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This Mom's Against Modesty

Photograph by Getty Images

Recently, Stephanie Giese made headlines with her effort to have Target sell girls’ shorts with a longer inseam. Giese, in an open-letter to Target that ran on the Huffington Post, calls out the retailer for selling such skimpy shorts for little girls. She compares 2T shorts to 5T shorts, pointing out that the 2T shorts are longer.

Target responded by working with Giese to incorporate longer inseams in their children’s department. I applaud all of these efforts, because I believe that all options of clothing should be open to our children.

However, in a follow-up post to the open letter, Giese cites the oversexualization of girls as one of the main drivers behind her crusade. And yet, her arguments are grounded in the assumption that little girls must be covered up, which is itself a sexualization. Demanding that young girls hide their bodies to the extent that arbitrary inseam rules must be enforced is to assume that the body of a girl, even as young as a toddler, is a sexual object.

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In her original open letter, Giese notes that her daughter wears shorts under her skirts so she can be modest at the playground. Her daughter is only in Kindergarten. Where is the shame in a Kindergartner’s body? The answer is that there isn’t shame. There isn’t sexual intent. It’s just a body. It's Giese’s perspective that is sexualizing a monkey bar flip in a skirt at the age of 5.

Of course, all parents must walk that fine line between promoting safety, positive body image and clothes that our children find comfortable. And that can be a tricky place. But to assume that a toddler must attain a standard of modesty at the playground is to assume that a toddler has a sexual body to begin with. Giese is operating from a place that believes all women, even girls, must hide their bodies — that flashing some princess panties at a park is a source of shame. And this assumption falls right back into the trap that Giese believes she is fighting against. This arbitrary standard of modesty is just as sexualizing as slapping a glitter thong on a baby.

We shouldn’t teach girls to dress to conform to perception, but to be comfortable. To be who they are and who they want to be.

That is the problem with crusades for modesty. They teach girls that their bodies are weapons best kept sheathed. They argue that women bear the full weight for how others perceive them and, ergo, must wear clothes like a force field. No one ever expects this of boys. Never once have I heard a mother sigh exasperated by all the boys at the park running shirtless. But if a toddler girl flashes a pull-up, watch out.

The assumption that an inseam shorter than someone has arbitrarily deemed appropriate is somehow a “sexualization” of girls is itself a sexualization. It’s forcing a pernicious interpretation on what is an otherwise innocent pair of shorts. Giese’s fallacy is one of these interpretations.

The shorts are the Kantian hammer. In Kant’s analogy the hammer is neither good nor evil. The hammer can be used to build a house or it can be used to murder. The shorts are the same. Shorts are just shorts. They are just clothing. They can be used to cover a bum or flash some thigh. But the bigger fallacy here is in assuming that a Kindergartener is capable of making such a distinction. Or that the choice somehow implies a sexual evil. So what of flashing a thigh? So what of a peek of undies? They’re kids.

Shorts are just shorts. Shirts are just shirts. Children are just children. It’s our adult perspective that forces a sexual intent on cotton shorts.

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Modesty itself is a dubious standard. Do a Pinterest search for “modest” clothes. And you’ll see a range of burqas and hip-hugging skirts, prom dresses with sleeves and bathing suits with the sides cut out. I spent many of my summers attending a Baptist camp where inseam rules were strictly enforced on the pretty girls. I was a skinny, scabby girl-boy. No one cared if my shorts didn’t conform (and they often didn’t). But my curvy friend frequently found herself the subject of humiliating inseam measurements. She was even asked to put a T-shirt over her one-piece bathing suit because of cleavage she couldn’t control. Perceptions are faulty.

We shouldn’t teach girls to dress to conform to perception, but to be comfortable. To be who they are and who they want to be.

Of course, I believe children need more choices for clothes. Longer, more comfortable clothes should be part of that choice. So, Giese’s crusade is not without its benefit. But ultimately, the goals in dressing our daughters shouldn’t be to teach them that their bodies are a source of shame. The goal should be to empower them with the choice.

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