Skip to main content

Oregon Family Magazine

Confidence has a New Look

08/30/2016 ● By Sandy Kauten
Experts say one of the best ways to encourage autonomy, self-esteem and “body positivity”—a term used by counselors and educators that means body confidence—is to let kids choose their own clothes from a young age. Easier said than done. Although children might have strident opinions about their clothing, they don’t always choose well: think parkas in July, tank tops in December, and muddy boots on class picture day. Learning what to wear, when, is a big part of looking and feeling good, and it’s possible to guide kids along the path to making positive wardrobe choices that help them put their best foot forward. Read on for age-by-age guidance.


Mum’s the word

Teaching kids to feel comfortable in their own skin leads to fewer power struggles over clothing later on, says parent educator Laura Brimberry, MSW, of Raleigh, North Carolina. As toddlers and preschoolers learn to dress themselves, allow as much free choice as you can (even if it means that your four-year-old wears a tutu to preschool) and enact the age-old rule ‘If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything.’ The best way to encourage body-positivity in children is not to say much about their body at all, says Brimberry. “Children are hard-wired to love their bodies as to think of their own body as normal, because it’s what they’ve got!” 

Parents can help guide good choices by stashing out-of-season clothing outside your child’s room; establishing a habit of selecting clothing the night before gives children a chance to think through their choices before the morning rush—“Hey, if I wear my rainboots to school tomorrow, I might not be able to run fast in P.E.!”


School rules

School-age kids may begin to encounter messages about ‘modesty,’ sometimes via school dress codes. Parents should tread carefully here, says psychotherapist and parent educator Carmen Cool, MA, of Boulder, Colorado. “The word ‘modesty’ has become synonymous with virtue, purity, and decency, so it can be easy for these messages to feel ‘blamey’ somehow,” she says. And school dress codes and modesty messaging are often gendered—aimed, subtly or not, at young girls—and embedded with sexism and body shame, she notes. Parents can help reframe these messages as issues of boundaries, instead of modesty. 

“We have individual boundaries we agree on as a culture. I encourage asking questions that help children discover what their personal boundaries are and engage in critical thinking about [dress code] rules.” Consistently conveying that there is nothing wrong with their body can help school-agers discover what type of clothing makes them feel good, and learn to equate dressing appropriately with self-respect, rather than covering up for others’ sake.


Going pro

Teenagers may have a number of reasons to trade their everyday jeans and joggers for sharp professional dress: Job and college interviews, presentations, and school and community banquets, for example. But in our increasingly casual culture, teens may not understand what dressing professionally means, or that fashionably short skirts, sneakers, and athletic attire won’t fly in the professional world. Once again, it’s vital to frame these discussions in terms of respect and appropriateness, rather than a need to cover up, to avoid subtle cues that teens may internalize as body shame, says Cool. 

Ultimately, professional dress is about making sure that people hear what you’re saying, and aren’t distracted by your clothing, for both boys and girls; sloppy, ill-fitting, or too-trendy clothes can be as distracting as wearing a swimsuit to a job interview. Teens who master professional dress have an edge in academics and the workplace, says Brimberry. “People who show up looking clean, sharp, modest are showing respect for the employer and his or her work.”  

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.