There are things my parents taught me growing up that I consider pretty invaluable. Whilst I'm still not sure which side of the nature vs. nurture debate I fall on, I am pretty sure that we pick up things from mom and dad along the way, even if our overall nature or persona is down to factors unknown (be it our souls, the environment or all those WB shows filled with effed up lessons that ruined our natural development).
I thank my dad for introducing me to rock 'n roll legends like Johnny Cash, not to mention for my appreciation of a good steak. I thank my mom for instilling a love of reading, and showing me the importance of exploring, understanding, and embracing my heritage. But that being said, neither mi madre ni mi padre were perfect. Like all parents — and human beings — they were and remain imperfect. They were and remain influenced by stigmatization, stereotypes, and detrimental cultural norms. And that means that some of the things they taught me were... questionable, at best.
It should come as no surprise to most non-troll-y Homo sapiens that we're often taught things that are, quite simply, wrong. And I have no doubt that many of the things I, as female kid (and eventually a plus-size female kid), was taught about fashion and beauty, and my relationship to fashion and beauty, caused many-a tear-soaked night and self-loathing rage spiral. I'm also certain I was not alone in being granted these "lessons."
IMHO, we need to stop teaching kids to pick themselves apart. We need to stop teaching them that they need to lessen themselves — through fashion or otherwise — in order to fit into The Cardboard Box Of Acceptability. Kids should be allowed to be kids, whilst they can — before all the other gloriously shitty things the world has to offer make them start to question themselves. Here are a few things I was taught that I now know to be untrue — that I hope someday will vanish from The Book Of Parenting in invisibility-cloak style, never to appear again:
1. Wearing Short Skirts Means You're Easy
Back in those terrible years known as "high school," our "institution" used to put on an annual "Spirit Week." It was pretty much the only set of five days I looked forward to, consisting of daily "themes," for which you could dress up. Freshman year brought "'70s Day" and I couldn't wait to rock a plaid and suede mini that had been hanging in my closet unworn for ages.
When my mom and older brother saw me, they're response was instant and synchronized. I can't remember their exact words, but the message was "you look like a slut."
My virginal 14-year-old-self was furious. Heck, I'm still a little furious (what? I don't hold grudges). If their argument had been rooted in "wanting to preserve my innocence before the world got in the way," sure. That's understandable enough. But in retrospect, their mentality was rooted in cultural slut shaming — in both the opinion that all women who wear mini skirts are "easy," and paralleled by the philosophy that being "easy" is always a bad thing. Most of us know how these modes of thinking lead to victim blame, sexual harassment, etc. But, just as I did back then, I hold onto the belief that rather than teaching girls not to wear flowing minis, we should be teaching people not to judge, not to shame, and not to harass in any way, sexual or otherwise.
2. If You're Fat, You Should Only Wear Black
This rule followed me around from the day my family realized that the "baby fat" on my cheeks and belly wasn't going anywhere. "Black is slimming," is the mantra, and, "Slimming is always a good thing," is the muse.
To this day, I don't know if my adventures in Emo were down to sincere adoration of bands like Papa Roach, Mayday Parade or Bullet For My Valentine, or whether I simply felt I had no choice but to adapt to the black skinnies and baggy, black band tees of the Gerard Way's of the world. What I do know is that telling young, plus-size girls that they are limited to one color is an invasion of creative expression. It shouldn't matter if "pink makes you look fatter," or "white shows off your rolls." All that should matter is comfort in one's own skin. It seems to simple, yet it's very rarely taught.
Looking back, I wish I'd worn that neon green dress to prom. Even if it meant not color-coordinating with my best friend. Even if it meant my visible belly outline was, yes, visible to the peers I'd literally never see again after that day.
3. Makeup Will Make You Look More Beautiful
I still remember the first time I asked my mom why she wore so much makeup: "Because it makes me look more beautiful."
The thing is, makeup can definitely be empowering. As we develop and explore our personal style, experimenting with heaps of black eyeliner or bold red lips becomes an important part of the process. Like the art of the selfie, makeup allows us to portray ourselves the way we want to be portrayed. And that's ok!
But teaching little girls that makeup "makes them more beautiful," is hugely problematic. It leads to fear of naturalness. It makes it so, as adults, we can't even cross the street to pick up a gallon of milk without having to cake on the foundation. We should be allowed to feel just as stunning and special with a bare face as with a Kardashian-level makeup look.
4. Always Dress For The Occasion
So I get it: One day someone you know will have a Gatsby-themed wedding, and if you don't dress the part, you'll probably hurt their feelings, or, more realistically, piss them off. But where do we draw the line?
There was a time when I wanted to wear a tutu to church. There was another time when I wanted to wear jeans on a flight to visit relatives after they hadn't seen me in years. Both times, those outfit desires were deemed "inappropriate for the occasion." The former "too kitschy for church," and the latter, "not pretty or ladylike enough."
The reality is that there are occasions that will call for a certain amount of traditionally-defined respectableness in attire. But proclaiming that children need to mold themselves into certain visions of beauty or appropriateness depending on each and every person they're going to see or event they're going to attend will leave that kid pretty confused. It affects the development of our own sartorial voice. It means we're always terrified of offending — petrified that the things we love will make others not love us. And ultimately, it means we never feel like we have permission to "just be ourselves."
5. Never Leave The House Without A Handbag
In and of themselves, handbags aren't really a problem. In fact, they can be super cool and ultra useful. A handbag allows me to carry everything I need — from my wallet to a book to emergency Tylenol. But I still remember being taught that "a girl must never leave the house without her compact and lip gloss," and where's the best place of storing these things? In a handbag, of course.
The emphasis we put on young girls, from such a young age, to "mind their appearance," and "touch up their face," still disheartens me to this day. Perhaps this is more applicable to teen girls, rather than children, but I swear I was gifted purses and clutches from about age five.
The expectation that we simply have to carry around makeup and toiletries with us everywhere we go not-so-subliminally teaches us that we should always look "perfect," everywhere we go.
6. You Can't Wear That. It's For Boys
I grew up surrounded by male cousins and an older brother. With that came something of a taste for everything from hoodies to sneakers to sweatpants to boxer shorts. I envied the comfort in which they all seemed to live, never having to worry about their skirt getting caught in the door or their dress being too long to run in.
When my tomboy style naturally began to evolve, the thing I heard constantly was, "You can't wear that. It's for boys!" Much like pink toys are for girls and blue toys are for boys, it was established early on that sneakers and boxers were for my cousins. Dresses were for me.
Gender rules are almost unavoidable. They always have been. But ultimately, they make it so that non-binary people don't feel they have a voice. They make it so that girls feel married to gowns and boys feel married to suits. And they make it so that anyone who wants to be remotely experimental or embrace their individuality feels like they're doing something wrong.
7. You Can Wear That When You Lose Weight
As I grew and gained weight, I started hearing this gem constantly. It was meant as motivation for joining the soccer team or cutting back on the Ben and Jerry's. Much like chubby little girls are taught they should only wear black, they're also consistently shot down when they want to wear something associated with being "for the skinny girls."
Through childhood and adolescence, I carried this rule with me. Never feeling good enough for those short shorts or worthy of the boldly printed summer dress. I wish someone had just said, "You can wear whatever you want," "You can look however you want," but they never really did. And I know I'm not the only one who this is true for.
It seems so simple: Teach kids — teach little girls — that they are good enough; that they can wear whatever they want. Don't teach them to use fashion to hide themselves. Rather, tell them that clothes are a great way of expressing uniqueness, and that if that pink tutu is going to make them feel like the princess they know they are, they should rock it anywhere. Even to church.
Images: Author's Own; Giphy