The Cleavage Conundrum

“Have you seen your daughter’s latest profile pic?”

This was the immediate question that greeted me one afternoon upon answering my phone to a concerned relative. “Ah, well no….not yet” I embarrassingly admitted. Oh crap, I thought – “what kind of a parent am I?” I read all the articles, I understand and support all the advice that tell parents that you have to monitor what your kids are doing on-line. I get it but, I will honestly say, I am just not that good at it.


“You should check it out. She is showing a lot” continued the caller. My heart sank – I am the worst mother of all time.

So I did what most mothers would do – politely excused myself from the phone, broke down in tears and ran to the nearest computer (of which we have an embarrassing amount) in search of the wanton photo. And this is what I found – a photograph of my daughter from the head to the waist. In it, she is laughing with her head bent forward so her hair falls around her. She is wearing a v-neck t-shirt that is, admittedly, cut quite low and which amply showcases her La Senza push-up cleavage.

My first reaction was – “Geez, when did she grow those?” And my second was – “Every guy on the web is going to be gawking at her. What was she thinking?” And my third was to cry some more.

So I was waiting at the door when she got home that day with what was obviously my “we have to talk” face which is why she immediately put on her “oh god, what did I do now” face. Before she could speak, I showed her the photo and launched into all my concerns with it – “it’s too sexy, why are you objectifying yourself in this way, if you are trying to impress boys you are sending them the wrong message, the look is too old, the cleavage is too much, people will misconstrue and think you are slutty, why would you post something so revealing, why are you are killing me”.

Once I exhausted myself and finally turned to my daughter to see how she could possibly defend such an image, she simply looked at me and quietly said – “Oh, I thought I looked nice”.

Crap, crap, crap – back peddling required. “Yes, you do look nice, it’s actually quite a beautiful photo, you should never be embarrassed by your body, if people think things about you by the way you dress that is their problem, no boy ever has the right to assume anything about you, you could walk around naked and still no one has the right to judge you or touch you, I’m proud of your independence and strength”.

Upon which, I gave her a huge hug, told her how much I loved her and sent her merrily on her way. Once alone, I melted into a confused, exhausted puddle. What was the right answer? What am I supposed to say to caution and embolden her at the same time? Why doesn’t she have the same modesty I had at that age?

The answer to the last question is easy enough. The perspective she has on modesty is different than mine because the world in which she is growing up is different than mine. Outfits we were taught to see as ‘immodest’ or ‘sexual’, many girls now just take for fashion. This is not earth shattering news. Hemlines have been rising for centuries with intergenerational conflict accompanying each new fashion benchmark. How my daughter views her body and her wardrobe choices are simply a product of her reality. I mean it’s not like she is shopping at the Adult Sex store. All her clothes come from mainstream retailers at the local mall. All are specifically marketed to her age group. All are within the norm of what she sees on TV, in advertising, on Instagram, in magazines, on friends. All are, in her eyes, completely appropriate.

So the why, once I stopped and thought about it, isn’t that mystifying. But it still leaves me conflicted as to how to guide her through these young years when she is developing her own sense of self.

I recently read an article where a mother, exasperated by her daughter’s short skirts, waited until her daughter went to school one day and then threw out all clothing she found concerning, replacing it with what she deemed more modest attire of below the knee skirts only. In support of this, I know many experts who would say that you just need to lay down the law and kids will not only respond but be grateful in the long run. And I do support that children feel more secure with structure, but, in my mind there is a line between guidance and dominance, education and control. I want my daughter to learn to be strong in her own decisions because soon enough she will be of age to make them all on her own.

I know that I have the responsibility to teach her that all her choices, even wardrobe choices, have consequences with regards to how people may treat her. But I refuse to support the idea of victim-shaming, where the first thing an assaulted woman might be asked is – ‘what were you wearing?’. I mean, where does that get us given that people’s ideas of appropriateness can vary so widely – ‘….she showed her butt’, ‘….she showed her boobs’, ‘….she showed her ankles’.

So, after I thought about it for a long time, I picked myself up and asked my daughter back for a more coherent discussion. But this time, I asked her questions and tried to understand where her decisions were coming from before I spoke. And some of her answers were surprising. Where I was afraid that I might have a young girl who was so insecure about her body that she was trying to attract attention in the wrong way, I learned that what I really had was a confident young lady who was comfortable with her body and her style sense.

But what I really discovered is that every time we talk, I get to learn a little more about my daughter. If I had sensed that her decisions were coming from a place of insecurity then we could have begun to deal with those issues directly. If I had just unilaterally laid down the law about her wardrobe, I might be able to change behaviour in the short term but I would have no idea where that behaviour was coming from and any real issues may never surface.

However, in my case, I had a happy, confident and at times completely inappropriately dressed daughter. And so it was my turn to talk. I told her about the concerns I had as a mother and a woman with more experience. In the end, I have become a little more flexible and she has become a little more adaptable and aware. And yes, we still battle, but at least we still talk. Because in the end, I know that there is no way that I can monitor her 24 hours a day, whether on-line or out in the world. I could force her out of the house in her mid-length skirt only to have her hike it up once she hits the school ground. The decisions she makes in life will ultimately be hers, I can only hope that if we keep talking at least a bit of my guidance will rub off.