Thus far my daughters and I have rarely fought over clothes. But the middle school years have arrived, and the annoyingly predictable phrase, “Everyone is wearing this,” has now cropped up several times.
I suspect our amiable fashion days are waning.
I sincerely support my daughters’ goal to be socially relevant. It’s just that their clothing choices have larger implications than they realize or understand.
What people wear has significance: You dress professionally for a job interview. The outfit you wear on a first date is no accident.
For females, our wardrobe selection has the added weight of sex.
When God created male and female, he must have slipped some extra love potion into the Y chromosome. A good bit more.
Both sexes desire physical intimacy. It’s just that male desire is more, shall we say, constant? Also, way more visual.
Men will, even for the slightest moment, see a woman as a sexual object. In my opinion, this is not deviant behavior, or even a sin. It simply is.
We don’t need to dwell on this biological reality. Neither should we forget it.
The male gaze is why societies create rules for what women can and cannot put on their bodies. The rules range from silly to scary, but they all prove a point: We legislate what threatens us; what threatens has power.
Those of us given this power by virtue of our chromosomal pairings have an obligation, in this fallen world, to appreciate it, claim control of it and wield it with care.
Puberty, the entry to adulthood, is a weird twilight zone for girls. The body they have inhabited since infancy becomes unpredictable and sometimes oddly outside their comprehension.
Years ago they put on a pair of high heels and tottered down the hallway in uncomplicated play. Now the same shoes change the contours of their body, and they cannot help but strut down the hallway with a magnetic authority both empowering and a bit frightening.
They stand in front of their closet and pick clothes combinations to look cool for their girl friends, not hot for the boys.
Yet they like boys. And boys like them. At the same time that they are experiencing new physical sensations like butterflies in the stomach and flushed cheeks, girls have no way to appreciate the intensity of the new sensations their male peers are feeling. They cannot conceive the effect their legs have on a boy, or any male. They don’t have the maturity to connect all the dots.
Discouraging spaghetti straps is not, ultimately, an attempt to help men avoid certain thoughts (that’s on them). Instead, we can watch my daughters’ hemlines in hopes that they will both respect the male gaze and refuse to allow it to define them as a body first, person second.
A shirt that doesn’t dip down quite so low in front directs attention to their face. Opting for a one-piece swimsuit might prevent their navel from becoming the subtext of the conversation.
When we hold our newborns, we hold the weight of fragility. We accept the responsibility of shielding them from the dangers within and without and mitigating the powers that assail them and the powers they possess.
My prayer is to faithfully fulfill my role as protector in ways that are rational, reasonable and filled with grace.
We’re entering middle school. God help me.
Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.
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