First Person

Ask an Expert: Tween girls and skimpy clothes

EdNews Parent expert Theresa Byrne addresses a question many parents have about what their middle school-aged daughters want to wear to school. 

Q. I am concerned about the clothes middle school girls are wearing – even to school. Short shorts, skimpy tops, etc. Any thoughts on how to really get through to young girls without making them defensive re: appropriate dress for school?

A. It is pretty cool thing, moving from being a little girl to a young woman. How girls handle this transition has a lot to do with the next few years of their lives. In many cultures it’s represented by a ceremony or ritual showcasing the woman she will become.

Stock photo

It’s a time of attempting to figure out who you are, or who you want to be.

Let’s say you drop your daughter off at school only to see the belly button or cleavage of one of her middle school friends.

“But mom, that’s the STYLE!” she says.

How do you address these young women and girls wearing clothing that attract attention to their…more obvious outward assets? And for that girl, creating very loud non-verbal attention?

Most of what we “know” about people, or listen to, has nothing to do with what they say. Non-verbal communication is about the way people carry themselves, the tone of their voices, the looks on their faces, and yes, even the style of their clothes if it “speaks loudly” in one direction. Appropriate dress doesn’t distract from the gifts and talents of a young girl, it allows her most powerful assets to speak louder than her clothing.

Battling low self-esteem

There are some girls and women that crave or want attention…even if it’s solely for their body to make themselves feel better or to make them feel more important. Maybe they’ve been told they don’t have much to offer, or they don’t matter. So they search for the sense of false power that attraction from the opposite sex can offer. They have low esteem for themselves, and tend to look at themselves as “better” if they attract this kind of short-term attention from men or boys.  The power of women comes from who they are, not what they wear or how much skin they show.

Non-verbally, what is a girl in short shorts or skimpy tops saying about HERSELF? “I don’t like myself very much. If you pay any kind of attention to me I’ll feel better.”

If you were to take a look in any magazine that catches celebrities or supermodels “off the clock” on their own time, you don’t see them prancing around in tiny outfits. Most of the time you’ll see them in baseball hats, comfy clothes, or in more conservative clothing. Their bodies are their JOB, wearing crazy sexy outfits in magazines, on stage or on TV is part of their work. Girls miss that vital piece of information.

Showing respect

Much of this is the media. We see women in their 20’s wearing little clothing and younger girls think that they will be “cool” if they copy that dress code. Have your daughters watch TV shows. Ask them what they think when a girl in a really skimpy outfit shows up on screen. Is it that we are meant to see them as “trying too hard” or “easy”? A scantily clad woman is often seen as having no respect for herself.

Respect means understanding that while you are beautiful, it’s on the inside as well as the outside. And you respect yourself enough to let people get to know the real you, not just the outside version.

What about self-expression?

The issue isn’t necessarily just about freedom of self-expression. When teens wear such skimpy clothes it becomes a distraction. It distracts others from who that girl really is, what she has to offer and that girl risks becoming an object. Objectifying women or girls means looking at them as if they were “things.” And what you say or how you treat “things” doesn’t matter because they aren’t as important as human beings.

Girls in skimpy outfits become seen as objects – or just as bodies. Not human beings with intelligence, wit, humor, sensitivity or heart.

People stop looking at these girls for their qualities like smart, funny, witty, happy, kind…and they objectify the girl as one thing. Easy. Trying too hard. Sexy. Or Slutty. It doesn’t matter that this is not the message that the young girl wants to send. In our culture that is the message sent by a skimpy outfit.

It’s a question of respect. Can you respect yourself enough to allow your best qualities to shine through without making it about your body? Talk to your daughter and her friends about this.

This is a very difficult and touchy subject, and I invite others to comment. I hope that I’ve handled this with respect and understanding.  I get concerned every Halloween when the costumes for young girls get more and more revealing. The last thing we need to see is an 11-year-old  sexy kitten.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.