Today’s personal account of trying to engender equality comes from Sabrina.

When a mother asks herself, “Why Do We Let Girls Dress Like That?” it gives you pause.  Schools discuss dress codes, magazines defend their position on women’s fashion, parents talk about the nitty-gritty rules of when to allow your daughter to pierce her ears or wear high heels.  But Moses poses a bigger question and ultimately asks, “How did it get to this?” and “What is the role for parents?”

Jennifer Moses posed those questions not on an empowerment blog, or on a women’s self-help site or even in a parenting magazine. She did it in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, and it hit a nerve. A big one. You can read it here, and see that in just over a week it received over 600 comments.  Clearly, something is wrong; almost everyone can agree on that.

I had two responses to this.  The first, was a memory from one of my favorite aunties. The other a thought about empowering boys.

The best conversation I had about how we dress came from one of my mother’s friends, an “Auntie” without any blood connection.  She was the first person to point out to me that being beautiful and being sexy were not the same thing, though the words have become interchangeable.

She and a friend had noticed that in their remote little part of the world, in distant towns and villages, most of the women had been sexually abused.  The vast majority, in fact.  Some worse than others, some with a greater support system.  They started working with groups and looking at what motivated them.

The women created collages from magazine images that motivated them. The healthy ones were predictable: love, family, encouragement, beauty. They were colorful. They showed children playing with parents.  They were joyful.

Those who had suffered the most abuse chose images of power, war, survival and . . . seduction.  Seduction, they found, was a victim’s response, as if to say, You took power from me.  Now, I can make you desire me.  I can make you attracted.  I can regain, in this one way, power over you. These were the women who had dressed the most sexy, the ones dressing, as Moses wrote in her article, “like prostitutes, if we’re being honest with ourselves.”  What was more insteresting, however, was that these women themselves did not think of their dress as beautiful, because they weren’t dressing for themselves.  They were dressing for the men.

My auntie and her friend started working on healing circles. One of their biggest activities in the circles was dressing for yourself, with all the color–and cover–that each woman felt was beautiful.  It changed their outlook completely.

I’m not suggesting that the girls Moses wrote about are all the victims of sexual abuse, but I am suggesting that there is an inherent power-play built into the way we’ve come to define “beauty,” and how these women in a far off village learned to step away from their own power-plays might be applicable.

My auntie’s story helped me to look in the mirror and ask, “Am I doing this for myself, or because I want attention?  Is this beautiful to me?”  It was not an angry or punitive approach trying, in vein, to enforce greater rules.  It was genuine encouragement.

If we are truly engendering equality, though, then the saddest part of the story isn’t how the girls are dressing but how so very little we expect of the boys and men.  It denies the very nobility inherent to both genders: men, in particular, are rarely portrayed in terms beyond their sex drive.  Why do girls dress this way? To get attention from boys.  Really? Is that all we allow boys to pay attention to?  What if there is more to them and what they’d truly want in a female peer?  Where did their craving for empathy, for an equal amount of encouragement and attention go?

On one hand, there are a number of books and articles pointing out the double standard: If a man is promiscuous, what do we call him?  A “player,” a “pimp”?  Those aren’t considered half as bad as what we’d call an equally-promiscuous woman.

But there is another double standard. It’s equally harmful but rarely addressed.  It’s the “good girl” vs. the “good boy” definitions.  It’s the idea that a woman can be pure and chaste and, no matter how hard it may be, no matter how much peer pressure she may face, she can and will be respected for it at the end of the day.  Moses’ article addresses this.  But what of the men?

What happens to a boy when he goes off to college and people see that he’s not chasing woman and he is–gasp!–still a virgin?  He’s ridiculed. His sexuality comes into question; at first they wonder if he’s gay and still needs to come out of the closet, but after a while, if he’s not chasing men either, then he’s termed “asexual,” as if he was lacking one of those fundamental human characteristics.  As readily as we interchanged “sexy” for “beautiful,” we may have also come to confuse “manliness” with “chasing women.”

Perhaps there’s more to developing a man’s character, and more that they can do, want, crave and focus their energies on than what we’ve come to expect of them.

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