In a Wall Street Journal column over the weekend, Jennifer Moses accuses teens of dressing like prostitutes but blames their mothers for allowing, and funding, it. Moses, author of Food and Whine: Confessions of a New Millennium Mom, posits two theories about why moms give in to their daughters’ demands for skimpy clothing and high heels.
The first is a certain sort of pride in their child’s appearance and a desire to help one’s daughter gain the popularity she so desperately wants. “In my own case,” she writes, “when I see my daughter in drop-dead gorgeous mode, I experience something akin to a thrill—especially since I myself am somewhat past the age to turn heads.” Her friend agrees: “It’s almost like they’re saying ‘Look how hot my daughter is.’” I suppose I can understand this, I beam with pride every time a stranger stops us on the street to say how cute my four-year old is with her curly blond hair, lip gloss, and plastic high heels. Though I know that someday the soon the glitter eye shadow we bought at Claire’s will seem less cute to passersby.
The second part of Moses’s theory, however, is much more disturbing. She seems to think that all women of her generation are living in a constant state of regret for their own sexual behavior when they were young. Moses identifies herself as a member of the first generation to have access to the pill and “be free of old-fashioned fears about our reputations.” She writes that among her circle of friends, “I don’t know one of them who doesn't have feelings of lingering discomfort regarding her own sexual past.” As a result, she argues, moms her age are allowing the slutty dress because “scads of us don’t know how to teach our own sons and daughters not to give away their bodies so readily. We’re embarrassed, and don’t want to be, God forbid, hypocrites.”
I am not a member of Moses’s generation, the pill was around for many years before my peers and I started taking it, but I have a hard time believing that everyone her age is seized with regret. I even have a hard time believing that no one she knows wishes they had “experimented more” before settling down into a life of monogamy. I suppose it’s possible that when asked, the women in Moses’s circle all start to talk about how they wished they hadn't, but I wonder if this is real regret or a socially acceptable answer. After all, they like the generations before them, grew up with massively conflicting messages about female sexuality as our society has always been both fascinated by and afraid of it. While they might not have had to worry about their reputations in the same way their mothers did, at best the messages they got suggested it was okay to have sex as long as they felt a little guilty about it afterwards.
By wallowing in that guilt, however, Moses and her friends are missing out on an awesome opportunity to help their daughters deal with the conflicting messages about sex better than they did, and hopefully avoid another generation going through life tainted with regret. Instead of just whipping out the Am-Ex to buy yet another pair of skinny jeans, these moms should use the trip to the mall as an opportunity to discuss, and better yet refute, society’s messages about sex and appearance. They should ask their daughters why they want to dress this way and not take “it’s the style” or “everyone is wearing it” as an answer. Go deeper. Ask why everyone is wearing it; why sexy is so important; why young women, in particular, are often judged primarily on their appearance; and what messages – real or perceived – dressing this way sends? They should use this as an opportunity to build critical thinking skills and to remind their daughters both that people judge others by their appearance and that it’s important not to judge others that way.
Hidden underneath Moses’s distressing messages of shame, is a real fear that I know many parents do share; that during these conversations they will have to answer questions about their own sexual pasts. It is highly likely that kids will ask and parents should be prepared for this but they should know that they don’t have to answer or at the very least they don’t have to provide all the gory details. It is perfectly fair to be vague, talk in generalities about friends and peers, or steer the conversation in a different direction. The best, response, however is an honest one: “I’m not comfortable talking about the specifics with you but I do want to tell you how I felt and what I believe.” Parents who have regrets should say so but not in an attempt to perpetuate fear or control their daughter’s behavior—in a genuine attempt to help her understand her sexuality and feel better about it.
Unfortunately, Moses’s article is full of messages that instead perpetuate the exact feelings of shame that she claims to suffer from. Moses wants us to teach our children “not to give their bodies away.” A friend she consults reminds us that it’s still the same as when they were growing up, “The girls in sexy clothes are the fast girls.” And, though she kindly suggests therapy and not condemnation for slutty girls, Moses is not above referring to someone as the “campus mattress.” Messages like these are far more dangerous to young women than sparkling eye shadow and two-inch heels.
Maybe the real problem is that Moses inaccurately believes that today’s teenagers not only dress like hookers but act like them as well: “In recent year,” she writes, “…promiscuity has hit new heights (it always does!), with ‘sexting’ among preteens, 'hooking up' among teens and college students, and a constant stream of semi-pornography from just about every media outlet.” The good news is that she’s wrong. In fact, the data suggests that fewer teens are having sex than in years past. According to the National Survey of Family Growth, there has been a steady decline in the number of never-married teenage girls (ages 15-19) who report having had vaginal intercourse with the percentage dropping from 51 percent in 1988 to 49 percent in 1995 to 46 percent in 2002 to 42 percent in 2006-08. And, though, hooking up undoubtedly happens in some circles, it turns out that most young people who are having sex are doing so in the context of a relationship. Even better, a majority of sexually active teens are using condoms to protect themselves from pregnancy and STDs.
Perhaps Moses and her friends should relax. It turns out that though teens may be making stupid choices when it comes to their wardrobes they are doing much better when it comes to their sexuality.