Just before bedtime I put on a brave face and begin “The Great Fashion Debate.” What will my step-daughter wear the next day? I try to open with a note on the weather or the next day’s activities–long sleeves if it’s cold, something fancier if we’ll be going to synagogue–and then wait for Ronia’s first choice. At 5 years old, Ronia is not as invested in fashion as some of her friends, but she definitely cares, and has a strong affinity for dresses and skirts, pink things, and anything with ruffles.
This could not be farther from my own fashion sense. Seventy percent of my wardrobe is black, and it’s safe to say I wear a cardigan over a tank top with jeans six days a week. Meeting in the middle is a pretty far walk for either of us.
So why do I care what Ronia wears? I know that there are some parents who feel like they have neither the time nor energy to police their kids’ fashion choices, and I salute them. But I find that I really do care what Ronia wears. Partially it’s because I know that I get judged based on how she looks and behaves. Though I did not give birth to Ronia, and only married her father a few weeks ago, when people see us together, the assumption is that I’m her mother, and that I’m responsible for making her look neat, clean, appropriate, and fashionable. I’ll never forget the time that another parent came up to me at synagogue, looked at Ronia, raised his eyebrows, and said, “Wow, you guys let her dress herself?” That stings. And it implies bad mothering on my part, for allowing her out and about in one of her more creative ensembles.
I also care because I know that when I’m not around, Ronia will still be judged (to some hopefully-small extent) based on how she looks. It’s a simple–if horrifying–fact of life, that appearances matter, especially for girls and women. I don’t want Ronia to feel that pressure right now, and her father and I are really hardcore about praising all of the non-appearances things we love about her, from her jokes to her artwork to her mad bike riding “skillz.” But I know that the pressure to be pretty is already something she’s very aware of, even when we’re careful to keep it out of our house. When looking at books and movies, she always points out whoever she thinks is prettiest, and tells me that’s her favorite. She’s obsessed with long hair, but recently gave herself an ill-advised haircut that she’s now always trying to hide with piles of barettes. The cult of the beautiful is here.
All of the adults in Ronia’s life agree that she’s way too young to be sexualized–so no high heels, no makeup, nothing that says princess on it. And thankfully, she hasn’t ever asked to wear anything that is wildly inappropriate for her. But there are plenty of minefields even when you’ve eliminated those major problem areas. I don’t want Ronia to be dressed too girly because that’s not my personal style, but more importantly because I want it to be clear to Ronia and to those who judge both of us based on her appearance that we are not a pink-everything-ruffles-everywhere kind of house. I don’t want anyone getting the impression that we are a super girly household, in part because that image flies in the face of our uber-feminist household. Ronia can be femme, of course, but I find myself wanting to restrain her from going too far with that, at least in part because the line between super-femme and sexualizing little girls can be very very fine.
I don’t need Ronia to dress like Quinoa, the Pinterest sensation from “My Imaginary Well Dressed Toddler,” but on days when she gets dressed at our house, I try to steer her towards outfits that could be construed as going together. No more than two different prints at a time. If the skirt is bright purple, I suggest the black leggings over the orange ones that are her first choice. And I’m big on suggesting that not every day needs to be a frilly dress day.
So far, negotiations have mostly stayed amicable. We usually go a few rounds before settling on an outfit that we can both agree on, and Ronia hasn’t had any of the full on tantrums I remember throwing every Saturday morning when my parents tried to get me to wear a dress to synagogue. But on days when she comes downstairs wearing something she picked out herself, and it makes me cringe, I sometimes insist she go back to the closet and find something else. And sometimes when she picks out something that I don’t love, but don’t really hate, I do my best to channel Tim Gunn, and simply say, “Make it work.”