I was 11. It was almost summer, my mom and I were at the local mall looking for a bathing suit. I hadn’t yet banished her from the dressing room and was desperate for the suit that “everyone” (“EVERYONE, MOM!!!!!”) had: one of those bikinis that stick to the sides. Remember themfrom the early 90s?
I was at the time (who am I kidding, I still am) someone who liked to please my mother and pretty much everyone else in my life, so when I pulled the suit off the hanger – I still remember it perfectly: a yellow , blue and white striped top with navy bottoms that cinched just above my hip bones – I was so, so eager for mom’s approval.
She gave it a “what the hell” kind of look. I was devastated. What should I do now?
I tried it on. I loved it more. She didn’t. I honestly didn’t know what to do.
Now maybe now is the time to say that, well into middle age, I’m still someone who texts friends pictures of me in random outfits from the dressing room with “y/n.” Although I know my style and mostly trust my instincts, I like to seek guidance from others. And then my mother was my only guide, and we would never, well, disagree about clothes before.
We were standing in the dressing room and we were both staring at my pre-pubescent body in the mirror in what I’m now sure my mother thought was a slightly inappropriate bathing suit and I thought was my brand new reason to be.
She probably thought: Can I let my preteen wear this thing in public?
I thought: If only I could convince her to like it! Then I could have it! But no. It didn’t happen. Nothing would make her find out how perfect it looked on me.
The wait felt endless.
“I’ll buy it for you,” she finally said when it became clear that it was the only suit I wanted to wear, “but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. You must like it, even if I don’t.”
Writing these words down now, three decades later, I see that it sounds like one much Jewish mother things to say. Like, “you know I hate it, and if you get it, you’ll wear it, knowing HOW MUCH I HATE IT!!”
But at the time, I think my mom was trying to teach me that it was actually okay to wear something she didn’t like; Perhaps it simply was enough that I liked it. That I had to learn to work through the not inconsiderable discomfort it gave me, and that the discomfort might not be bad. Maybe it was a necessary part of growing up.
And this was hugely liberating for a child like me who was so firmly embedded in my mother that I’m surprised I had a single opinion. I could get mine own wishes?
It’s definitely what allowed me to get my nose pierced at 19, even though I knew my dad was furious with me for doing it. It’s what helped me wear all sorts of bizarre outfits through high school and college (and beyond) with confidence and to shave my head and then grow my hair out and style it in all sorts of ways. And that’s what lets me begin to distinguish my taste from my mother’s (and everyone else’s).
So here I am now, the mother, staring into a new mirror.
My preteen and I went shopping over the weekend and I got banned from almost every dressing room she went into. We didn’t buy anything – the outing was more about the fun of trying things on, not actually coming home with anything – but her impulse was to choose pieces and wear them privately. I found parts of this hugely intriguing. Unlike young me, she doesn’t seek my approval! Or maybe—dear God, I hope not—her is and wants it so much that she won’t even let me in for fear of what I will say.
I’m just at the beginning of this journey of wading into preteen/teen clothing choices where she’s doing things without my knowledge or permission and I can already see it’s going to be stupid. How do we weigh what we like versus what is “appropriate” against what our idea of what is “appropriate” vs current styles vs old feminist views vs new feminist views vs the reality of the misogynist violent world we live in? I have no idea. No one like that. I have had many conversations with mothers of teenagers to help me navigate this difficult area. I have more questions and complicated feelings than I can count.
What I do know is that I want my daughter to trust her instincts – even if they differ from mine. I want my child to explore. I want her eyes and desire to wander wild. I want her to feel free and powerful and at home in her beautiful body. I want it to last as long as possible.
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine at USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + bodies. She has also written for Cup of Jo about beauty, marriage, lossand children only.
(Photo from the film Ladybug.)