Raising Daughters and Wardrobe-Policing

As a young girl in elementary school, I took great joy in dressing up. I loved wearing outlandish and fancy clothes- lavish dresses, flowy skirts- the only consideration that went into dressing up for me was that of style. As I grew up, I learned that I would not continue to be the only person who controls my wardrobe. My mother started asking me to stop wearing skirts, dresses, crop-tops- at times, even inside the house. At one point, she asked me to always wear a bra- even to bed. Being restricted from wearing something isn't just a wardrobe issue, it's a lot more than that. By telling their daughters to dress modestly, mothers seek to restrict their bodily autonomy, and exercise control over something that might seem mundane, but is a very basic right. Most womxn grow up without even having freedom over what they wear, a fact that has been far, far to normalized.

But, the wound goes deeper. The issue is about sexuality more than anything else. By telling their young, at times, even pre-pubescent daughters to 'cover-up'; in the company of older adult males, mothers sexualize children while opening their homes to men they potentially perceive as predators. If you have to tell your daughter to cover up in the presence of a male guest- that guest is a predator who shouldn't be around your family. As their daughters grow up, mothers continue to sexualize them and police their bodies, and, at time same time, seek to restrict their sexuality. Pamela Madsen, an intimacy and sexuality expert, talks about how daughters are made to feel 'sexually small'. According to her, mothers perpetuate a culture of shame around sexuality, at least partly so that they don't have to give their daughters more freedom and pleasure than they experienced as young womxn. Wearing modest clothing only outside the house, however, is something many parents claim to recommend due to the fear of sexual violence against their daughters. Not only does this perpetuate r*pe culture by blaming the victim, but, also misses another key point. “Even if we’re dressed completely respectably, we still face the same stuff we would face if we’re dressed half-naked", says Sydney, a young girl struggling with being forcibly sexualized by her parents. “We still get assaulted, we still get belittled, and we have our intelligence knocked", she says. While my mother may have had her heart in the right place, she failed to realize that I was prone to gender-based violence irrespective of what I wore. While controlling my wardrobe failed to protect me from abuse, it ensured that I felt uncomfortable in my own body, felt objectified for wearing clothes that were in no way inherently sexual, and resented my mother for making me feel this way.

Womxn, especially mothers, play a huge role in the subjugation and oppression of other womxn. They perpetuate the very culture that ostracizes them. “We were asked yesterday … what are our standards of modesty in how our children dress and how do we enforce that”, writes Jessica, in a viral post about her teenage daughters, “enforcing modesty standards is about controlling people and we have found that is counterproductive and undermines our commitment to respecting bodily autonomy”.

At the same time, I found solace in talking to other womxn who had had similar experiences with their families. I found emotional and physically safe spaces where I could exist unapologetically and without shame. Part of the issue would be resolved with a greater commitment to solidarity among womxn and a better understanding of body policing. It is only in the company of other womxn that we can reclaim parts of our identities that misogynistic mothers diluted with indignity.