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I have an older teen boy who is handsome, smart, talented, fit -- everything you could hope for. The things is, he cares very little about clothing or looking his best. I'm not saying that he's simply not up with the latest styles, and I'm also not saying he has his own "alternative" style that I don't approve of... I'm saying he doesn't really seem to care about his appearance. He'll go out in ankle socks and flip-flops, or a dressy t-shirt with cut-off exercise shorts. He'll go to school in the same clothes multiple days in a row, unshowered. With the exception of a special fancy-dress event he participates in a couple times a year, I can't recall him ever putting noticeable effort into looking his best.

To the best of my knowledge, he's not color blind, he just doesn't care.

I'm not hoping to turn him into a fashion plate, but his behavior is odd enough for people to have noticed and commented on it. How can I communicate the need for self-respect and self-care in the area of how he presents himself, without hurting his feelings?

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    Ignoring the hygiene issue, it sounds like your son does have his own alternative style that you don't approve of. His style can be roughly described as "whatever, at least I'm wearing clothes". – Ian MacDonald Aug 23 at 18:03
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    I can't see what good could possibly come out of your having an opinion on his choice of appearance. You could tell him he should take a shower every now and then, I think most teenagers needs to be told that, but other than that, in my opinion, it's not your place. Perhaps being odd enough, as you say, is all he's going for? – David Hedlund Aug 23 at 18:24
  • I think you are talking two different issues here: Hvaing bad taste is one (minor) thing, not showering and using the same clothes too many days in a row is a very different one – David Aug 26 at 8:56
  • I know your question is mainly about his choice of clothing but is there anything else you've noticed? it can be easy to pass this off as a typical teenager but if this was a full grown adult not washing, wearing any combination of clothing for multiple days on end it could indicative of other issues such as depression etc. What is his room like? does he socialise frequently or only on these special occasions? it's not normal even for a teenager to have absolutely zero care about themselves. – RappaportXXX Aug 30 at 8:13
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He'll go to school in the same clothes multiple days in a row, unshowered

I know that if you're living in the US, this is a no-go, but up until a few years ago this was absolutely no problem for teenagers where I live. You showered when you thought you might start smelling (e.g. there might be days you didn't shower), and it was absolutely no problem to wear the same clothes to school for multiple days in a row (you changed your underwear, but kept your pants and pullover the same); as long as the clothes weren't dirty and didn't smell, there was no reason to change them. This has changed a bit in the last few years, but really I think it's for the worse. Putting perfectly good clothes in the laundry bugs me.

What I mean to say here is that while your son might not conform to social norms where you live, it's really not so strange to not shower every day and put on a new set of clothes; it's mostly social convention.

With the exception of a special fancy-dress event he participates in a twice a year, I can't recall him ever putting any effort into looking his best.

I think that sentence is important. It means that he is aware of when it's important to dress nicely, so once there are more opportunities where he needs to dress "correctly", he'll notice and most likely conform.

To me it seems that looking good just isn't very important to him right now. He probably has a social life he's happy with, and so doesn't feel a need to change anything. So as long as he doesn't actually smell bad, I'd just let him do his own research into how much care he needs to take while dressing.

  • I am in the US, and I'm quite sure there was no underwear change in that 4 day span. :-) – Spring Aug 26 at 22:51
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    OK... so he might have something of a personal hygiene problem. Maybe you could address that independently from his other dressing choices, but I imagine it's quite hard to convince him if there's no immediate problem for him. The good thing: As long as you don't smell that he hasn't changed his underwear, it's not really your problem, is it? As soon as he gets a girlfriend, he will hopefully correct his errant ways. If you do want him to address it now, maybe you can tell him you have a problem with his hygiene and offer him a deal - give him something he wants if he complies. – Pascal Aug 26 at 23:08
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Perhaps this applies to your son. Perhaps not.

As a teenager/young man, I did this. So did my brother some years later, much to the confusion of our parents. And there is a very simple reason we brothers did.

Humility.

Or at least to signal humility as we understood it.

Wearing bad clothes on purpose was a way for us to signal that money didn’t matter, our looks didn’t matter, and that we didn’t think of ourselves as “special” despite being — as teenagers — very handsome, fit, smart, and well educated. (My brother was also very tall.) We didn’t want to be labeled snobs, so we wore bad clothes for a phase (or two) and didn’t shower as much as we should have. And no one, especially our parents, could convince us that dressing badly is not the right way to avoid being labeled a snob.

Since then, I stumbled across a few ideas that changed my mind:

  1. You don’t dress for yourself but for others. Dressing appropriately shows your respect for others.
  2. Dressing badly is rude.
  3. Dressing badly/not bathing doesn’t show humility, but rather that you don’t respect yourself (or others).

Also, just because I dressed poorly, it didn’t stop people from handing me labels I didn’t like.

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    The other answers are good, but I think you are onto something perhaps closest to the truth here. Without giving away too much about our situation, suffice it to say that my son was raised until very recently in a environment that was both quite isolated and very non-judgemental. Fashion, money, or impressing people was simply not on anyone's radar, and in any case, there were very few people that he interacted with anyway. I do think there is some aspect of him signalling that he intentionally doesn't care about that. I just want him to find a balance, as you evidently did. – Spring Aug 26 at 22:51
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I think the focus in this situation should not be on "dressing well", but specifically on making sure he understands the effect his choices have. Many people that age see choices of dress as expressing their individuality, and thus being choices that only affect them, but fail to see the effect those choices have on others, and indirectly on themselves from those effects on others.

Generally, addressing something like this with a teenager should be with an adult-level conversation, where you treat them as an adult, just as if you had a friend with body odor issues.

I would suggest talking to them first about whether they understand the effect their hygiene and dress choices have on others' perceptions of them, and what the long-term impacts will be of those choices. If they understand, or at least profess to understand, those impacts, then there's not a lot more to do; you can't bathe them anymore, after all, and it's probably better for them to learn the consequences in high school than in the workplace. But it's also possible they will tell you that they're aware of the issues but don't feel like they can fix them, in which case you have an opening to help.

Try to be specific about the particular issues, though, and not to focus on generalities like "dress your best"; and I would suggest limiting the discussion to the most extreme issues, not just wearing a polo with ripped shorts, as some of that is generational disconnect - I'm a middle-aged adult and I don't find that particularly unusual as a choice for a high school student, really. The things I see as issues are wearing clothes for multiple days in a row and not showering often enough.

My children aren't as old as yours, but my eight year old has responded well to us simply pointing out that if he doesn't change his underwear he smells bad, and that will make people not want to hang around him.

I would also consider probing a bit into whether there is an underlying mental health condition related to some of these choices, as well. Many teenagers (myself included, back in the day) have body issues, whether they be body image (external) or body comfort (internal), and getting naked to change clothes or shower can be very uncomfortable, even in their own space.

It may also be that he feels he can't make good choices in dress, so he'd rather make obviously bad ones - whether as an element of perfectionism or to avoid being criticized for small faults. Maybe he feels he doesn't have nice enough clothes to match the nicely-dressed kids at school, or maybe he lacks the fashion sense to do so; it's possible he could even appreciate the help from you. But the only way to find out is to have an adult-level conversation about the choices, and see if it leads into the "why".

  • Maybe when talking about the consequences of his choices, you could slip in a casual comment about how possible romantic interests might perceive his appearance / hygiene. Romantic interests have a way of motivating people to compose themselves a bit better than they would otherwise. – Becuzz Aug 26 at 16:33
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I'm not sure there is too much for you to worry about here, except for the matter of not showering. A teenager who doesn't shower for days will stink, and he needs this pointing out to him.

Regarding his style (or lack of it) though - it may be that your son just doesn't crave approval from other people the way that most others his age (and older!) do. That doesn't seem such a bad quality to me. Personally, I'd rather have a child that was a little bit eccentric but happy in themselves than a miserable child constantly posting selfies on Instagram trying to gain the approval of their friends and strangers for the way they look.

On the issue of dress, the only thing I would be concerned about is, not whether they care what the majority think of their dress sense, but whether or not they understand when they do need to make a good impression, such as for a job interview. You mentioned that he does make an effort on special occasions, which sounds to me like he does comprehend the difference.

So choose your battles. Tackle him about showering and wearing fresh clothes for school. Make it an issue of hygiene, not fashion. You mentioned that he is "fit", so I'm guessing he appreciates good health. Hygiene is a health matter. Personal hygiene habits such as washing your hands and brushing and flossing your teeth help keep bacteria, viruses, and illnesses at bay. Dirty clothes can harbour bacteria as well. And there are mental as well as physical benefits.

He may not worry about what the majority of people think of his clothes, but there will come a point at which he wants to "impress" somebody specific, and that might be the time to address how he looks. A good way to address this issue with somebody who might feel that looks are "superficial" might be to say that the care and effort we put into our appearance before we meet others shows them how much we care about them. This makes it a matter of etiquette rather than "showing off".

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Why would he care?

Not a rhetorical question. There are good answers, which he probably doesn't know. Since he's an older teen:

  1. Make sure he's properly informed about choices.
  2. Let him make his own choices.
  3. Assist him if he wants you to.

Even if he makes a "wrong" choice, having previously heard about the consequences will allow him to connect the dots and improve his choice later.

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