Why my 13 year old daughter (probably) won't be wearing a strapless dress

Yesterday I posted about the ridiculousness of making rules defining what girls should or shouldn't wear so as to safeguard boys from the 'distractions' they might pose. It followed a small furore in the US where a middle school dance was cancelled following a ban on the eighth grade girls wearing strapless dresses in case they 'distracted' the boys.

Today, though, I want to flip it around. 

I have a 13 year old daughter and I care about what she wears.

It's in the same way I care about what she eats, where she goes, what time she comes home and who she hangs with. Clothes and appearance are a part of life and although I defend her right to go out in public in a strapless dress - or docs and fishnet tights or trackies and ug boots - if she chooses, I also want to help her to think about what she's wearing and why.

Let me be completely clear. I don't agree with creating arbitrary rules about what people should or shouldn't wear. Particularly when those people are women and girls and the reason is so that they won't 'cause' men to stumble. I reject 'modesty culture' as the other, equally damanging, side of over-sexualising 'raunch culture'.

I do think, however, that most people, men or women, can stand a little bit of thinking about clothes, appearance and what to wear or not.

Here's what I'm hoping to teach my daughter to think about when she makes her clothing choices.

Clothes are a projection of yourself in public. Like the words we say, the house we live in, the food we eat, the books we read and the things we do, the clothes we wear say something about us to other people. Hipster, greenie, beach babe, whatever. It's good to understand what that is, and to be aware of it. 

Clothes define your 'tribe'. In the Sindh region of Pakistan, amongst the Hindu tribes, you can tell by looking at a woman which tribe she belongs to and whether she's married, widowed or single. Different tribes use different designs on their cloth and you never dress outside your tribe. I used to think this was extraordinary but I realised it's pretty much the same in the rest of the world. The only difference is that we get to choose which tribe we want to be part of. The question for my daughter is: which tribe is she going to choose?

People have reactions and form opinions about you based on your clothes. It's at this point that some people would argue that you are responsible for making sure other people don't react in certain ways. I'd argue that you are never responsible for someone else's reaction, although you can choose to be sensitive about it if you're aware of it and you can see the point.

Avoiding sex for a moment, I'll focus on the weather. I often see teenagers wearing singlet tops and shorts when I think it's so cold out that I'm in boots, jacket and scarf. I look at those kids and I freeze.

Are they responsible for my cold reaction? Am I responsible for making them get warm according to my need for comfort? The answer to both is of course not. But maybe one of them will choose to put a cardigan on if they actually are cold and uncomfortable, now that I've talked about it and they suddenly notice that they've got goosebumps. Or they might just suggest that I move closer to the heater. 

Different things are appropriate in different places. This is so obvious, it's hardly worth saying. You don't wear your bikini to a funeral. Diamonds don't go to playgroup (unless you've brought the nanny as well...) School uniform is for school, shorts are for home, work clothes are for work, party clothes are for parties and slightly nice clothes are for church  - unless you're Australian. In that case it's fine to turn up barefoot and a ripped surf shirt. (In fact, here's a tip to all travelling Christian Americans. If you're planning to attend church in Australia, leave your heels and ties at home.)

You can pretty much wear anything if you've got the confidence to carry it off. Most teenagers don't quite get that you start trends by wearing something completely uncool with absolute uncaring disdain and je-ne-sais-quoi. (Or so they say. I'll admit to never having consciously started a trend in my life.)

It's just as easy to put on something nice as something that's ugly. This is one of my mantras. It goes along with 'why save your nice stuff for a 'good occasion'? You might as well wear it and chuck out the old ones.'

It's respectful to others to dress appropriately. If I spend money and time organising a wedding and specify lounge suit on the invitation, I'll be annoyed if people turn up in beach gear and sandals. 

You are the age you are. Not ten years old, not ten years younger. Ahem. This is the reason why patterned leggings should never be seen on women over 29. It is also the reason why 12 year olds look ridiculous in heels.

Some things suit you, some things don't. It is a simple fact that I should never, ever put on a round neck t-shirt, especially not one teamed with a mini denim skirt and heavy shoes. I would look like a badly shaped, slightly squashed, lumpy plasticine figure. Knits, v-necks and skinny jeans, however, are a different story. 

Purchase ethically, cleverly and not excessively. My daughter and I have already discovered the many joys of op-shopping (green term: recycling!) and of course, the delight of decluttering and only keeping what you actually wear. We don't buy 'new' enough for us to talk about slave labour, unethical production, fair trade or supporting small business, and I realise that I could do some work on this.

Less is more and that's classy. We've long been fans of Trinny and Susannah and at the age of 9 my daughter could tell me their rule. "You only show one thing mum. It's either legs, or back, or shoulders or cleavage. It's not all at once." Quite. 

You are more than your looks. When all you can think about all day and all night is what you're going to wear or how your hair is arranged and whether your makeup is perfect, methinks it might be a good time to re-read this: Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 1 Peter 3:3-4

With all this in mind, if my 13 year old daughter was going to the middle school dance, we'd go shopping.

We'd be looking together for an outfit that she liked, that suited her, that fitted with the sort of things her friends were wearing, that she felt confident in, that was the right style and colour for her, that suited her age, that was classy, that respected the event by being appropriate, and that was either recycled, home sewn or from a store with a good reputation for production.

My guess is that it probably wouldn't be a strapless. But if the only dress that fitted all those criteria had no straps, I'd be delighted that we'd both found something that was just right.