Tuesday, January 22, 2013

How to Talk to Girls

Today, as I surreptitiously searched the internet for pictures of what the Obama women were wearing, I felt a little uncomfortable. I was at work, and couldn't watch the inauguration, so I was listening to it on NPR and I was just DYING to see Michelle's new bangs. Michelle Obama is so much more than the gown she wore to the inauguration (Jason Wu!) and yet that's one of the first things I wanted to see.

I rarely give a damn about what the men are wearing, and it's not just because I prefer women. Men's clothing hasn't changed much in the last 50 or so years. Sure, the lapels get wider, the ties get skinnier, and sometimes there's a different color shirt, but really - who cares?  Once in a while you'll see something outrageous on the runway - a MAN wearing a DRESS (SHOCKER) for example. But that rarely has a trickle-down effect.

Women's clothing is infinitely variable, and driven, I would wager, almost entirely by the garment industry. (Here I'm drawing almost entirely on the Costume History class that I took almost 20 years ago and didn't exactly ace) But fashion used to be driven primarily by function - so, especially in peasant or servant classes, the clothing changed very little over hundreds of years.

But despite my own interest in fashion - and it's that of a witness, certainly not as a participant - I'm really not comfortable with how quickly and easily it reduces women to how they look. And where I find this especially disturbing is in the effect it has on little girls.

I happened upon this interesting article on HuffPost today - it was written almost two years ago - and it neatly sums up that challenge.

I find myself doing this - talking to little girls about how they look. She's right, it's the standard icebreaker. Little girls, for the most part, think a lot about what they are wearing. I've seen this manifest in absolutely awesome ways - one of my nieces went out wearing jeans, a tutu, a t-shirt, sparkly shoes, and a mismatched cardigan a few years ago. I was jealous! She so clearly put on what she felt like wearing, and I found myself wishing I could do the same. But at some point, that unself-conscious dressing for oneself becomes dressing for other people.

And that's where it all breaks down for me. I know I'm about to sound like a RAVING liberal (hide your children! You don't want them thinking!) but when we reduce conversations with women and girls to what they are wearing, not only do we diminish them, we also miss out on the opportunity to talk to them about what they're thinking.

I'm thinking about this even more because I have nieces who are nearing those dangerous ages - ages when they become all-consumed with their bodies and their looks. I have one niece especially who is really struggling right now - whether she realizes it or not. She's dangerously consumed with appearing sexy. And I can't help but wonder how things could have been different for her. Are the messages of the media so pervasive that no amount of parenting can prevent a child from this kind of self-hate?

I got a review the other day from a woman who was very upset that the writing on something she ordered was hot pink instead of red, as she thought it would be. She said she wouldn't give it to her sons because it had pink writing on it. I've read other reviews from people upset that a heart-shaped charm on a new baby ornament was PINK on a BOY ornament. It made me wonder - do boys really naturally not like pink? Do girls really naturally like pink? Or, when a girl sees pink and wants pink, do we ooh and ahh and encourage her with pink feathers and tiaras and tutus and bedspreads and socks and sequins? And when a boy sees pink and wants pink, do we tell him "pink is for girls" and hand him a red and yellow truck?

I could get really off-topic here, and start talking about the psychology of color, but I'll save that for another post. For now, I'll continue to wonder if my obsession with Project Runway enables a society in which women will continue to be judged on their looks, and men will continue to be judged on their ideas.