How to talk to your daughter about booty shorts

You want to set limits but also defend your young woman’s choice to wear WTF she wants, without shame. Here’s one way of getting there.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Lately I’ve seen a bunch of articles or memes that push the idea that women over 40 should wear whatever they want, that short women should wear whatever they want, that women at the beach should wear whatever they want.

I like the message. It’s a critical reminder that our joy and beauty comes from the inside and that our clothes can express this, no matter our age or our size. These messages intend to tear down limitations set by the fashion industry, celebrity culture and intense body consciousness. And if a grown woman decides to flaunt her body—booty included—then I say: get it girl.

But what about our young daughters and their young booties? How do we keep their inner voices strong and self-loving, free from shame, self-loathing or a subconscious desire to meet someone else’s sexual standards? The first place to start: Watch your language. Try your best not to criticize your own or someone else’s weight, size or shape. Our bodies are part of our power and delighting in them, feeding them, is life affirming. Teaching our kids to not just tolerate their bodies, but to like them, is good. But that doesn’t mean you can’t encourage modesty if it’s a value you hold dear. So how do you help your daughter feel empowered and mindful of what she’s putting out there? In short: what do you do when your tween daughter wants to shimmy into a pair of booty shorts?

First, some context: many women of all ages wear tight yoga pants or leggings. But it wasn’t that long ago that leggings were considered more under-wear—under a skirt or dress, for instance—than outerwear. Today though, leggings paired with crop top is the norm. Where you set limits for yourself or your children is very much up to you. But understand that “because I say so” doesn’t help your kid grow into an independent decision maker. Be clear on your limit and be prepared with a reasonable answer when your child inevitably asks: But why not?

What qualifies as booty shorts? I had to look it up. Urban Dictionary seemed the perfect place to get hip to the booty.

“Booty Shorts: sexy shorts that make girls look sexy, feel sexy, and be sexy!”

As a sex educator, I am a huge fan of giving young people information and helping them formulate their values and discover their identities when it comes to sex and sexuality. Living in the hyper-sexualized culture that we do means our kids are exposed to sexy language, images and ideals starting at a very young age. At times, it makes me want to uproot my family for a less sex-focused life in a dark cave. But since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, the questions to ask go like this: What am I going to do with the explicit and implied sexual messages that my kids receive? And, how am I going to counter those messages when they rub up against (pun intended) ideas of bodily autonomy and choice?

For me, a tween in booty shorts does not neatly correlate to an empowered and sexually liberated woman. In fact, it’s possible that it may contribute to the opposite without a young woman even realizing it. As a parent, it’s your job to help your kid make sense of this contradiction.

Fashion, celebrity and pop culture are everywhere and kids see all of it. That’s not new though—while I knew I was no Bo Derek, I was informed by the standards she set for beauty and sexiness. But even if your kid isn’t super into fashion, maybe motivated purely by the comfort and sportiness of short shorts, you can be curious with her and help her formulate ideas and values about the things she sees in the world. You can ask things like: “Do you think they look comfortable wearing that? Does how we dress affect what people think about us? What makes something fashionable? How should clothes make us feel? What kinds of bodies are in magazines/advertisements? Who’s left out? What impact might that have?”

If you’ve decided your kid shouldn’t wear short shorts, it’s not a bad idea to reinforce the grown-up nature of the item of clothing. You can explain that just like having babies, staying out late, living by yourself or driving a car, some things are best reserved for adults. Where sexual content is concerned, including sexy clothing, kids can begin to understand that it’s something that ought to belong to grow-ups even if there are messages out there that point to the contrary.

At any age, but especially as they enter into the tween years, we want to help our kids be discerning people. We don’t want them to feel shame about their bodies nor do we want them to automatically absorb societal norms without a critical eye. We don’t want our girls to feel responsible for what we feel when we look at them or whatever some guy or girl feels looking at them. You help sharpen her perception when you show her what’s behind your decision-making. You can say that you find something inappropriate but you ought to have an explanation—it teaches her the value of nuanced reasoning and separates body shame from ideas of modesty.

No matter the situation—booty shorts or padded bikini tops—involve your kid in the decision making process. Help her understand that other peoples’ ideas may be different from her own and remind her that ideas can change over time. If your tween is desperate for booty shorts and you’ve decided it’s not going to happen, let her know you can have a conversation about it next year. By then it’s completely likely that booty shorts may be bumped for the next big thing.

Read more:
How to raise a feminist
How to talk to girls: 8 ways to improve your daughter’s self-esteem
Clothing battles with your tween

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