People treat me different when I dress nicer, I discovered this summer.
I've been wearing a lot of skirts and dresses lately, largely because I hate the way I look in shorts, but also because they are more fluid in size - as I lose weight, I don't have to keep buying a new wardrobe. When I go out by myself, people are nicer to me, they smile, they give me more space when we pass in the aisle. guys let me enter a doorway first. When I go out with all three kids in leggings and a baggy shirt, I'm far more likely to get comments. But when I'm wearing a maxi skirt, I even hear the omnipresent "You have your hands full!" less often! I still have messy hair, no make up, I'm still just as sweaty and stressed, but people treat me so much differently. It has really hammered home to me that, whether we like it or not, the way we dress matters.
I've to some extent always known this and so I'm pretty strict about what the kids can wear and not shy about donating clothing I don't like. (Although I should preface this by saying that when kids are young enough to be running around naked/in a diaper, I really don't think clothing is doing any harm.) Some of it is obvious: no short-shorts or strappy tank tops on my kindergartner. No two-pieces in public pools. Potty trained girls need shorts underneath dresses and skirts. There are just too many perverts out there. But I have a few more subtler rules for Abigail and Theodore.
I like to keep Abigail well-dressed. No sloppy or stained play clothes. Nothing mismatched. And I try to keep her hair as nice as I can, although hair is a daily struggle with her, so it's not usually as tidy as I'd like. She has a million battles to fight and a ton of stereotypes to overcome - if I can eliminate some of them by making sure she looks clean and put-together, it's worth the effort. I also worry about possible neglect or abuse on the part of caregivers. Right now, we have a pretty tight circle, but as she gets older, I think the nicer she looks, the less frustrated people will get with her behavioral challenges. It's just more pleasant to deal with people who look pretty. I also think the more obvious it is that someone is caring for her, the less of a target she'll be. On a lighter note, I want to be a good witness to Down syndrome. If people see a sloppy dressed, tangle-haired, runny-nosed girl, I feel like I'm perpetuating bad stereotypes. If people see a clean, washed girl with a french braid and light-up Frozen sneakers, Down syndrome looks down right normal. (See what I did there?)
Theodore doesn't wear "Ladies Man" clothes, even though he's young enough to qualify for my "whatever, he's young" clause. I can't stand men with "player" personalities, I don't trust them, and I would never want my girls to date them. I want my boys to grow up to be men who respect all women and are devoted to their own families. I also really want a priest in the family. I really hope Theodore or a possible future son is called to the priesthood. So I want to avoid steering him into the typical path of girl-obsession.
Lastly, Roxy. She passed away in June, but I still want to bring her up. She was an 85 pound German Shepherd, who, despite her marshmallow interior, inspired fear among some people we came across. I had gotten an orange reflective vest to make her more visible during our early-morning walks, but I found that people reacted much differently to her when she wore it, so I started putting it on her for all our walks, even in broad day light. I don't know if people mistook her for a service dog (I hope not, would have been a bad witness to leader dogs with her poor leash training), but something about the vest soothed people with power breed fears.
It is important to change the world, and the way we dress doesn't take away from our inherent human dignity, so I agree that it's unfair that black men can't wear baggy sweatshirts or girls wear short skirts without putting themselves in very real danger. Some people are called to tackle that issue head-on, but it's definitely much more my conflict-averse personality to keep a low profile. It's like camouflaging in plain sight - I can have lots of kids, be Catholic, and still be treated politely because I'm wearing a long, purple floral skirt. Sure, it's unfair and I should get the same respect in leggings and a baggy shirt or a mini skirt (yeesh, I'm scared to know what people would say if I went out with three kids in a mini skirt). But I'm still getting what I want, so I'm good with it. Plus Lularoe maxis are so comfortable and pretty, I actual prefer them to jean shorts. Heck, maybe one day I'll master wearing lipstick and make large families look - dare I say it? - graceful.