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In Search of The Right Look


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My mom had it easy. I attended high school during the early 1980s. Remember fashion back then? The preppy look. Baggy jeans. Benetton sweaters. Prairie shirts. And Gunne Sax prom dresses that went up to your neck and down to the floor with lace.

“Goth” did not exist. Sporty kids dressed sporty. Nerdy kids dressed nerdy. Even girls of questionable reputation kept body parts under wraps. Their jeans were just a tad tighter, their hair a bit higher.

I was definitely a fashion follower. I preferred conservative and comfortable. If it was poking, pinching or pushing any part of me, it was not worn. I don’t recall ever hearing about the “fingertip” rule. I never had a teacher or administrator pull a school jersey out of a desk drawer to cover me up in any way.

Today I am a mom with a high school daughter living in my house. Her first day of ninth grade I sat in my car in horror as I watched teenage girls saunter into the high school.

I will admit, there was a wee bit of envy. I won’t see firm or cellulite-free ever again. And to be honest, I never came close to looking as good as some of these young girls. But Holy Skin, Batman! The cleavage. The butt cheeks. And even much that was covered left nothing to the imagination.

Thoughts of “Where is the bottom part of her outfit?” flew through my mind. I wanted to jump out of my car and pull things down and button things up. But there was not enough fabric to do either.

Now, not every ensemble provokes fear. I love the skater skirts and dresses, or yoga pants with a long sweater or shirt, or skinny jeans with layered tops, scarves and boots.

My 17-year-old daughter, Amanda, is very fashion-aware. She likes “cute outfits.” When shopping she will pull something off a rack and say, “Like so and so wears.” She watches the Disney Channel and tries to accessorize with the same flair as the stars.

My challenge is that she seems to have no awareness of body type or size. I used to attribute this to the fact that she has special needs. I rationalized having Down syndrome, and certain cognitive challenges, must be affecting her fashion decisions.

Now I am not so sure. I realized—through observation while waiting in the pickup line at the end of the day, and working at the school store for a couple of hours each month—that many typical teen girls struggle with balancing fashionable styles and good decisions.

What flatters one does not flatter all. And what is worn by a star on TV is not always appropriate for a teen in high school. Most importantly, just because one girl has her shorts hiked up her booty does not mean it is OK for my daughter to do the same.

How do we convey these messages to our daughters without damaging self-esteem? What language do we use to make them understand that less is not always more? That it is possible to have style without looking slutty?

My fashion sense is not the same as my daughter’s. To make matters more challenging, our body types are totally different. I am tall, thinnish, with no noticeable shape. She is petite and curvy. I have to make a conscious effort to not project my style, or lack thereof, on her.

Plus, I am not a teenage girl and have not been one for a very, very long time. I counsel, “You don’t have to follow the lead of the so-called popular girls.” “Not all attention is good attention.”

But I also remember that the excitement of a new outfit can make you jump out of bed in the morning and head blissfully into school. Far be it for me to kill that joy.

However, there are times when the girl emerges from her bedroom and poses at the top of the stairs and inside my head I scream “No!” If I am only on my first cup of coffee, the filter needed, and creativity required, to address the situation with tact are just not in place.

“That outfit is just not going to happen.” And our morning heads in a bad direction fast.

You may be thinking, “Just have her pick her clothes out the night before so you know what she is going to wear.” Doesn’t work, as that outfit may end up sitting in its sad little spot on her chair while she pulls together a non-mom-approved ensemble. “Rid her closet of offensive, ill-fitting items.” I try, but sometimes it is not the article of clothing by itself, but the way it is hitched, cinched or manipulated that causes the problem.

I know I need to give her the freedom to make her own style choices while I respectfully give guidance when it is needed. I must remember that everyone makes unfortunate outfit decisions, and that it is not the end of the world if one of those outfits is on my child every now and then.

I am lucky. My daughter does not have image issues. She believes she looks fabulous in whatever getup she’s got on. I need to be careful to not kill that belief. I must remember, once again, it is not about me.

The first school morning of 2015 dawned. Amanda stood at the top of the stairs in a cute new outfit Nana Vecchio bought her for Christmas: sweater dress, leggings, matching hair accessories, socks, and a big smile. I gazed up at her, second cup of coffee in hand, and said, “Oh, you look so wonderful this morning!” Thank you, God, Nana, and Amanda. I am holding onto that good feeling because there are many more mornings to come.

Deborah Cavanagh lives in Manlius with her husband and two children. She has written for local organizations supporting children and adults with special needs and publishes the blog www.momofmanyneeds.com.





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