You see a lot of fashion at the roller skating rink.

Last night, some college-age kids were there in their best approximations of 80s gear. One girl had on shimmer-fabric, neon pink leggings under a pair of multi-colored neon shorts, with a neon green tank top, and a hot pink headband. It was very 80s-Barbie, and also awesome.

Another girl skated around in a snow cap, with this amazing anime-purple hair spiking out from under it. My kid was in gray cargo pants, and a “Creepers Gonna Creep” t-shirt. I wore black leggings under a black, swing tunic. Then, a couple of young teens came in wearing some shorts that make people ask the question, “Would you let your child out of the house like that?”

When the question came up, I barely swallowed the reflexive, “Hell no!” It went down like a hard lump, but I managed to burp out an, “I don’t know?”

And, I don’t know.

Let’s hop in the TV time machine for a second and travel back to those halcyon days where everthing was about Marcia, Marcia, Marcia, and girls wore dresses so short wicker furniture posed a very real threat to thighs. The Brady girls, That Girl, Buffy and Sissy from Family Affair, even Shirley Temple were all legs–all the time. Short skirts and matching spanky pants were the stuff, and it wasn’t a sexualized thing.

Long hair, short skirts. Cover the ears, reveal the knees!

Let’s switch the channel to ESPN. Tennis. Figure skating. Volleyball. Cheerleading. Soccer. Swimming. Gymnastics. LEGS. Everywhere. Firm, fit, bare legs (and some barely covered crotches) on women who are jumping, running, kicking, spinning, flying, and falling all over the place. I defy you to tell one of the Williams sisters they are dressed immodestly. Champion level skaters would probably sooner put a toe-pick in your forehead than entertain the notion that they need to cover up.

So, why am I so shocked when I see a pair of Daisy Dukes on a fifteen-year-old? What is it that makes me want to throw a blanket over her, and hustle her off to a corner for a lecture on propriety?

My buddy and I were talking that over. Both of us are moms. We asked each other what we would say to our daughters–hers real, mine imaginary–about shorts-like-that.

I want to say first, that it is very easy to judge a stranger. It is very easy to look at a stranger’s shorts and assign all sorts of meaning to them. Fashion becomes shorthand to reading a person’s character. 80s Barbie? Fashion shorthand for a vapid twit. Anime snow cap? Fashion shorthand for outlying subculture. Creeper t-shirt? Fashion shorthand for a kid who spends all his time on video games. Short-shorts? Fashion shorthand for attention-seeking.

Shorthand doesn’t even tell a tithe of the story, though. It sure didn’t when I was the fifteen-year-old in short shorts.

As we talked through scenarios, we both agreed that the one thing we didn’t want to do was frighten our daughters. We didn’t want to scare them that a pair of shorts could be the reason someone hurt them. Shorts don’t make rapists rape. To paraphrase my son’s t-shirt, Rapists Gonna Rape. Molesters Gonna Molest. Just ask those Duggar girls, whose thighs haven’t seen daylight since they were in diapers.

We didn’t want our daughters to feel funny about their bodies, like something was wrong with them, or dirty about them. And neither of us could figure out a context whereby we could explain that it was okay to show your thighs at the beach, or in your cheer uniform, or when you were competing at a sport, but not when you went roller skating with your friends, or to a movie, or to a barbecue.

We couldn’t figure out a way around the fact that it is perfectly fine for those high school track boys to run the streets wearing nothing but a pair of tiny, tiny running shorts, socks, and sneakers, but the double standard was that our daughters would be stoned for trying the same thing.

In short, we didn’t come up with any answers. Ultimately, I said I’d have to know my daughter. I’d have to know the girl, to know what was the right conversation. My buddy said it came down to intent, and until you could understand the intention of the child, you couldn’t know how to approach it. And that took me back to how easy it is to judge a stranger.

It also took me to how easy it is to be jealous of a stranger. How dare she come in here, all youth and legs, looking like a million dollars worth of desirable, when I’m fighting a losing battle against gravity? How dare she be so young and beautiful, taking more than her share of the Male Gaze and the attention that goes with it? The arrival of a younger, more biologically attractive, more seemingly available woman can make the hide crawl off a middle-aged buzzard like me, even when I’m not after the attention she’d be receiving.

Those long, pretty legs are a reminder of my mortality. Her desirability reminds me of my impending invisibility. If I could get her into some Mom jeans, at least I could feel better about how my physique turns every pair of trousers into Mom jeans. If I could wrap her in a blanket, at least I could feel maternal and nurturing. If I could lecture her on how she’s sending inappropriate signals, and how her thighs are an invitation to danger, at least I could feel like I was doing a public service while I scared and shamed her.

That’s an awful lot of Me projected onto a child, who just wanted to go roller skating.

I am navel-gazing enough to care more about why her shorts bother me, than to worry about getting her into different pants. I care more about the root causes of my visceral reactions to things like that, than the catalyts for them. I know the problem is me, not the kid, who is out having fun with her friends.

And, if my projections are sometimes right–if she is out using her thigh meat as boy bait, well? So? I was fifteen once. I haven’t forgotten how that felt. Even in my top-button-done, Haiwaian print shirt, with matching capri pants, Capezios, braces, and bad hair, I just one quivering, hopeful lump of boy bait. I was normal. So is she.

15 was so unkind.  I think my mother's game plan was to make sure a boy would put out his eye if he got too close to the goods.  Smart move, Mom!
15 was so unkind. I think my mother’s game plan was to make sure a boy would put out his eye if he got too close to the goods. Smart move, Mom!

So, I decided that the conversations have to be with my real son, not my imaginary daughter. The conversations have to be about respect, consent, empathy, kindness, and self-control, not dress codes.

The onus isn’t on me as a woman, to warn girls. The onus is on me as a mother, to raise a good man.