Last week, our seventeen-year-old daughter sang at an Eisteddfod. She’s in Year Twelve and hopes to pursue classical singing after school. She always takes care with how she presents herself for a performance, and for this item, she chose a pretty strapless dress (no cleavage) that came to just above her knee, with a pair of heeled sandals. I thought her frock suited her age and the song, and that she looked lovely.
Our daughter sang, and at the end of the section, we waited for the adjudicator’s comments and decision. Almost immediately, she launched into a diatribe about how girls should dress when performing. Her list of what to wear included that their dresses should cover their knees and shoulders, and they should wear stockings because, ‘We don’t want to see your flesh’.
‘This is classical music,’ she said. ‘Not Lady Ga Ga.’
On and on she ranted, while my daughter sat beside me, shrinking with humiliation as the only contestant not in stockings and not wearing a dress that covered her knees or shoulders.
I wanted to stand up, then and there, and say, ‘Hey, can you just talk about the singing?’
Actually, that’s not what I wanted to say at all—I was seething. I wanted to tell this woman to stop publicly humiliating my daughter. That my daughter had put thought and care into her appearance, and would she stop criticising her in front of everyone—if she had an issue with my daughter’s dress, could she do it privately.
I wanted to ask her, too, why she was so offended by a bit of flesh. To tell her that, as far as I’m aware, no one has died from seeing a bare shoulder, or a naked knee, or even some cleavage at an Eisteddfod.
I wanted to ask her had she been to the Concert Hall lately, and seen what the soloists are wearing. To tell her that the image of Classical music is changing.
I wanted to tell her to stop putting her older woman values onto my teenage daughter. That the girls feel frumpy in calf-length skirts with their shoulders covered, and that they don’t want to stand up on a stage in front of an audience looking like an old woman.
I wanted to tell her that when they feel good about how they look, they sing better, too.
I particularly wanted to say, Stop telling young women they have to hide their bodies. I grew up hearing it, hearing judgements made about girls who dressed like ‘tarts’, and I thought society had moved on, that girls could now bare their flesh without being judged.
But I didn’t. I kept my mouth shut and, before my daughter’s next performance, I dragged her shopping to find something ‘appropriate’ for her to wear, something that met the guidelines. She hated everything she tried on and we came home empty-handed. Afterwards, we had our first ever argument over clothes, which ended when she said, ‘Why haven’t you said any of this before?’
‘Because I really don’t care what you wear,’ I said. ‘I’m just trying to please someone else.’
It’s taken me a couple of days to shake it all off.
For the first time, it’s hit me that people will be only too willing to judge my daughter not by how good she is at what she does, but by what she looks like. That upsets me a lot. My daughter studying Medicine will be able to wear whatever she likes, and will only ever be judged by how well she does her job.*
The other thing that’s crawled under my skin is how older people feel they have a right to judge the clothing of younger people. And how, when they do, they feel the need to tell the younger person their opinion, to force that younger person to dress according to their standards. For goodness’ sake, what is so offensive about seeing someone’s knees? Or stockingless legs?
I’ve never heard of the boot being on the other foot: of a younger person telling an older person how they should dress.
‘Undo that top button and show us your cleavage?’ Or ‘Hitch that skirt up, we want to see your thighs.’
Imagine how uncomfortable an older person would feel up on stage in a short skirt, strapless top and heels.
It goes the other way, too—young people don’t want to dress like old women.
A few decades’ ago, I watched an interview with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa on ’60 Minutes’. I’ll never forget her saying she wished she could be like Tina Turner and strut about onstage in a miniskirt and high heels.
I have great difficulty tolerating intolerance, and I can’t abide the public shaming of anyone. Quite apart from the fact it was unnecessary, this woman had no right to criticise my daughter’s, or anyone else’s, dress publicly.
Every now and then, something happens that jars with a core value of mine, and I feel the need to write about it. All young women have a right to dress how they please, and express themselves through their clothing. They shouldn’t have to dress to please prescriptive older women with delicate sensibilities.
To any young woman reading this: If people judge you based on your appearance and can’t hear the beauty in your voice, or see the passion in your soul, or how good you are at what you do, because all they can see is a short, tight dress, then they’re the ones missing out.
And if I ever become an older, bigoted lady, please tell me to mind my own business, that I have no right to judge, that it’s only clothes, and that the world has changed since I was young. Encourage me to keep up with the world of tomorrow because if I don’t, I’ll be left behind and I’ll be the one who misses out.
Above all, wouldn’t it be nice if we could stop judging others, particularly girls and women, by their appearance?
I may look like a frumpy, middle-aged lady, but know that inside my conservative appearance is a teenage girl who wanted to wear a short, tight skirt and stilettos, but never had the confidence or courage to do it.
*Unfortunately, this statement doesn’t appear to be true. I’m hearing how comments about the way women dress are rife in the Medical arena, too.