by Dan Coulter
I read a New York Times column recently by Bruce Feiler about the the way the fashion industry is marketing sexually oriented clothes to his 8 year old daughters. The column was called "This Life" and the subhead was "A Line Between Sweet and Skimpy."
It struck me that the challenges he described are even greater for dads of daughters who have social challenges related to Asperger Syndrome. Girls with Asperger Syndrome can be at risk of trying too hard to fit in and can have a harder time accepting explanations about what's appropriate to wear.
Any discussion with children that involves sexuality can be difficult for parents. Many families tend to think talks that involve sex should be dad-to-son and mom-to-daughter. But fathers have a crucial role in helping both sons and daughters develop healthy and appropriate understandings about sexuality and how marketeers will try to manipulate them for profit.
It helps to realize that not talking to your young daughter about the implications of wearing age-inappropriate clothing -- or inappropriate for any age clothing -- robs her of your counsel. And simply forbidding her to wear certain clothes risks driving a wedge between the two of you.
There was a recent uproar over a line of Victoria's Secret panties and thongs for girls marketed through the company's "PINK: Bright Young Things" campaign. The products featured were printed with text on the front or back such as "Call Me," "Wild," and "Feeling Lucky?" Victoria's Secret protested that the items were targeted toward college girls, but as "The Motley Fool" website pointed out, the company's financial officer, Stuart Burgdoerfer, was quoted saying: "When somebody's 15 or 16 years old, what do they want to be? They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that's part of the magic of what we do at PINK."
Parents made the point that companies know very well that young girls want to look like older girls and want the fashions that they wear. The Motley Fool story reported that, in response to the criticism, Victoria's Secret quietly stopped offering some of the more controversial clothing items in the "Bright Young Things" line.
While parental pressure can affect companies, there's no shortage of sexualized clothing on sale for girls of all ages. It's funny, but tragic, to see girls barely older than toddlers dressed to look "sexy" in TV reality show beauty pageants.
Given our daughters can't avoid "look alluring" messages in commercials, across the media in general, and in girl culture at school, there are specific things dads can do to protect their daughters from being manipulated in ways that can harm them.
ONE: Develop a plan. Look at online shopping sites or catalogs to determine what you believe is and is not appropriate for your daughter. Write out what you believe and why, so you have talking points that help you clearly articulate your rationale to your daughter. In two-parent households, both parents should be involved so your daughter gets consistent messages from both of you -- and can't play one off against the other. Update your standards as your daughter grows so you're prepared as fashions change.
TWO: As a dad, get over your embarrassment and be ready to talk to your daughter honestly about how different ways of dressing can send unintentional messages to boys about being open to invitations to have sex. Many girls with Asperger Syndrome may need to have this explained in detail. Showing your daughter examples of girls modeling appropriate and inapporpriate clothing from those shopping sites or catalogs can be helpful. That's not to say dads should do this instead of moms, but dads play an important role even if a mom takes the lead. This could be the springboard to a more detailed talk about sexuality. Be ready and consider the benefits of sharing accurate information about sex and your values with your daughter. Your daughter's welfare trumps embarrassment.
THREE: Don't wait for your daughter to bring up the subject and back you into the corner of being the bad guy who only says "No." Start talking about what men and women and boys and girls wear and what's appropriate and why. Emphasize positive examples. Talk about how great girls and boys looks in appropriate outfits. You can also express disapproval of inappropriate apparel, but put more focus on the positive. Make your daughter feel good about wearing the clothes you feel are right for her. Compliment the way she looks in clothing you like.
FOUR: Anticipate the arguments your daughter is likely to make to buy and wear clothing you think is inappropriate -- and have your responses ready. Keep your tone reasonable, not emotional or judgmental. Be ready for some serious pressure. Be calm and consistent.
"This is what all the girls at school are wearing." Even though children tend to exaggerate, it's likely that lots of the girls at her school are wearing styles you don't want her to wear. When this happens, you need to emphasize your family's standards, and be ready with the reasons you worked out earlier.
"This is what the stores are selling." Unfortunately, that's often the case. Fortunately, being able to shop online gives you a lot more options to find the kind of clothing you're looking for. If your daughter wants to wear clothing with slogans, find some that are hip and funny without referring to sex. There's a wide array of T-shirts and other clothing available with slogans. You can even make up your own and have them printed.
"Mom wears sexy clothing" or "My older sister wears sexy clothing." It's fair and honest to point out that as you get older, you develop more judgment to decide what's appropriate to wear. Then follow up by giving your daughter more freedom to choose her clothes as she gets older. Be ready to compromise to some extend, without tossing out your standards. Also, mom and other family members may want to keep in mind their own fashion choices, knowing they will influence a daughter with Asperger Syndrome.
You also have to deal with the fact that girls can change the way they wear their clothing, or remove layers, once they are out of your sight. I remember college friends talking about how, in middle school, they folded or rolled the waists of their skirts to make them shorter each morning in the school rest room, then lowered them again before they went home.
This is where instilling your daughter with your ideas and values is the prevention that's worth a pound of cure. Convincing her that how people respond to her depends more on how she acts than how she dresses is the best way to influence her decisions when she is out of your sight. Helping her develop and demonstrate her strengths and her social skills can reduce her need to try and attract people with revealing clothing.
A while back, a teacher friend of our daughter's shared a story of a middle school classroom discussion warning about the dangers of "sexting," sending revealing photos or suggestive text messages over cell phones. I quoted this story in another article, but it bears repeating here.
A girl in the class said, "Well, if it’s your boyfriend and he loves you, then it’s okay."
Then another 13 year old girl spoke up.
"First of all, I just want to say that my daddy raised a lady, and that what those girls are doing, that’s not ladylike. And if a boy says he loves you and he’s thirteen years old? Guess what, he’s 13 years old and he don’t really love you. And if someone tells you to do like that, you need to respect yourself and realize you don’t need to do it because you need to respect your body."
What an example of the influence a dad can have shaping his daughter's views and values.
How would you want your daughter to respond in a similar situation, or when she's choosing clothing or responding to a boy's advances?
The things we say to our daughters today, and every day, can help them make the right decisions when the time comes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the author of 13 videos, including "Managing Puberty, Social Challenges, and (Almost) Everything: A Video Guide to Girls" and "Asperger Syndrome For Dads." Both videos are available as DVDs and downloads. You can read more articles on his website: www.coultervideo.com.
Copyright 2013 Dan Coulter Used By Permission All Rights Reserved