Carolyn Hax: Mom cringes at daughter’s racy look

We asked readers to channel their inner Carolyn Hax and answer this question. Some of the best responses are below.

Dear Carolyn: What can I do when my 21-year-old daughter’s appearance embarrasses me? I’m not one who is normally stuck on appearances but I’m talking “5 pounds” of makeup, fake hair and wigs, tongue stud, 1-inch fake fingernails, 9ish earrings, nose ring, fake eyelashes, tattoos and skimpy clothes.

She doesn’t always dress like this but it’s more often than just a Friday or Saturday night out. She works in fast food so it’s okay there except for the nails. I worry about the money she is spending but since she’s living independently of me, it’s her choice. I’m concerned about the treatment she receives when looking like this yet her peer group embraces this image so I don’t think my hesitant comments about negativity ring true to her. When she sends a photo of a new look, I usually respond with “love ya.” I don’t want to encourage it but I know she’s seeking approval from me.

Second concern: Next year my fiance and I will be marrying in another state where she will meet his family for the first time. I’ve not seen anyone who dresses remotely like this (in this state). I’ll be embarrassed plus I fear she will be very uncomfortable with her reception.

Embarrassed Parent: This is not an easy thing as a mom, but I think that most of us grew up with the message ingrained in us that our way of dressing reflects our morality. It does not, and the younger generation is very much shifting the culture on this. I’m a mom — my daughter is under 10 — but I sometimes have moments where my initial reaction to a young person’s outfit is a pearl-clutching gasp. It doesn’t need to be.

If you think she is seeking your validation, you could say something to the effect of, “It’s not what I would choose but you are most beautiful when you are confident in what you are wearing.” With the fiance’s family — if they have a serious problem with your daughter’s clothing, that reflects on them, not her. If you think this is a serious problem, you could ask your fiance to give them a head’s up that she may not be dressed in conservative wedding attire, but don’t let it stress you. The kids are dressing differently, but they are doing just fine!

Embarrassed Parent: As a bullied and body-shamed young lady raised in our rampant rape culture, I was constantly reminded that my clothes and appearance reflected my worth and would lead to certain consequences: friends, boys, success whether it was positive or negative. My mother and I did this dance while I lived at home and often strained our relationship as I needed support and validation for the person inside who was figuring out how to look and feel comfortable in the world.

I think your approach of not dictating what your daughter wears at 21 and giving the “Love ya” is the correct way to stay connected and show support. Let her be herself and you can be present for her journey into confidence as a woman in a society that stacks the cards against us.

As for the wedding, I do think it’s reasonable to share the overall dress code that is to be expected at a formal and special occasion. Keep the guidance to a high level: certain colors or styles of dresses since she will be a prominent member of the wedding party. Do NOT tell her she needs to be less herself. Maybe pick out some special mom and daughter jewelry together? This will give her room to make choices and express her personality and allow you to feel supported and less stressed at your wedding.

— Girl with a Few Tattoos

Embarrassed Parent: It sounds like your instinct to let your daughter know that you love her no matter what is right on point. Twenty-one is a rough age to be getting a brand new stepfamily; the most important thing is that she knows that Mom’s love isn’t going anywhere, no matter how many body parts she pierces.

With regard to your concerns about your fiance’s family’s reaction, it may be worth doing some soul searching — how much of your concern is fear of her being uncomfortable vs how much is fear that they will judge you as a parent based on her appearance? If it’s the latter, remind yourself that how your daughter experiences you as a parent is WAY more important than what anyone else thinks. If it will alleviate your anxiety ahead of the wedding perhaps have your fiance share a few photos that include your daughter (makeup, piercings and all). If anyone says anything, he can respond, “It is important to us that [daughter] knows that she is welcome and loved no matter how she looks. We appreciate you joining us in conveying that message by welcoming her warmly.”

Every week, we ask readers to answer a question submitted to Carolyn Hax’s live chat or email. Read the latest installment here. New questions are typically posted on Fridays, with a Monday deadline for submissions. Responses are anonymous unless you choose to identify yourself and are edited for length and clarity.