5 Steps To Improve Back-To-School Shopping with Your Tween

We received several emails this summer about shopping with your tween daughter, but this one inspired me to compile a few thoughts:

There’s an issue that is coming up more and more with my 8 year old daughter and one that I hear about a lot from friends with older girls — and that is clothing choices!  Frequently mothers and daughters don’t agree on clothing — and I think this is happening at younger and younger ages now that clothing companies are making “sexy” clothes for tweens.

I really struggle with how to explain my perspective with her.  I communicate that all people communicate something about themselves with what they wear.  But it’s too early to explain that this issue is all the more loaded for girls and women.  I don’t want to throw a burka on my daughter but I would like to dress in a way that pleases her but is not horrifying to me — i.e. a “trampy” looking 8 year old.

Yes, this age-old parent/daughter question is harder than ever to navigate. We can’t make this conflict disappear, but we have gathered a few tips over the years to keep you from being disowned on the floor of Forever 21.

1. Listen to your daughter before you go shopping.

This is a great chance to connect to your girl. You can ask her what she thinks she needs or if her style is different than it was in the spring? How so? Many of us enjoy the feeling that we are changing, evolving as people, and it feels good when our clothing can reflect on the outside, who we are on the inside.

This kind of open-ended conversation lets you develop some empathy and understanding of where she is coming from, rather than starting from a place of fear that she will be objectified by others.

You are both much more likely to actually listen to each other if you are not in a dressing room, or feeling like everything costs too much, or nothing fits.When we talk with our girls about not wanting

2. Reflect on your core values, and share them with her before you go shopping.

Think about what matters to you most: Is it the factory conditions where clothing is made, the objectification of women in advertisements, supporting local business, or is it your daughter’s ability to move freely and not be constrained by her clothes?

If you set clear boundaries with your spending, your daughter may not thank you. One of our moms laid down the law for six years with her daughter about shopping at Abercrombie. After the daughter became a sophomore in high school, she confessed to her mom that she agreed, she didn’t want to support Abercrombie either.

Not every family will have that moment, but when you communicate your values, you are giving your daughter the script and permission to do the same, even when the person she is communicating with doesn’t like it, or agree with her. This is about more than clothes.

3. Focus on how she feels, rather than on how other people see her.

We want our girls to stay connected to themselves – to their feelings, their needs, and their bodies. Many girls are taught early to care more about how other people see them than about how they themselves feel.

When this externally-driven mindset is practiced for years, girls start to lose touch with what they actually think and feel. When we talk with our girls about not wanting people to see them as sexy, we are still objectifying them.

Instead, especially for tweens, we can talk about how her clothes free her to take action and move, or restrict and constrain her:

  • Heeled shoes – don’t let you run and play and climb
  • Very short skirts – make it hard to sit in a chair in school, or run and play
  • Low riding pants – you end up pulling them up constantly, and they’re uncomfortable, and can leave the wearer vulnerable when picking up a book bag

4. Reflect on your own baggage.

While she needs you as a parent to set boundaries, we, as parents, also need to need to reflect on our relationships to our bodies and make sure that we aren’t passing on any unintentional shame.

5. Co-consume media with her.

The messages that companies send girls about ‘how to be a girl’ change constantly. By looking together at a handful of the thousands of images she sees a day, you can learn about what she is seeing, listen to her processing, and teach her to question these images. Flip through a magazine, catalogue, or online ad together and explore how ads work:

What are they literally selling? Shorts? T-shirts?
What is the feeling that the brand is selling? Confidence? Belonging? Love?
How do they sell a feeling? Choice of model, location, action, look, etc.
Why do they sell these feelings to girls? Is it the same feelings that they sell to boys?

Lastly, never shop without eating protein and hydrating first. While back-to-school shopping can be filled with the promise of a “new you”, it carries the converse as well, your insecurities and fears. Prepare for any in-person shopping trip the way you would for an athletic event: training and preparation, followed by rest and a good meal.

Read more from Girls Leadership:

on Parenting     by Simone Marean     on Body Image

  1. Stacey

    As someone who leans towards modesty without having a religious reason behind it, as my Jewish & Muslim friends do, I often find myself struggling to explain to my 11yo why I don’t want her to wear short-shorts, cropped tops, sheer blouses, and leggings. It’s not that I don’t want others to view her as body as sexy, but that I want her to know that she can & should feel good about her body without showing so much of it as others want her to. I love my body despite its many sags, scars, size, etc. I enjoy sharing my shape — I love a snug shirt that emphasizes my ample bosom or capris that show off my shins. I feel sexy & comfortable in my own skin, but I like to keep most of my skin private. And leggings, to me, are too much like a second skin.

  2. Kim

    This is a wonderful article Simone. It’s often strange that moms feel awkward about setting guidelines for their daughters. The reality is our girls are looking for our feedback. In the fitting room I hardly say no to allowing my girls to try on anything. Sometimes that’s the best way to show them something is inappropriate or uncomfortable. I’d like to comment about the yoga pant issue. All yoga pants and leggings are not created equal (too thin) and some girls don’t wear shirts that are long enough to cover their belly. I think this is an issue of self respect, not women’s rights. I think schools should have the right to set dress codes. I believe they are using the language “distracting” because it is “distracting” if you are a teenage boy and we are not doing our girls any favors if we pretend otherwise. Now on the flip side I do agree that boys should have rules as well. No sleeveless shirts or underwear showing. School should be a place where respect is practiced. Happy Back to School everyone!

  3. Kate

    I don’t have an answer for you but am also wrestling with this exact same issue. So far at my 5th grader’s school I have managed to find a style of more substantial legging (thicker material, stronger seams etc) and a jean-shape pant made of soft and stretchy material that are as comfortable as leggings but seem to just about sneak under the radar. But I don’t want to have to be sneaking under the radar and ‘getting away with it’. I am slightly in denial until she gets to the middle school her sister is at where they have a much more enlightened approach to what the students can wear. (And they have framed the guidelines cleverly to apply to both sexes). I am not making a difference by finding a workaround for my daughter, I am avoiding having a proper conversation with the school about it. Help!

  4. Jennifer Muhle

    My twelve year old daughter and I have struggled with leggings and jogging a for years. I always wanted her to wear a long shirt over it but these are hard to find as she gets older. She would frequently reply “Why? I don’t care about my butt being covered. They are comfortable.” I’m sorry to admit that I continue to make her wear (by only buying) certain clothes that are ‘appropriate’, ie. non sexy. When she is older and can understand the effect this type of clothing has on men then she can make her own decisions about the image she is portraying. Ugh! I sound like a prudish 50s mother but my daughter has matured physically early and the looks some men give her makes my stomach churn. I’ve chosen to err on the side of caution for now. I only hope she will grow to understand my reasoning, if it’s even ‘right’.

  5. Liz

    What do you think about schools restricting girls from wearing leggings, yoga pants and such? These are comfortable clothing items that girls are being told are too revealing. What do we say to our girls and to the schools about women’s rights related to this?


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