Walking past a group of young girls on the weekend my 11-year-old daughter asked: “Mummy, do all teenagers dress like that?”
I hadn’t really noticed the group, so I performed a subtle spin in order to answer her question. I needn’t have bothered. I’d seen the outift before. Many times. We all have. It's a look that's become like cheap wallpaper in lifts – it surrounds you but you choose to ignore it.
Like most girls of that age, they were wearing a uniform of sorts - teeny-tiny, ripped denim shorts with a singlet top cut low on the side to expose a bra, bikini or tube top. They all had long, long hair - I’m talking Picnic At Hanging Rock length - black eye-liner, over-enthusiastic bronzer, neon nails and two of the five girls had tattoos on their ankles.
What really alarmed me wasn’t the lashes or lack of material – it was the age of the group. These girls were barely in their teens – maybe 13? Maybe. The make-up made it tricky to tell exactly but either way they were far too young to be dressed in next to nothing on a busy street in a city that was gearing up for a Saturday night.
Too young, too much, too soon.
As a mother of two daughters these are the phrases that keep me awake at night. The gaggle of girls was a glimpse into my not-so-distant future. I may not want my daughters to dress like that but they’ll most certainly have friends that do. Perfectly lovely girls that they’ll want to emulate and copy. I can see the battles about frayed denim and mascara that lie ahead of me and for the thousandth, millionth time since I was blessed with my kids, I found myself thinking: bringing up girls is haaaarrd.
I’ve just finished reading Steve Biddulph's latest book Raising Girls, a companion to the global block-busterRaising Boys which has sold over 3 million copies and has become a parenting bible. It's packed with the same style of common sense and solid advice. Things like: avoid toys that specifically target girls or toys that make them think appearance is the most important thing. Don’t dress them up as mini women. Spend time with them and help them find something that they’re passionate about in order to nurture and develop self-esteem. But Biddulph doesn’t pull any punches - in his opinion, when it comes to girls, parents have their work cut out for them.
"To understand our daughters, we have to realise that their childhood is not like ours. To put it bluntly, our 18 is their 14. Our 14 is their ten", Bidoulph writes. "Never before has girlhood been under such a sustained assault, ranging through everything from diet ads, alcohol marketing and fashion pressures, to the in roads of pornography into teenage bedrooms."
He’s not telling us anything we don’t already suspect but seeing it written in black and white is confronting. No matter how prepared, researched or match-fit you are as a parent, the soup of skinny models, Rihanna and Chris Brown love stories, Teen Mom reality and Kardashian Inc are pretty big, ever-present elephants in the room. The part of the book that really resonated was the suggestion that girls can benefit from a suite of female role models - not just their mothers. The mother/daughter dynamic can be notoriously tricky and it makes a lot of sense to have a bunch of women whom your daughters can turn to for different aspects of advice. His idea of creating an ‘Aunt Army’ idea seems like a win/win scenario - providing reinforcements for both Mum and daughter.
Back in the car, my daughter posed the question again: “Mum, do all teenage girls dress like that?” It was only then that I realised the reason she was asking was because she was a little bit scared of my answer. She knew that the girls were only a couple of years older than her and yet she is miles away from that space - still happily escaping into the world of books and a newly formed cupcake club. She was looking at her future too. One that made her feel a little unsafe.
The exchange ended up being one of those rare parenting gifts because it reminded me that while my judgment won't always be right (and certainly won't make me popular), it should always have protection at its core. So I told her that she would be one of the teenage girls that didn’t dress that way because I was never, ever buying her a pair of those shorts. Like ever.
There was an audible sigh of quiet relief followed very quickly by an eye roll and a “Goooosh Mum”, but five minutes later, when I checked on her in the rear view mirror she was looking out of the window with a smile.