teens

Is it ever ok to tell your daughter she looks "slutty" in the outfit she's chosen?

For most women, the term ‘slut’ sends a shiver down our spine.

It might just be the worst insult you can use against a woman – yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a woman who has avoided being called one.

It’s an indictment of our character; a blatant appraisal of our morality. It means you’re out of control. You’re showy. Loose. Disgusting. Shameful. Cheap.

It’s a term of degradation that dehumanises the woman it is thrown at.

As Kathryn Westcott puts it for the BBC, “the intent behind the word is to wound”.

When a woman is labelled a ‘slut’, it hurts all women. There is, of course, no male equivalent.

How do you tell your 10-year-old daughter that what she’s wearing is not really appropriate? Mia Freedman speaks to Peggy Orenstein on No Filter. Post continues below. 

So, how do you protect your daughter from being branded as one? Or from ‘inviting’ unwanted sexual attention? And, are they even questions we ought to be asking?

In a No Filter interview with Peggy Orenstein, author of the New York Times bestseller “Girls and Sex“, Mia Freedman posed a question so many women are terrified of asking:

“Is it ever okay to say to your daughter ‘you can’t wear that – it’s way too slutty?'”

Of course, Freedman’s intention is not to insult or degrade, but rather to protect her daughter from a world that sexualises young women. A world that she alone cannot change.

How should I speak to my daughter about the clothes she wears? Mia Freedman. Image supplied.
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Orenstein, who has spent the last seven years studying the sexual landscape for young girls says, "We really have to be careful of demonising girls for doing what they've been told to do since they were little."

"We need to try to talk to them in a more contextual away about what the culture is telling them... what's a real choice? Who's setting the trends of those choices?"

It's the patriarchal bargain in action. Young women use their sexuality as leverage in a context where their bodies are their main source of 'power', despite how problematic that kind of power might be.

In Orenstein's words, "girls know that they're going to get more likes in a bikini than in a burqa." The choice is, therefore, an obvious one.

With that said, it's not useful or appropriate to use the word 'slutty' as an adjective to describe your daughter's fashion choices. Especially in a context that unequivocally rewards her for making them.

"Girls know that they're going to get more likes in a bikini than in a burqa," says Peggy Orenstein. Image via iStock.

Orenstein warns, however, against accepting the popular counter-argument, "I'm a feminist, it's my choice." Because, as we know, no choice is made in a vacuum.

"If the girls were doing really well in their sex lives, if they felt empowered, if they felt in control, if they felt like they were enjoying themselves, if they felt like they could advocate for themselves, if they felt like they had agency, you know maybe I'd say, 'well alright, maybe I'm just getting old and need to shuffle off...'" Orenstein says.

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But the research proves, without a doubt, that's not the case.

"So often the confidence came off with the clothes," she says.

Empowerment does not look like self objectification, Orenstein explains. It's "unhealthy", and the greatest irony is that the more a young woman sexualises herself, the lower her sexual satisfaction.

For a moment, having what Orenstein calls, "the exact right body at the exact right time," might feel empowering. You fit the mould. But the second you don't, it's a different story. Telling women that how they look is more important than who they are is never, ever, a good thing.

Self objectification is "unhealthy", according to Peggy Orenstein. Image via Getty.

Dressing in clothes that are designed to excite the male gaze is all about "...appearing sexy without any connection to understanding their own bodies, pleasures, sexuality, wants, need and limits."

Self objectification sets women up as the object. But we are living, breathing human beings, with thoughts, desires and concerns. We are subjects.

Orenstein spoke to young women who feel disembodied during sex - as though they are watching themselves from above. One woman described thinking "she would hold this position", this is how she would respond, this is how she would look. And who is she? Well, the woman identified "I guess she's a porn star."

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"It's the ultimate self objectification," Orenstein said. "You're not even in your body anymore."

So, how do you have a productive conversation with your daughter about how she dresses, and how she expresses her own sexuality?

How do you have that conversation with your daughter? Image via iStock.

Orenstein says we have to talk about it.

Talk about porn. Talk about what 'sexualisation' means. Talk about how our bodies are read. Talk about the clothes that are available to young women. Talk about the unrealistic portrayal of sex in movies and on television.

Tell them who they are is more important than how they look. Tell them they are so, so much more than an object.

Orenstein highlights the importance of "... talking to girls about sexual pleasure and sexual agency and the importance of them being able to assert their own needs and wants and desires, in their sexual relationships."

It needs to be a dialogue - and one that continues throughout adolescence and adulthood.

It's not going to be easy, but when the world is trying to tell her one thing, make sure you're the one telling her another.

Listen to the full episode of No Filter with Peggy Orenstein, here.

Check out all our podcasts and any books mentioned in any of our shows at apple.co/mamamia.