Moms To Kids: You Can't Wear That!

The battle between mothers and daughters over wardrobe is an age-old one. And as Spring ushers in warmer weather, many moms are likely to find themselves objecting to the way their girls are dressing. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, writer Jennifer Moses lamented that girls are dressing too provocatively and parents let them get away with it. In Tell Me More's weekly parenting segment, host Michel Martin debates whether parents should police their daughter's wardrobe with Moses and regular parenting contributors, Dani Tucker and Leslie Morgan Steiner.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Listen up: In celebration of National Poetry Month, we will offer up another in our series of tweet poems. They are all written by listeners and friends of the program. They are all 140 characters or less, because they are tweets. So, listen closely or you'll miss it. That's coming up later in the program.

But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Now it is April, and in many parts of the country, it's starting to get nice outside. So younger folks are no doubt itching to get into their warm-weather clothes. And if you are the parent of a teenage girl, you have probably - if you have not, you probably will - have some fight about what she will wear outside of the house. What do you do when your daughter wants to wear a skirt that you think rises too high or shirt that you think hits a bit too low for you or for the folks where she goes to school?

One mom says she thinks parents today are letting their daughters get away with too much when it comes to clothes. Jennifer Moses has seen so many girls dressing like, quote, "prostitutes," she wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal titled "Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?" And Jennifer Moses is an author and essayist and a mom of three, and she's with us now from our bureau in New York.

Welcome.

Ms. JENNIFER MOSES (Author, Columnist): Pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: Also with us, two of our moms regulars: Dani Tucker and Leslie Morgan Steiner. They're here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Welcome back to you both. Thank you for joining us.

DANI TUCKER: Great to be here.

LESLIE MORGAN STEINER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: So Jennifer, I understand you got a very lively response to your piece. How many comments did you get?

Ms. MOSES: Last time I checked, it was about 600.

MARTIN: About 600. So what made you write this piece? And I'm sure this is one of those things - this is one of those pieces that since, like, three people who don't know each other all sent it to me, you knew that this was one of those things that people are talking about.

Ms. MOSES: Right.

MARTIN: So what prompted you to write this piece?

Ms. MOSES: Yeah. It was - actually, it was an extraordinary response. It totally blindsided me. In a million years, I wouldn't have expected this. And I thought it was real obvious, a real, real obvious subject, too - so obvious that I didn't think The Wall Street Journal would give me an assignment to write it because, to me, again, it's a real duh. You don't let your daughter go out in three-inch heels: A, because it looks, you know, it tricks her out like a hooker, and, B, because, well, she'll - it'll cripple her, right, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOSES: You may as well bind your feet.

MARTIN: When you say - all of which brings me to a question: Why do so many of us not only permit our teenage daughters to dress like this - like prostitutes, if we're being honest with ourselves - but pay for them to do it with our AMEX cards? Well, what answer did you come up with? And I'll bring the other moms into the conversation, see if they've noticed the same thing.

Ms. MOSES: Well, I think it's a whole condemnation of things. I think a lot of - and this is not to blame working mothers, but I think a lot of working moms really feel guilty about not being home. And so they want - it's not buying their children's love, but they don't want to fight when they're home. They don't want to get into quarrels. And they might just be exhausted, so it's easier to give in.

They themselves - and dads, as well - might just really might not know that those clothes, in my view, are inappropriate. I think there's been an enormous amount of sexual - real confusion in our culture for the past 30 or 40 or 50 years in the wake of feminism. We all got confused about what is a woman. Is a woman a strong person who follows her heart, or is a woman a strong, sexual being who follows her sexual urges right into the bedroom? And I think that's gotten mixed up with the kinds of ways we express ourselves in our clothing choices.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you? What do you think about this? Is this something that concerns you, that you feel like girls are dressing way too provocatively? Because some people might argue that this is a cultural problem, you know, that there are cultural issue - you know, there are a lot of cultures in which girls are very closely chaperoned who dress however they want to dress because they know there's always going to be an adult, you know, around, so they can do whatever they want. So, Dani, what do you think?

TUCKER: I agree with Jennifer. In my neighborhood, in my culture, it's out of hand. And to me, it's really out of hand, because a lot of the mothers are not understanding that your daughters are doing what you do. And I bring this up to say what - last month, we were in L.A., and we had a reputation of being the grown and mature women by the way we dressed, because at the All-Star game, the women had no clothes on. Now these weren't young women. These were women that were out - I know they had daughters like I have a daughter. So I'm like okay, if this is the way you dress, if this is what you say to your daughter that when you get around a man the only way you can get him to notice you is to look like this, that's what she's going to do. That's what she's going to pick up because it's okay.

Another thing I think that's a problem in my neighborhood and my culture is we have lost that Big Mama effect. Many in the black community, we grew up with a Big Mama, or grandmamma or a nana, whatever you called her, but she was the one that would crack the whip when the family looked like it was having some issues.

As a young mother, my mother had to tell me at first, you shouldn't do that or don't let her do that. We don't have that anymore because somebody has not said to these mamas, wait a minute, you shouldn't be dressing like that and neither should she. There's got to be some voice of reason, some maturity in the family and I think we are suffering in my community from not having that.

MARTIN: Leslie, what do you think?

Ms. STEINER: What I see as part of the problem...

MARTIN: I just want to mention, Leslie is one of the people who sent me these, sent me this article saying she loved it, so.

Ms. STEINER: I loved it. I loved it. What I see is the problem is that we are a generation of women who are much closer to our daughters than our own mothers were. And so sometimes the boundaries are blurred and we want to be their friend and it's harder to say no. And I also think that our own sexual identity and our feminist identity sometimes gets mixed up here and we want to be supportive of our girls and it's hard to guide them and tell them no and explain all the reasons why and not go too far either direction. Because I actually think that girls - you have to let them make a few mistakes. I have to come clean, I made my own mistakes as a teenage girl and there's some mistakes you only make once.

MARTIN: Wait a minute. Like, really, like who among us did not immediately when we got out of the house roll the waistband of our skirt up, put on the big earrings that we'd hidden in our book bags that our moms wouldn't let us wear out of the house? Who among us didn't do that?

Ms. STEINER: Right. I know. I think that that's true.

MARTIN: So Leslie, do you think that this is of a different order of magnitude as Jennifer says?

Ms. STEINER: I don't see it. I don't see it that way and I don't believe in blaming the girls for doing it because I think they don't know what the rules are, and I'm putting air quotes because there are really rules about how you dress and some adult women, you know, don't follow these same guidelines. And I also think it's complicated, because I think you've got to separate dressing provocatively from - or stupidly - from sexual promiscuity. Because just because you wear a plunging neckline doesn't mean that you're sexually available, whether you're 10 or you're 40. It might just mean that you like the shirt, you like the way it looks and I think it's hard for girls to know exactly where the lines are. And our job as moms is not necessarily to be the policewoman at the door. Sometimes I want my daughters to make mistakes and learn on their own and other times I feel like I need to step in.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're having our weekly visit with the Moms and we're talking about a provocative piece written by author Jennifer Moses a couple of weeks ago in The Wall Street Journal. It was called "Why Do We Let Them Dress Like That?" And it's about the way teenage girls dress and why they're permitted to do so by their parents, who are in most cases paying for these attention-getting outfits.

With us are Jennifer Moses and our regulars, Dani Tucker and Leslie Morgan Steiner.

Jennifer, did anybody write back to say, you know, lighten up, mom. You know, lighten up. And there's another aspect of this which you actually alluded to in the piece; this whole question of do we really want to go back to the days when, you know, the girls had all the burden of sexuality but none of the pleasures of it? That, you know, that there was this demarcation where girls were not supposed to be interested in sex when, of course, they are? You know, there are extremes of this and other cultures that we would find appalling. But did anybody say, oh, you know, lighten up. Come on, Jennifer.

Ms. MOSES: Everybody said everything. In fact, the left it's interesting because I consider myself politically kind of lefty and the lefties sort of really demonized me as the voice of, you know, quote/unquote, "family values," let's make everybody look like the Osmond's', whoever they were Donny, Marie. And what I'm really trying to emphasize is that how we dress and how young ladies and teenagers 20-somethings dress. I have no problem with women being themselves and their clothing styles, but clothing absolutely does send a message and if the messages is come grab my butt, I don't think we should be encouraging our youth to project that.

That said, I want to go back just quickly to something Dani said, which is interesting. In her culture she says it's getting out of control. But in my mind I think this is a problem or a phenomenon, if you will, that cuts across all cultural, racial and socioeconomic lines. I don't see it as belonging to one group or another of us. I think it's the entire culture is pervaded with these clothing styles because sex sells and the clothing manufacturers and others are making a lot of money off women's desire to be sexually attractive.

MARTIN: Leslie?

Ms. STEINER: You know, one thing that I think people find disturbing about this topic is the idea that moms are encouraging their daughters to dress in a way that it is too provocative. And, you know, there's a difference. When I was a girl we had to hide it from our moms and sneak out. And it seems like it's happening now in full view of the mothers.

MARTIN: What are you talking about? Dani said, it's sometimes the moms that are...

Ms. STEINER: Right. It's true.

MARTIN: You know, this has become a staple of some of these reality shows. I mean how many times a year does one of these shows have like the children hauling the mother in front of somebody like a Dr. Phil to say, you know, mom we'd really appreciate it if you'd stop dressing like that, so.

Ms. STEINER: Right. And I think that that is what some people find so disconcerting. And I have a daughter who's 12, who's very tall and, you know, experienced a transformation this year where she went in the of course of what seemed like a few weeks from a girl to a teenage girl. And the first time that I really saw her dressed in kind of her new clothing with a little bit of makeup on it took my breath away. It was a thrill. And I wonder if this is kind of a mom competitiveness sort of thing, perhaps.

And I hate to shine the spotlight on myself and other moms in this way because it's not very flattering but, you know, just as our attractiveness is fading or we're accepting that it's fading, do we get kind of a real jolt from seeing how beautiful and attractive our daughters are? And is that part of the problem? Do we feel reenergized and like we're somehow better moms by helping our daughters be so attractive, even if we cross a line and have them go a little bit too far?

MARTIN: That's the question I wanted to sort of conclude on is, what's the answer here? Because we can all say what we think is appropriate in our own households. I think the question becomes the larger social context in which our kids are operating. So that's the question I have. And Dani raises this whole question of Big Mama on the block who had the moral authority to say, you know, this really isn't appropriate; doesn't exist anymore or if she does, has been cursed out so many times by people telling her to mind her own business that she's probably not weighing in.

So I'd like to ask each of you in the minutes that we have left to ask what do you think is the way to address this? You know, what do you think? Jennifer, you started this so you can tell us...

Ms. MOSES: Oh, yeah. Sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What do you think? What do you recommend? What would you wish?

Ms. MOSES: Well, one thing is we're not even if we wanted to go back to a double standard, which was your earlier question, is not going to happen. We're not going to be able to roll, nor is it desirable to pretend we now live in 1951. But, sure, mom, mother power. You know, women of my generation - I'm 51 years old, I graduated from college in 1981 - women of my generation on the whole, my observation is we have given up our mama power. We have given up bonding with the other mamas for our, you know, both for ourselves and for our daughters' sakes and it's partly because we're just so damn busy. We don't have time for that Wednesday morning breakfast anymore.

But I would say, yeah, you know, let the parents talk to each other. Sure, you can do it through, you know, another community, a church, a synagogue, a mosque, the neighborhood block. Any way you can do it, but you get with your own community and you discuss these things.

MARTIN: Have you ever done that? Have you ever pulled another mom aside and said, you know, maybe, you know, Susie doesn't need to wear a strapless tube top to work. Have you ever tried that?

Ms. MOSES: No. But I'm not, that's not what I'm talking about.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MOSES: I'm not talking about butting into somebody else's face. I'm talking about the moms bonding together and coming to some conclusion to support each other in their strengths as moms.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you?

Ms. TUCKER: I like what Jennifer said, but maybe not, before you get together with another mom get together with yourself; it's time to grow up. Because you can't come to be with another mom's circle if you're aren't mature in the head. And I think a lot of our mothers just refuse. Growing up and being, again -we've had this show before - being your daughter's friend or your daughter's, you know, mother. There's just no gray line. Be a mother. Be a mother. It's okay. Don't mean we're getting old and ugly, it's just means we're mature. We've got to take our rightful place. They are doing what they're doing because of what we're doing or what we're not saying. Bottom line, all goes back to us. All comes back to the moms.

MARTIN: You look fabulous, by the way.

Ms. TUCKER: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: I just thought I'd mention that so. You too, Leslie. Jennifer, I'm sure you look fabulous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOSES: I look amazing.

MARTIN: I'm sure you do.

Ms. MOSES: Plus, I'm married.

MARTIN: Leslie, I'm going to give you the final word. What would you like to see happen as a result of this conversation? Any way to put that genie back in the bottle? Do we even want to?

Ms. STEINER: Well, all I can focus on is my own family. I would never judge or bring the subject up with another mom or her daughter. I just wouldn't dare, even with my best friends. But I do think it's part of my job to guide my daughters and to tell them, to set some guidelines. You know, an easy one is that my daughter, who's 12, can wear makeup on the weekends but she can't wear it to school.

I also think it's really important not to shame the girls or blame them for the mistakes that they made, because as I said earlier, I made many of my own mistakes and it doesn't mean that I was - even though I once or twice dressed like a 16-year-old call girl, it doesn't mean that I was one, and I don't think anybody should be treated that way.

And I'll just close by telling a story of one of my daughter's best friends. We were talking about makeup one day and this girl so sweetly said, you know, my mom says I'm so beautiful that I don't need to wear any makeup at all. And I thought that's a great message. You know, that's a really positive way without shaming her or making her feel guilty or slutty or something or just reinforcing how wonderful it is to feel great about your body and the way that you look.

MARTIN: Leslie Morgan Steiner is the editor of "Mommy Wars" and the author most recently of the memoir "Crazy Love." She's one of our Moms regulars. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Dani Tucker, another of our regulars. And with us from New York, Jennifer Moses. She's an author and essayist. Her latest book is "Bagels and Grits: A Jew on the Bayou," and she joined us from our bureau in New York.

Ladies, moms, thank you all so much.

Ms. TUCKER: Thank you.

Ms. MOSES: Thank you.

Ms. STEINER: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you want to read Jennifer's piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to npr.org, click on the Programs tab, and then on TELL ME MORE.

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