Lauren Wiggins' dress dispute highlights role teen clothing plays, says psychiatrist

Lauren Wiggins' dress dispute highlights role teen clothing plays, says psychiatrist

A Vancouver psychiatrist says the case of Lauren Wiggins, the Moncton, N.B. teenager who was suspended after wearing a dress showing her upper back to school is about much more than just what's appropriate and what's not.

Wiggins, 17, says she was told the full-length halter dress she wore to school on Monday was considered a "sexual distraction" to fellow students. Her school's dress code prohibits clothing exposing shoulders and backs.

Dr. Shimi Kang says there are many blogs run by female teenagers that assert sexual empowerment and feel they should be able to wear what they want and that boys and men have to change how they perceive the clothing.

"More and more recently girls are pushing back against clothing restrictions. Many of them feel there is a double standard that boys don't have as many restrictions.

"They feel it is unfair that they have to change their choices because of someone else's reaction."

But, says Kang, the case also opens a window into the crucial role clothing plays.

"Teenagers are at a developmental stage when they are asserting both their individual identity and their social identity," said Kang, Vancouver Coastal Health's Medical Director for Child and Youth Mental Health. 

"They have to figure out, 'Who I am on the inside? What are my values? Who do I relate to? How can I express that to the world?' They use clothing as a tool to do that."

Teenage brains work differently

Kang says adults need to recognize teenage brains work differently, in that they are more sensitive to any threat of their autonomy and are more likely to take risks and push limits.

"Both of those factors create the situation where, when a teenager is told what to wear and not to wear, an adult may think it is just a fashion issue, but for them it is perceived on a chemical level as a threat to their identity and independence."

Kang says there are many blogs asserting sexual empowerment who feel they should be able to wear what they want and that boys and men have to change how they perceive the clothing.

"More and more recently girls are pushing back against clothing restrictions. Many of them feel there is a double standard that boys don't have as many restrcions. They feel it is unfair that they have to change their choices because of someone else's reaction."

'Definition of appropriateness is changing'

According to Kang, we are in the biggest generation gap that has ever existed between adults and teenagers, which is changing society's definition of appropriateness.

"The adult world doesn't consist of hours on Instagram and Snapchat, but most teenagers' worlds are and that influences their world view," said Kang.

"They have access to unfiltered views, to extremes of behavior, to far more diversity — so what they may consider normal is going to be different than the world that adults are in, which is more filtered."

Kang thinks parents should take a balanced approach by showing that they respect their teenager's decisions, and then explain that the whole world may not think like them.

"I think when you do it that way it is a far less judgemental approach," said Kang. "The teenager may be more likely to hear what you are saying and take in that advice."

To hear the full interview with Dr. Shimi Kang, listen to the audio labelled Clothing a tool to assert independence