One of my goals as a mother has been to teach my children to be comfortable with their bodies. It was easy when they were little. They saw no need to lock bathroom doors or hide while they were changing. Clothes were nothing more than an obstacle to their play that they would seize any opportunity to slip out of. And I let them.
Whether we were in the house, in the backyard, or even the park, my kids were the ones running about with no shoes, no shirts, and no sermons (from me). My approval didn’t stop other parents from shaking their heads or clucking their tongues, but their contempt was not noticed by my children or internalized by me. As long as my kids were within my eyesight and were wearing some sort of bottom covering, we were doing just fine.
Things changed as they got older. By the time my boys were 8 and 6, they were locking bathroom doors and making sure to always wear shirts, even in the backyard. And I let them. Because, although it saddened me a bit to see how quickly societal norms had squelched their free spirits, ultimately what I wanted them to learn was that they were in charge of their bodies. And if, for whatever reason, they wanted to keep them completely covered, that was their choice, too.
Then my daughter came along. Like her brothers before her, she was happiest when she was barefooted and naked-bellied. Unlike them, however, she didn’t outgrow it… at least not yet. She will be 7 next week and I still have to remind her that she NEEDS to wear a shirt for school. Her favorite thing is to roll around in the grass with nothing more than underwear—which she wears begrudgingly. She says the world feels more real when she can feel it with all of her skin and that being naked(ish) is like being a “wild, free fairy.”
And so I let her. Certainly she needs to wear clothes at school and when we’re out in the world, but at home, in our backyard, she is free to dress in a way that makes her feel comfortable.
The problem is that her comfort has been making my 10-year-old son uncomfortable. Yesterday my daughter came downstairs in her underwear and sat down to eat breakfast. My son’s eyes narrowed and his shoulders tensed up.
“Make her put clothes on, Mom. She’s too old. It’s gross! I can’t eat with her next to me like that.”
I told him that he could sit somewhere else if he wanted to and tried to change the subject to something less contentious. As my daughter and I chatted about an upcoming trip, I noticed that my son had grown quiet. His eyes glistened with the tears he was trying desperately to hold back. I came closer and put my hand on his shoulder, but he shrugged it away.
“She’s too old to be naked all the time. It makes me uncomfortable. Please make her get dressed.”
My daughter’s fiery temper immediately kicked in. “I can dress however I want! It’s my body!”
He was sad and she was angry and I was unsure as to how to handle the situation. I let him take his bagel into the living room while I thought it through some more.
The thing is, I want my son to feel good at home. He’s a shy, sensitive kid and he really values having a place where he can be comfortable. Part of me wanted to just insist that my daughter start wearing clothes outside of her bedroom. But then I thought about what it’s like to be a teenage girl, and a young woman… and even a middle-aged one. About how we are hit with a constant barrage of expectations and judgments about how we should look and talk and dress.
Yes, my son was uncomfortable with how his sister was dressed, and yes, his discomfort makes me sad, but he won’t be the last man to feel that way. One day, there will be an older man on a train who believes her shirt is too revealing, a boyfriend who thinks her dress is too frumpy, and a predator who finds her jeans too tempting. People will recoil from the fire in her eyes and the knots in her hair and the passion in her voice. They will move away from her loud laughter and quick tears and sporadic leaps of joy.
And that will be their choice. Just as it was my son’s choice to eat breakfast in the other room. But if I start telling my daughter now that her brother has the right to choose what clothes she wears, what will be the next right that she relinquishes to an uncomfortable male?
I had a long talk with my son after breakfast. We talked about how sometimes I let him wear shorts on days that I’m wearing a down coat because it’s his body and he experiences things differently than I do. I told him that it’s important to respect other people’s clothing choices, even if he doesn’t always understand them. I reminded him about the time he saw me being cat-called by a man using vulgar words and how badly that made me feel.
“It’s not the same, Mom. That guy liked that you were wearing a short skirt. I hate when my sister doesn’t wear enough clothes.”
He’s right. It’s not the same. And yet, on some level, it is. They’re both judgments made on a female’s choice of clothes. Once girls begin to internalize those voices, they often lose their own.
My daughter will continue to dress in her underwear for breakfast if she feels like it. And no one will say a damn thing about it. Because I won’t let them.