A friend recently shared with me and several of her other friends a message that she received from her child’s gymnastics coach. The coach had requested that parents bring sweats or some other type of cover for the girls to wear between their competitions for the girls’ “safety.” My friend was uncomfortable with the implication of the message and wasn’t sure how, or if, to address her concerns with the coach. The underlying message from this well-meaning coach is that we, as females, need to cover our bodies so as not to incite inappropriate sexual thoughts or feelings in men, or to make ourselves victims of perpetrators. This belief system serves as one of the foundations of rape culture and I fight against it on a regular basis as a trauma therapist, a feminist, a woman, a mother, a human. My friend sharing the message from the coach inspired a fantastic discussion amongst her friends about how to protect our children from predators without reinforcing rape culture.
As the parent of a girl-child I’ve struggled with this issue countless times over the years. I balance teaching my daughter that others, and teen-aged boys in particular, may ogle her when she wears short-shorts or leggings (or even a tent) while simultaneously putting the responsibility for the thoughts and behavior of others squarely where it belongs: with them. Our culture provides extraordinarily confusing messages to our youth, especially the girls.
Sexy is good/Sexy is bad
Show off your body/Don’t show off your body.
Show some skin/If you show too much skin you’re a slut.
Use your sexuality/How dare you use your sexuality?
Your body is to be looked at/If someone gets the wrong idea, it’s your fault.
Boobs, boobs, boobs!/Please don’t breastfeed in public, it’s gross.
Sometime in the 300 years between when I graduated from high school and when I became a parent, leggings became pants. It was around that same time that yoga pants went from something you wear in a room with other middle-aged women fighting to achieve downward-facing dog, to appropriate attire for an evening out on the town. When my then ‘tween started wearing leggings as pants my inner Puritan raised her wimpled head and frowned. I know creepy guys look at shapely gals in leggings and see a piece of meat; my daughter is most certainly NOT on their menu. My initial reaction? Tell her she can’t wear leggings as pants. I went my entire life without wearing leggings as pants and she can, too. And while I was at it I considered getting her fitted for a nun’s habit and a chastity belt. Thankfully for her, the ‘tween’s middle school experience was saved by my friend Mocha. While I vented about the perils of raising a daughter Mocha calmly asked what message I wanted to send my girl-child about her body and the responsibility of boys and men for their own actions. Hmmm…. I canceled the appointment with Chastity-Belts-R-Us and engaged some critical thinking skills. As one of the women in the discussion I mentioned above aptly said, “I don’t want to teach my daughter to see her body as a liability.” Yes, this.
We have no easy answers in a society that simultaneously glorifies and shames sex and sexuality. Each parent must find his or her own way in how they address these issues with their children. Sometimes we may change our minds, and we’ll probably send our kids mixed messages from time to time, just as our culture does. However, we do our girl children a disservice by teaching them that they are responsible for the behavior of others. We do our boy children a disservice by teaching them they can’t control and/or aren’t responsible for their behavior. And leggings as pants. Whooda thunk?