I get it, I do. There’s nothing simple about adolescent girls and the clothes they wear.
My 11-year-old daughter chooses a standard uniform of t-shirt and shorts when she doesn’t have to dress for school or synagogue or any other event. Nothing fancy, nothing too small or too big, just athletic shorts and a plain old t-shirt. She has no interest in fashion and she dresses for comfort. She is just vaguely aware of the changes her body is slowly going through, but has no desire to emphasize any part of it.
She’s a preteen and we’ve had all the “important” conversations: stranger danger, non-stranger danger, body awareness, body protection, on and on. She knows what to do and what to avoid if she ever gets what the textbooks now refer to as the “uh oh” feeling.
What we were not prepared for? What if the stranger to avoid is a friendly looking, young mom in Barnes & Noble with two kids of her own and a smiling young husband?
While my daughter was sitting on a bench in the children’s section at Barnes & Noble reading quietly with a friend, and with me standing a few feet away looking at some books, this young mom called my daughter over. Before I had a chance to approach, she proceeded to whisper something in her ear, the contents of which I couldn’t hear.
Not wanting to be overbearing and hovering, and wanting to give this woman the benefit of the doubt, I didn’t rush over immediately. But one look at the flush of red spreading over my daughter’s face and eyes starting to fill with tears, I knew that whatever had been said was something upsetting.
The woman saw me coming over and proceeded to launch into how my daughter’s “immodesty” in her clothes and in the way she was sitting was “allowing” everyone to see into her shorts, including her husband. This is apparently what she whispered in my daughter’s ear as well, in an admonishing and castigating tone. I stood in shock as this woman continued to lecture me on the importance of “modesty” and that she was doing me a favor by telling my daughter how everyone could see “everything.”
Not knowing exactly how to respond, I said the only thing I could think of at the moment, which was to express my dismay at her going directly to my daughter and not to me. I then pointed out that I did not think my daughter was dressed in any way immodestly, nor had she been sitting with her legs spread apart.
Not wishing to engage any further, I walked my daughter out of there, reassured her that she did nothing wrong and that—as we already had discussed many times before—adults can not always be trusted to say or do appropriate things. And we talked about how uncomfortable it is to say no or walk away from an adult—even one that seems trustworthy—but that is the way to protect herself from those who may not have good intentions.
Her embarrassment and confusion left her speechless, and I couldn’t help but feel that I owed it to her and myself to go back and explain a few things to this woman. I wanted to simply point out to her that my daughter was very upset, and that she should think very carefully about what she says to a child who she does not know.
Fortunately, my daughter hung back and was not within earshot of our conversation, which went as follows:
“Ma’am, I just wanted to encourage you to think twice before taking someone else’s child aside and saying something that may be upsetting.”
She looked at me, stood up from her seat, and shrieked, “I’m sorry but your daughter’s vagina was hanging out for all of Barnes & Noble to see!”
My jaw dropped a second time, and with that response, I scurried out of the store with my daughter in tow, planning for the “teachable moment” discussion that we would likely have that evening.
I don’t know anything about this mom. On the surface she appeared to be very “typical.” She herself was not dressed in a way that indicated religious modesty, nor did she appear to be anything but a loving mother to her children. There was nothing that indicated that she would say anything strange to another child. And for someone like myself—a moderately observant Jewish woman whose family belongs to the local Orthodox synagogue—I have full respect and appreciation for modesty as defined by one’s personal beliefs. But this was another matter entirely and not one that would be easy to explain.
Sadly, we had already had the conversation about how even adults in authority positions (teachers, coaches, rabbis, etc.) may do or say inappropriate things. But how unfortunate that yet another category of “trusted adults” that my daughter and I thought we could rely on had shown to be fallible as well.
All the more reason that the message we must give our daughters is that their bodies and how they cover them are their own business, and it is never OK for other adults, particularly strangers, to make it theirs.