I have what seems like a small problem, but I think it could have quite big implications and I can’t work out what to do.
My daughter has just turned nine. She has never liked wearing pyjamas or thick clothes and hates any fabric flapping about her legs. At school, she won’t wear dresses or skirts because she wants to be able to do cartwheels and so on without people seeing her knickers, but she doesn’t want to wear trousers or baggy knee-length shorts because she finds them uncomfortable. So she has always worn short shorts with tights in the winter and long socks in the warmer months.
This year, as usual, she has switched to socks and suddenly mums, dads and a couple of friends have made comments about her “hot pants” (they are short shorts, but completely decent). “Does she really wear them to school?” and “Gosh, bit early to be getting your legs out” are just two of the comments addressed to her and me.
Clearly, people see the shorts as age-inappropriate. While a bit of me thinks she should wear whatever she’s comfortable with within school rules (which they are), I think it is disingenuous not to acknowledge that if other parents have noticed and commented, then it won’t go unnoticed in parks and in public generally, where I don’t want her to get unwanted attention so young – I want to protect her from that.
But she is only just nine, and isn’t it healthier for girls not to have to change the way they dress just in case someone pervs over them? And isn’t it wrong that a girl’s clothes should be so decoded at such a young age, with all the implications that has for the subliminal messages later on that, if a woman dresses immodestly, they are asking for something?
I suggested that, as we needed new shorts, we get (very slightly longer) culottes, but she said, “No Mummy, I love my shorts, I like my legs bare and I can run around.” So, now I’m just confused and simply don’t know what to say, if anything.
As your daughter is happy with the way things are, and she is wearing things that are within school rules, then leave things as they are. As child psychotherapist Tess Bailey-Sayer (childpsychotherapy.org.uk) explained to me, it is important to let children be children and protect that feeling of freedom and lack of self-consciousness they have for as long as possible, “because, then, it enables them to develop their personality and sense of identity based on who they really are” – rather than on what someone else thinks of them.
This unselfconsciousness disappears all too quickly, and children start to care about what they wear and what people will think. While this is sad, most of us do it to fit in socially.
If anyone says anything about your daughter’s shorts, their comment is really a reflection of themselves and their fears rather than about you or your daughter. Smile and say, “She’s fine in her shorts; how is X [their child] getting on?” Or some such question that brings the attention back to them. Basically, acknowledge what they have said, but then ask something about them. Most people will start talking about themselves and the subject will be forgotten.
If your daughter starts to feel uncomfortable about these comments, or mentions them, Bailey-Sayer recommends that you say something like, “What do you think? Are you comfortable in your shorts?” If she is, then just reassure her that they are OK, but if she decides they are too “short”, then bring up going shopping for something she is more comfortable in. I think comfortable is a really good word to use, because being comfortable in your clothes takes you back, as close as you can ever get, to that blissful state of unselfconsciousness.
As for your wider, long-term worry about how she dresses and the attention she receives, you are right that it is not a healthy message to say that girls should dress differently so as not to “ask for something”. Predators and paedophiles don’t make a sartorial choice, they look for vulnerability.
Confidence stops us being vulnerable (although nothing is a guarantee of safety, of course), and confidence comes from knowing who you are and being allowed to be that person, from being allowed to make choices and being listened to, from knowing it is your body and you can make decisions about it. So I think you have really good instincts and your daughter is lucky to have you. I hope she enjoys her short shorts for a long time yet.
This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 29 May 2015.