Raise a Confident Girl by Breaking the Fashion Rules

“Don’t do that or you’ll rip your dress.”

“Don’t do that or you’ll mess up your hairstyle.”

“Don’t do that or you’ll scuff your shoes.”

Girls hear a lot of ‘don’ts’ from a very early age, and a lot of them are justified by falling back on appearances. Even when we aren’t directly telling girls that their appearance is their number one priority, we can accidentally reinforce the idea just by using image-based reasons to restrict movement or rein in play. This can have a negative impact on a girl’s sense of self-confidence and subtly send the message that girls can’t be tough, wild, or strong.

Historically, women’s clothing has often focused on form over function. As styles and social codes about modesty changed, women’s clothing often remained constraining. Corsets and laced bodices made it difficult to breathe, let alone run. High heels are not only difficult to maneuver in during their wear, but they can also cause lasting damage to the legs and feet, creating mobility issues for life. Bicycles were once considered “evil” for women, and a large part of that association came from the fact that cycling gave women the freedom to move and that with that freedom came new styles of dress that were less restrictive. There is even a garment that emerged in the 1910s called the “hobble skirt,” a skirt that tapers in so tightly around the ankles that women can only take tiny steps and are therefore literally “hobbled” when they wear it.

We have thankfully moved past most of these terrible practices of intentionally (and sometimes legally) restricting women’s movement. We can show our daughters confident role models who move their bodies freely and exude great power. Athletes like tennis powerhouse Serena Williams and gymnastic Olympic Gold winner Aly Raisman portray grace and strength and use their public platform to speak out against sexism at every turn. Entertainers like Beyoncé and Pink similarly put on public performances where their freedom to move powerfully across the stage is as much a part of their appeal as their singing. It’s no accident that they also fill their lyrics with messages of girl power. When our daughters see these performances, they are sent the message that they, too, can be powerful and strong.

But do their clothing choices match this opportunity?

If you have gone into a mainstream clothing outlet to buy clothes for your daughter, you may have found yourself frustrated with the options before you. As Parent Co. asks:

“Why is it that a long sleeve t-shirt from the boys’ section is square and boxy with loose sleeves that allow for plenty of movement, and the same item from the girls’ section has tight sleeves, a plunging neckline, and might even be cinched at the waist?”

Many parents have noticed that it can be difficult to buy their daughters clothing that allows flexibility and movement. Many of even the most basic pieces like shorts and t-shirts are designed to fit very tightly. The issues extend beyond fit. Girls’ clothes are much more likely to be adorned with decorative items like lace and bows. These elements are often very beautiful, but they come at a cost because they are also very delicate. You wouldn’t want to throw yourself head first into that mud puddle and ruin those beautiful sparkly sequins, would you? You wouldn’t want to climb a tree and snag that lace.

Shoes can be the worst offenders of all. Anna Kessel wrote an article about her struggles to find her daughter a pair of shoes that would allow for free play:

Boys have sturdy shoes that cover their whole foot and are suitable for running, climbing and adventuring. Girls have Mary Janes that are suitable for… a party. (A party where you get soggy feet if it rains.)

On top of that, the clothing can literally send messages to our children when it is adorned with cute sayings that not-so-subtly reinforce stereotypes about how boys and girls should behave. Even from infancy, boys get clothing featuring sports slogans, trucks, and rocket ships. All of these things are symbols of movement and power. Girls, on the other hand, get tiaras and princess slogans, a reminder that their most important job is to be pretty.

We can fall into this trap without any intentional motivations to limit what our daughters can do. We just buy what’s on the shelf. We’re not meaning to tell them that they can’t move.

But if we do venture out from the selection staring back at us from most major department stores, we face the backlash. We might throw our hands in the air and shop in the boys’ section, filling our carts with sturdier shoes and longer shorts but giving up the frills and pastel hues. We might order exclusively (and sometimes expensively) from an online outlet that specializes in “gender neutral” clothes that come in simple cuts with a range of primary colors on display. In doing so, though, we have to be prepared (and prepare our girls) to hear that they are dressed “like a boy,” a message that in itself can be damaging because it teaches our daughters that freedom of movement is reserved for boys.

So, what can we do? How can we make sure we are raising confident girls by breaking these fashion rules and giving them permission to practice their strength and power?

Let them wear pink . . . and everything else.

This isn’t about limiting girls’ options. Sparkly pink dresses are a fun and important part of exploring personal expression, but they shouldn’t be the only option in the closet. Make sure that your daughter has a range of clothing options and that you aren’t limiting her choices or sending her the message that she always has to be dressed in her fanciest attire.

Focus on shoes.

When you purchase shoes, in particular, really think about the impact that they’ll have on movement and comfort. Shoes that pinch or that are so flimsy they’ll fall apart when running and climbing might be cute for a quick formal event, but they aren’t everyday wear. Make sure your daughter has sturdy shoes that allow her to move freely even if it means that she’s often sporting tennis shoes with her dress.

Stop fearing dirt.

Girls can get dirty. They need to make mud pies and climb trees and splash in puddles and dig holes. They need to learn that their bodies are powerful and able to do things that they didn’t know they could do. If you find yourself unexpectedly stopping by a park and your daughter is in some pretty clothes, don’t use that as a reason to stop her from playing how she wants. Encourage her to get in the sandbox anyway and start intentionally sending the message that clothes are just clothes. They should be fun, but they should be functional, too.

Parenthood comes with a lot of pressure, and we never want to intentionally make our children the target of social ridicule or feeling like they don’t fit in. We often don’t think about how buying the most popular clothes can send the message early and often that girls should restrict themselves and what they do. Sometimes you have to break the fashion rules in order to give your daughter what she truly deserves: the chance to play and build self-confidence in her body’s power and strength.

Parent Resources

Child Mind Institute offers 13 tips to Boost Your Daughter’s Self-Esteem

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