I was 11. It was almost summer, my mom and I were at the local mall, looking for a bathing suit. I’d not yet banished her from the dressing room and was desperate for the suit that “everyone” (“EVERYONE, MOM!!!!!”) had: one of those bikinis that attached on the sides. Remember those, from the early ’90s?
I was, at the time (who am I kidding, I still am), someone who liked to please my mother and basically everyone else in my life, so when I pulled The Suit off the hanger — I still recall it perfectly: a yellow, blue and white striped top with navy bottoms that hooked together just above my hip bones — I was so, so eager for Mom’s approval.
She gave it a sort of “what the hell is that” look. I was crushed. What was I to do now?
I tried it on. I loved it more. She did not. I sincerely did not know what to do.
Now, perhaps this is the moment to say that I, firmly in middle age, am still a person who texts friends photos of me sporting random outfits from the dressing room with “y/n.” Although I know my style and mostly trust my instincts, I like seeking guidance from others. And back then, my mother was my only guide and we’d never, well, disagreed about clothing before.
We stood in the dressing room, both of us staring at my prepubescent body in the mirror in what I’m now sure my mother thought was a mildly inappropriate swimsuit and I thought was my whole new reason for being.
Surely she was thinking: Can I let my preteen wear this thing in public?
I was thinking: If only I could convince her to like it! Then I could get it! But no. That wasn’t happening. Nothing was going to make her come around to how perfect it looked on me.
The wait felt interminable.
“I will buy it for you,” she finally said, when it became clear that it was the only suit I’d wear, “but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. You have to like it, even if I don’t.”
Now, writing these words down now, three decades later, I see that it sounds like a very Jewish Mom thing 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 mother was trying to teach me that it was actually okay to wear something she didn’t like; that maybe it was simply enough that I liked it. That I’d have to learn to work through the not insignificant discomfort this caused me, and that maybe the discomfort wasn’t bad. Maybe it was a necessary part of growing up.
And this, for a kid like me, who was so firmly enmeshed with my mom that I’m surprised I had a single opinion of my own, was enormously liberating. I could have my own desires?
It is surely what allowed me to pierce my nose at 19, even though I knew my father was furious at me for doing it. It’s what helped me to wear all sorts of bizarre outfits through high school and college (and beyond) with confidence, and to shave my head and then grow out my hair and style it in every possible way. And it’s what let 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 was banned from almost every dressing room she went in. We bought nothing — the outing was more about the fun of trying things on, not of actually coming home with anything — but her impulse was to choose pieces and don them in private. I found some part of this enormously thrilling. Unlike young me, she isn’t seeking my approval! Or maybe — dear God, I hope not — she is and wanting it so much she won’t even let me in, for fear of what I’ll say.
I am right at the beginning of this journey of wading into preteen/teen clothing choices, of her doing things without my knowledge or permission, and I can already tell that it’s going to be a doozy. How do we weigh what we like versus what is “appropriate” versus our idea of what “appropriate” is versus current styles versus old feminist views versus new feminist views versus the reality of the misogynistic violent world we live in? I have no idea. Like, none. I’ve had many talks with mothers of teens to help me navigate this tricky territory. 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 kid to explore. I want her eye and desire to wander wild. I want her to feel free and powerful and at home in her beautiful body. I want that to last as long as it possibly can.
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies. She has also written for Cup of Jo about beauty, marriage, loss, and only children.
(Photo from the movie Ladybird.)