My 13-year-old daughter is in the midst of bar- and bat-mitzvah season, a Jewish coming-of-age ritual that generally includes a religious service and a party with DJ and dancing. I have recently seen her and her crew at some of these celebrations, dressed as they would for a fashion shoot, wearing every type of makeup all at once and dresses that belong in Teen Vogue.
The music, always played at ear-splitting levels, is all about sex: having it, wanting it, not getting enough of it. I get into a good, self-righteous, parent rage about the inappropriateness of the messages to my daughter for whom the word “sexy” is an adjective like “cool” or “great” — it has a meaning that’s positive but vague.
On the other hand, I rail against the Puritanical parents who kept an Elmo video off the air because the celebrity guest, Katy Perry, a pop music star, showed too much cleavage.
In my mixed reaction to the sexual messages surrounding my girls, I suddenly understand (in that clueless dad kind of way) the female dilemma of sex and success, attire and attraction and how my teenage daughters are just starting to sort this all out.
My 15-year-old and her friends like to shop at the American Apparel stores in Brooklyn Heights or Cobble Hill where the 20-ish sales people all wear not quite enough clothes. My daughter often makes dubious clothing choices, tops too tight or cut too low, and she’s been late to school occasionally because I wouldn’t let her out of the house without an argument. I understand she’s experimenting with the power of her newly womanized body, putting out messages through her scoop-neck tops or ripped tights and sifting through the often complex and contradictory responses she gets from the adults and kids around her. I’m sure the boys at school are encouraging. I’m less so, using words like “appropriate” and “respectful” to suggest less skin-baring choices. Doe she notice the gazes of men on the street? I hope so and hope not at the same time.
My girls can see the process of packaging their bodies and negotiating their sexuality will be life long. Their mother, daily, through her work wardrobe, navigates the neutral zone between attractive and sexy, building a wardrobe that’s filled with neither the Diplomat couture of Hillary Clinton nor the slutty look of “Jersey Shore” or the Kardashians.
All three of the women in my house want to feel good about how they look without crossing the sometimes invisible lines that will give the wrong message or bring an unwanted response.
The entertainment world barrages its young fans with infinite signals about bodies and sex (look at Brooklyn native Anne Hathaway’s journey from “The Princess Diaries” to sex scenes and nude magazine covers with Jake Gyllenhaal), but also provides examples of women who been empowered and successful in their use of their own sexuality — now it’s Perry, but before her was Lady Gaga, after Madonna, chef, Ann-Margret, etc. Women have long built their careers in the same way men did: hard work, talent and some sex appeal. There is, after all, always an “It” girl, no matter what era we are talking about.
As teens, my daughters are just starting to learn the power of their bodies, the attention their physiques can bring them, good and bad. My ranting and raging at a song on the radio or an image on screen isn’t going to change the obstacle course they will go through. They will get plenty of mixed messages and their solutions will be visible in their evolving styles and clothing choices.
It’s awards season and on the red carpets of the Grammys and Oscars there will be much decolletage, very high heels and leggy women showing off their talents. My daughters will be watching, and digesting everything there is to see — and the unseen things, too.