ad in your reminiscing posts in Mr. Linky here.

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Melissa said…
I'm one of the ones working on raising boys that respect women.

But, here's the thing, my older one has already said stuff like, "If a girl dresses like that, then she has no respect for herself." And I'm not sure how to handle that one.

For on the one hand, I tend to agree with him. But on the other, just because she lacks respect for herself, doesn't mean he can take advantage of her. It's a difficult road.

I think we always have to be aware of the messages we unconsciously send out. And be able to accept that at times those messages will be misinterpreted because that's how human beings are.

Still formulating my thoughts on this one. Great thought provoking post!
Mad said…
I will do my best. My husband will do his best. We will try to teach her self-respect and we will certainly endeavour to respect others.

What I fear is the influence of her peer group b/c when it comes to self-image/popularity/fashion/sex signals, the peer group rules and the parental values get lost in the chaos. In fact, parental values are consciously overthrown by teens. That's not to say that our kids don't return to the core values they were raised with but, oh, all that can happen in the interim...
Amie Adams said…
I love your approach. I wish I had been raised with the knowledge that other people's thoughts were their issues--not mine. That's a powerful lesson for your girls.

With my house full of boys, I'm still trying to figure out how to get them to brush their teeth regularly, I'm working on respect for everyone.

This whole parenting thing is hard. I don't know if I'm smart enough to figure it out before they're ready to leave the nest.
Anonymous said…
My folks tried to raise me to think that other people's thoughts are their problem, but I found it so hard to believe. Learning not to blame myself for the way I was treated was a hard lesson for me.
painted maypole said…
i think you've got a great approach. there are, unfortunately, so sure-proof hard and fast rules
Florinda said…
As far as I can tell, I did OK raising one boy to treat women decently. It's still in the early ages with the second boy - he's only in the third grade.

But I have a stepdaughter entering high school this year, and it's a different ballgame. We went back-to-school clothes shopping this past weekend, and the clothes she picked out were nothing like those worn by that girl you saw the other night. She has a pretty strong sense of self for her age, and we just hope to continue fostering that.

I really liked writing up this week's Hump Day Hmm - 1984 was one of my favorite years.
Anonymous said…
Well, I only had a male offspring, but did my best (along with my spouse) to teach him respect - both of others, and of himself. He is an interesting paradox, being somewhat of a moral prude (he isn't fond of either females or males who dress or act too provacatively) while at the same time he watches shows like "Girls Next Door" (as much to gauge our reactions as anything, I think.) However, his actions toward others have always been respectful (and I have heard this from third parties, so I feel fairly certain he isn't just 'behaving' when we are around.)

Julie, you were very lucky to have a friend like that who would mentor you. You were also lucky you all had a sense of direction (we got turned around once, and ended up in the Red Light District in Amsterdam. Not too interesting, when you mother is telling your father to "find us a way out of here, NOW!!!" while trying to cover the eyes of your younger siblings.)

SciFi Dad said…
I dread the day I have to deal with this subject "for real" (yes, I know I am dealing with it every day as I raise my daughter, but permit me the illusion that I'm not really dealing with it, OK? it makes things easier on me).

I think that it's important to teach girls what makes clothing suggestive; it may not be their responsibility that society (or just "creeps and losers") have made that definition, but it is their responsibility to be aware of the ideas or concepts that society has defined. Ultimately (and sometimes unfortunately) it is their decision what they wear; we, as parents, just need to make sure they understand what society extrapolates from their clothing.

When I was in my 20s, I had shoulder length burgundy hair with black mutton chop sideburns larger than 1970s Elvis and a full goatee. I wore a black bandanna, sleeveless shirts that exposed my tattoos, and had numerous piercings, and steel toed Docs. I was once told, by an elderly woman who rode beside me on the train for 5 hours, "You're such a nice boy, why do you dress the way you do?"

The truth was, I dressed like that because I knew what society said about people like that. I also knew that that was a generalization, and that there were people who did not judge someone by the clothing they wore or what they looked like. By dressing the way I did, I filtered out the judgmental people from even talking to me.

Sorry for the long comment, Julie. Somewhere in that mess of verbiage is a message; I'm not sure what it is, but it's there.
Annie said…
I can't write a post about this because I'll get myself tied up in all kinds of knots, and I'm currently extracating myself from other blog induced knots so - can't do that for the second time in a week!

I'm with Sci-Fi Dad - while I'd love to give my daughter the freedom to express herself with her style choices and tell her whatever anyone thinks of it is their problem and not her issue - my desire to protect her from the creeps, losers and predators will FAR outweigh any feelings I may have that it is unfair that females have to be the ones to compromise their own positions. I just want her to be safe and giving her an understanding of how society views people, such as the young lady you and your husband saw get out of the VW bug will be part of that. Call me judgmental - I can live with that.

As for my son, I will do my best to emulate the process that my Mother in Law did in raising her son, my husband. I may not give my MIL credit for much, but I do at least owe her the acknowledgment that she raised a fine son, who respects women, who respects everyone and I am happy to learn from her in that regard.
we_be_toys said…
I don't have little girls, and the topic of dressing appropriately probably isn't going to arise with little boys, but I think you've got the right instincts about this.
Spacemom said…
I don't know what the *right* answer is. I personally think that if a woman wants to dress to show off her body, that is okay, but it does send a message to men. The question is, is the woman okay with the message that she wants to flaunt her body?
And I disagree with your husband. Just because a woman shows her body doesn't mean she wants sex with you. She wants to show her body. Period.

The attitude that exposure=permission is what we, as women have to work on changing.
Anonymous said…
It has less to do with "open for business" and more to do with sending a message that you respect yourself enough to wear clothing that does not make you look like a tramp. Girls can wear attractive clothing without seeming like they only consider themselves to be sexual objects.
flutter said…
I think I like your approach
thailandchani said…
I'm with Emily on this one. Completely.

Robert said…
My goal is to raise both my son and my daughter (and their future sibling) to respect themselves first and foremost, and then respect others. If people make poor choices in their own self-expression through clothing or language, then it's still not okay to impugn their character automatically for it. I've known too many good people who grew up with poor examples of how to dress and act, and often don't realize how their demeanor characterizes them to others. In other words, they don't realize their speech and dress make people look down on them, which is unfortunate because they're often wonderful.

So, as I said, I hope to teach my children to see people for who they really are, their true character, regardless of their outter appearance.
Julie Pippert said…
I think Robert nailed it---some people didn't get the right examples and lessons.

When a girl dresses very "sexy" I hqve no ides where that comes from, but if it is from lack of self-respect I don't see why I should add to that--in fact I can't in good conscience add to that--by giving more feedback that lowers her esteem of herself worse and reinforces whatever lesson she got that told her she is nothing more than, worth nothing beyond, "tramp" or "slut."

I believe I can teach my children good lessons and examples, build proper esteem and help them understand about clothing without denigrating another person.

To me it's achieving my goal without climbing on the back of another person.

It's also opting out of the culturally accepted hatred of sexual or harmed women.
Anonymous said…
Amen, Julie.

I'd also like to add (and this is something I frequently add to these conversations) that some body types seem "provocative" no matter how they are clothed. If you have long legs, skirts will seem shorter on you; if you're busty, shirts will seem tighter. There is a real danger in assuming that a woman's "look" ever reflects a conscious or even unconscious message. You risk interpreting someone's body (over which they have no control) as an invitation. That's no good.
I think that choosing clothing, choosing what sort of diction to use in any situation - slang vs. more formal language - what manners to use, what to share about yourself in any one situation....

all of these things are done within the context of culture. I try to teach my children first the rules, expectations and signals of the predominant mainstream culture. Say please and thank you. Using swear words is looked upon a certain way by most people. If you wear a bathing suit to a wedding, unless that wedding is on the beach, you're going to raise eyebrows. Etc., etc., etc.

Then, like learning how to draw, once you learn the rules and most likely responses - whether fair or not - you can then make the choices to break those rules now having some understanding of what responses you might expect, whether fair or not. I try to help them take baby steps when it comes to strengthening their backbone, and don't allow them to put themselves into situations where they may come away with to much hurt and not enough success in making their stand.

Right now, they don't get all the implications - fair or not - of the short skirt. Some day they will. At that point it's their choice whether to become the warrior or not. Right now, we're still learning tactical parries and defense.
Robert said…
I think that is definitely a good plan, to teach your children self-respect instead of teaching them simply to be better than some example you can compare them to. I've been fairly successful in my own life at not judging people based on outward appearances (and often even not judging them because of how they talk). I see no reason I can't help my children learn those same skills.

I'm not sure I completely agree, Andrea, that "no matter how" is exactly right. They can be clothed in ways that still flatter the figure without showing the form, but I don't think a person necessarily has to feel a need to cover up every inch of flesh simply because that flesh is attractive and might make others get the wrong idea. I agree with your main point, though, that certain features will be more prominently noticeable on one person versus another, and it's not fair of society to denegrate people simply because they are attractive (or not attractive). People might simply like to wear clothes that flatter, and that should not reflect poorly on them.
I have one of each and I am trying to instill basic morals and values in both. I will tell you that I can already tell that my husband is going to be more lax on my son and that really chaps my hide!

I am teaching my fourth grade boys to be proper southern gentlemen and let the ladies go first. Yeah...they LOVE that! :)
jeanie said…
lol - I completely missed Wednesday this week, didn't I?

I actually did write about 1985 in one of my recent posts - but from the perspective of the 16 year old girl I was then who had NO IDEA about any of this stuff.

It is the same thing I am sure that our mothers wanted for us - for us to be respected, for us never to get hurt and for us to wear clothes that wouldn't give anyone the wrong idea.

I hope we do better than the previous generation and I think your approach is sound - but I also hope the adolescents in the mix listen more than we did to our elders too!

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