My childhood photos feature a perfectly posed child in a frilly dress, a bow in my carefully coiffed blonde hair. I still cringe when I think about the one with me in coiled spring curls, holding a parasol alongside my brother. The worst one, though, is the Halloween photo ca. 1990. In the photo, I'm face-down on the floor with my ruffled butt in the air, sobbing because I hated the gorgeous costume my mother had sewn by hand. I wanted to be a Ninja Turtle. She wanted me to be Little Miss Muffett.
From a very young age, I was taught that little girls don’t look their best unless they’re wearing dresses, even though I hated the feeling of that extra fabric on my skin. When I had my daughters, I vowed never to let their hemlines define their femininity. As soon as they could verbalize their opinions on their wardrobe, they would choose what they wanted to wear. That's why I'll never make them dress up without their consent.
When my oldest was born, her closet literally glowed pink. She was the first grandchild on either side of our family, so there was no shortage of ruffles and bows in her closet. I’d dress her up in the frilly dresses her grandmothers gave her when they came to visit, but for the most part she wore unbuttoned onesies or just a diaper with a t-shirt. She was happiest when she was frill-free.
As they got older, my girls’ personalities started to emerge. The oldest loved to play with makeup, and I let her go to town on my makeup bag. But she refuses to wear anything but flip-flops, and her clothes rarely match. The girl comes home covered in ketchup and dirt every day, and I kiss her sandy head and tell her she's beautiful without hesitation.
Raising strong girls is about so much more than what they wear.
On the other hand, my youngest is a diva in the traditional sense. She loves pink and sparkles and dresses galore. And I’m totally happy for her. I know that she chooses the fanciest fashions because she likes them, not because she sees them as obligatory because of her gender.
Last year, my oldest won an award for a film she made about a time-traveling scientist. She went all the way to the national level, and in the days leading up to the big ceremony, my mom asked my daughter what she’d be wearing. She insisted that we go out and buy a new dress because Sunny had to “look her best."
But Sunny didn’t want a new dress. She hated wearing dresses, because they impeded her active lifestyle. In kindergarten, she was scolded for hanging upside down on the monkey bars and “showing the boys her panties," so she decided she didn’t like dresses anymore and switched to shorts and leggings. But my mom told her that she had to wear a dress for the ceremony, to which Sunny replied: “Why?”
Where is the rule that says a dress is the only option for a well-dressed young woman? I know quite a few women who have gotten pretty far in life with a pantsuit game on fleek.
It was actually a damn good question. Why should she have to wear a dress? Where is the rule that says a dress is the only option for a well-dressed young woman? I know quite a few women who have gotten pretty far in life with a pantsuit game on fleek. So I didn’t have a good answer for her, and neither did my mom.
I told my girl that she had to wear something nice for the ceremony. I explained that it was a great honor to win the award, and that we celebrate special occasions with special attire to show our respect and gratitude. But I conceded that a dress was not the only option for her. So I let her pick an outfit that she felt was appropriate and respectful. She chose an outfit that made her feel beautiful and brave. But it wasn’t a dress.
I’m glad Sunny asked me why she had to wear a dress. It was one of those pivotal parenting moments where you step back and question your own perceptions. My decision to let her choose her own outfit was about more than the dress. It was about teaching my child to be confident in herself, and to respectfully question the way the world works. Because raising strong girls is about so much more than what they wear.