Last night, I became that mother. I became the mother who looked at her beautiful daughter and said ‘You’re not going out looking like that.’
Except I didn’t say those words, exactly. I said ‘Can you please find something else to wear? I’m not comfortable with you going out exposing so much flesh.’
She glowered at me in a way she started doing when she was about eighteen months old. Now, twelve-and-a-half years later, she has that glower perfected. What she’s feeling rolls off her and comes at you in waves. You always know how she’s feeling, even if you’re not exactly sure why. Last night, as she rifled through her drawers in search of something less revealing, I knew exactly why. She was not one bit happy at her frumpy old ma insisting she put on clothes that covered more flesh than she was currently exposing.
I wasn’t happy – and it wasn’t Ishthara I was unhappy with. It was myself I was unhappy with. I felt like a hypocrite. All her life, I’d been teaching my daughter about bodily autonomy, about how her body belongs to her, and her alone. I’m also of the belief that everyone should be allowed to wear what they like, when they like, where they like, and not be subject to abuse, intimidation, assault, or body-shaming of any description. I have mentioned this belief, several times, to my daughters. Yet here I was, telling my gorgeous 14 year-old that she needed to cover up before she went out.
I fumbled through my first attempt to explain myself to her.
‘It’s not that you should be ashamed of how you look,’ I started. Then I tried again.
‘You’re beautiful – because of how you are, more than because of how you look – and I don’t want you to feel that you should have to hide your beauty but…..’
I stopped. What the fuck was it I was trying to say? I couldn’t find the words, and I didn’t have time to dwell on finding them because I didn’t want her to be late for the disco. She’d been excited about it for weeks and her bestie was standing on the landing waiting. and I was making everything worse.
I took a deep breath and exhaled loudly.
‘You’re gorgeous and I love you more than my own life and…you are all that matters…and people judge, and I’m sorry that they do, but I don’t want people to judge you on what you’re wearing….’
I was close to tears at this stage because I knew I was bollocksing this up. And I knew it was important. And I knew it was important that I didn’t bollocks it up.
‘Teenage boys are bastards!’ burst out of me before I could stop it. I was horrified at myself. ‘I didn’t mean that. It was horribly sexist of me and a gross generalisation. What I mean is, some teenage boys are bastards and…some of think that they can touch anything they see, and the more of you they see, the more they think they can touch.’
That was no better. I was still making a complete pig’s ear of it.
‘I don’t want you to have to change what you wear because of what other people will think but that’s exactly what I’m asking you to do. I’m sorry…’ I was so conflicted, I was tormented by it. For a fleeting moment, I wished I was one of those parents who just lays down the law, and rules with a hard heart and an iron fist.
By now, Ishthara had found something else to wear and was keen to change and get going.
‘I don’t think you should have to hide yourself away, I just…’
She sighed. A deep, painful sigh.
‘Let’s just go.’
As we were heading out the door, I put my hand on her shoulder and turned her to face me. I didn’t want to make things more awkward for her than they already were. I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable around her best friend. But this was really important and I needed to get it right, no matter how many attempts it took.
‘Isha…’ I started again. ‘You are beautiful – and, of course I’m going to say that because I’m your mum, so that’s not empirical – but you are 14 and you look 20. You have the figure of an adult woman. And you have the poise of someone older than you as well. You look 20, but you’re not 20. You don’t have the life experience of a twenty-year-old. That’s nothing to do with being mature, or responsible, or anything other than the amount of years you have been on this planet. What that means is that you don’t know how to react when people treat you like you’re a lot older, or a lot more worldly than you are. I don’t want you to go out exposing any more skin than you are now because I don’t want you to be in a position where someone else says or does something that makes you uncomfortable and you don’t know how to deal with it.’
‘Okay,’ she said, less sullen than she had been earlier.
‘D’you remember, last year, when the man on the bridge started hitting on you?’
She nodded again.
‘And do you remember how you felt? And how it wasn’t very pleasant? And at least I was there, and I was able to deal with him?’
‘Yes.’ I could tell she was listening, taking it all in.
‘Well, when you’re older, you’ll be well able to cope with that kind of attention because you’ll have been around long enough to figure out how to deal with it. It’s the same with the kind of attention you’re going to get by dressing in a way that shows more skin, that is – for want of a better way to but it – sexier than what you’re wearing right now. I don’t want you to feel you have to change anything about yourself, not even your clothes in order for you to feel comfortable, but for now, until you learn how to cope with the attention, how to handle it, I’d prefer if we took care to avoid it.’
Another nod, and this time, a smile.
‘I get it,’ she said. ‘I really do. Now, come on, can we please go?’
Later, as we prepared hot drinks and snacks in the kitchen before bed (she’d been too excited to eat before going out), Ishthara told me she was glad she’d changed before going out. Apparently, she felt more comfortable in a place with nearly 2,000 strangers when she was wearing more rather than less.
‘It’s okay, Mum. I know you love me,’ she finished.
As long as she remembers that, I think we’ll get through these teenage years intact. In spite of my propensity for foot-in-mouth disease.