Discover more from People + Bodies
Hi, loves. 🌿
On shopping as (and with) a preteen
I have almost zero memories of shopping for clothing when I was a child (shocking, given how long I’ve loved the activity), but I do have one seminal memory of buying a particular bathing suit with my mother when I was…10? 11? 12?
It was almost summer, of course, my mom and I were at the local mall (not loads of places to buy summer gear in Montreal), and I’d not yet banished her from the dressing room. I desperately wanted the suit that “everyone” (“EVERYONE, MOM!!!!!”) had: one of those heinous bikinis that attached on the sides. Remember those, from the early 90s?
I was, at the time (who am I kidding, I still am), someone who liked to please my mother (and everyone else) so when I pulled one off the hanger — I still recall it perfectly: a yellow, blue and white striped top with navy bottoms — so, so eager for her approval, and she gave it a sort of “what the fuck is that” look, I was crushed. She didn’t like this thing that I loved?
What the hell was I to do now?
I tried it on. I loved it more. She did not. I sincerely did not know what to do.
Now, perhaps this is the moment to say that I am still, firmly in middle age, a person who texts friends photos of me sporting random outfits from the dressing room of Madewell with “Y/N” in the text. I am someone who seeks approval and guidance and help from others (see: my piece in Lenny Letter, RIP) in a pathological way. I know my style, I love clothing, I shop a fair amount, I mostly do it just fine on my own and trust my instincts, but back then, my mother was my only guide and we’d never, well, disagreed about clothing before.
(Okay, pause: No, not true. She didn’t let me buy those horrible plastic shoes, also famous in the 80s, that everyone but me had.)
We stood in the dressing room, both of us staring at beanpole-thin pre-pubescent me in the mirror in what I’m now sure my mother thought was a mildly inappropriate swimsuit and I thought was my whole new reason for being.
Surely she was thinking: Can I let my preteen out in public in this thing?
I was thinking: If only I could convince her to like it! Then I could get it! But no. That wasn’t happening. Nothing was going to make her come around to how perfect it looked on me.
The wait felt interminable.
“I will buy it for you,” she finally said, when it became clear that it was the only suit I’d wear, “but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. You have to like it, even if I don’t.”
Now, writing these words down now, three decades later, I see that it sounds weirdly wrapped in guilt. It sounds like a very Jewish Mom thing to say. Like, “you know I hate it and if you get it, you’ll wear it knowing I hate it!”? Or something like that?
But at the time, I think what my mother was trying to do was to show me that it was actually okay to wear something she didn’t like or would have chosen for me. That maybe it was simply enough that I liked it. That I’d have to learn to work through the not insignificant discomfort this caused me, and that maybe the discomfort wasn’t bad. Maybe it was a necessary part of growing up.
And this, for a kid like me, who was so firmly enmeshed with my mom I’m surprised I had a single opinion of my own, was enormously liberating.
It is surely what finally allowed me to pierce my nose at 19, even though I knew my father wanted to kill me for doing it. It’s what allowed me to wear all sorts of bizarre outfits through high school and college (and beyond) with confidence. And it’s what helped me begin to distinguish my own taste from my mother’s (and everyone else’s).
So here I am now, the mother, staring into a new mirror.
My preteen and I went shopping this weekend and I was banned from almost every dressing room she went in. We bought nothing — the outing seemed to be about the fun of trying things on, not of actually coming home with anything — but her impulse was to choose pieces and don them absent my gaze. I found some part of this enormously thrilling. Unlike young me, she isn’t seeking my approval. Or maybe — dear God, I hope not — she is and wanting it so much she won’t even let me in, for fear of what I’ll say. (I honestly have quite a lot of self-control when it comes to her clothing, if not with everything else.)
I am right at the beginning of this journey of wading into preteen/teen clothing, of her doing things without my knowledge or consent, and I can already tell that it’s going to be (and this is an understatement) a doozy. How do we weigh what we like versus what is appropriate versus what is our idea of appropriate versus current styles versus old feminist views versus new feminist views versus the reality of the misogynistic, violent world we live in? I have no idea. I’ve had many talks with mothers of teens to help me begin to navigate this tricky territory. I have more questions and complicated feelings than I can count.
But what I do want is for my daughter to feel that she can trust her own impulses, even if they aren’t mine, or even if my instincts say something different. Now, of course this, too, is laden and far from simplistic. Even in Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein writes about how (especially “revealing”) clothing can make teen girls feel both powerful and powerless — of course! Because “hypersexualization…is the water in which girls swim, the air they breathe.” I don’t think the answer is to cover them up or forbid them from wearing certain items of clothing, but it is criminal how quickly we put the attention on how girls should dress, and not on, you know, how boys and men should behave. We so quickly turn to how girls are perceived, rather than to how they feel in their own skin. But I digress.
For now, I want to let her explore, and keep my nose out of it (as much as possible, which means, not always). Yes, I want to teach her that there are places to wear certain things and other places where those things aren’t the most…appropriate. But I also want to let her eye and desire wander wild. I want her to feel free and strong and at home in her beautiful body. I want that to last as long as it possibly can.
ALL THE THINGS I must admit that I have fallen for Dr. Becky? I am already learning a lot from her book, Good Inside, and loved hearing her on We Can Do Hard Things (yes, I’m a cliché). I’m also loving You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty by Akwaeke Emezi. A friend of mine suggested I start adding what I baked this week, so here it is: Yossi Arefi’s swirled jam cake from Snacking Cakes, the (insanely delicious) cardamom cake in Melissa Clark’s new Dinner in One, and Aunt Lolly’s Chocolate Chip Cookies (a standard around here).
People + Bodies is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.