Too Sexy, Too Young? How Clothing for Girls Has Changed, and How Parents and Schools Can Respond

Guest Post By: Lori Day

When I was in my 20’s, I assumed that once I became a parent, I would have it easier than other mothers. I was an educational psychologist who had spent years working in schools, counseling parents and directly serving kids. Having my own child one day would surely be a piece of cake. I could not have been more wrong! No parent “has it easy.” We all work very hard to teach and nurture our children and raise them to be empathetic, successful, happy human beings in this world, and we all face challenges along the way. Three degrees in psychology did not make me immune to the struggles presented by my own unique child or by the society and era in which I was raising her.

There are times in life when you see something differently, more clearly, or with greater nuance than before. It can happen gradually as the result of accumulated experiences and observations, or suddenly, as the result of a defining event that crystallizes for you what all those vague, nagging, tickling thoughts at the back of your mind could not articulate.

I am sometimes asked how I first became an advocate for girls and when I started writing about it. On September 7, 1999, I had one of those eureka flashes when this sense of purpose became clear to me. I was reading the New York Times and, in a watershed moment, I became acutely aware of my vulnerability as the mother of a daughter in what seemed like a culture going haywire.

"Mean Girls", the 2004 film based in part on Rosalind Wiseman's "Queen Bees and Wannabes"

After reading this article about the ways in which young girls were being turned into consumers of what had previously been considered adult-like clothing fashions, I became so angry I went straight upstairs to my clunky old Dell computer that ran a Windows 95 operating system, opened up WordPerfect, composed my first-ever Letter to the Editor, and emailed it over my dial-up connection via my free Juno account.

Here it is, excavated from the early Internet archives of the NYT by my tech-savvy new husband. It had to be shortened, but it remained essentially authentic to my feelings, conveying my dismay about girls’ fashions, the quickly changing landscape of raising daughters, and my disconnect from other mothers who did not share my concerns or values.

Looking back now on this NYT article that so disillusioned me, it is rather tame compared to what I read these days about girl fashions and what I see out in public. The clothes girls were starting to wear the year of that article were inspired by the new pop sensation Britney Spears, whose hit song and music video “…Baby One More Time,” launched in 1999, forever changed the image in my mind of the Catholic girls’ school uniform.

My sudden inability in 1999 to find a basic t-shirt for my daughter that was not chopped off just below her nonexistent boobies was enough to send me into a silent rage as I walked in—and directly out—of all of the children’s clothing stores at the mall. Jeez! Would I need to hire a seamstress, at great expense, to make appropriate apparel for my seven-year-old daughter so that she would not have to play, run and climb in a ridiculous half-shirt that was no longer just being marketed to teens, but had trickled down into the children’s market?

Before we fast forward to 2012 and the contemporary girls’ clothes that I could not have even imagined in 1999 at the pinnacle of my maternal outrage…the tiny thongs and t-shirts with suggestive slogans and kitten heels and such that you’ve read about here on Pigtail Pals…let’s go back briefly to my own childhood in the late 60’s and the 70’s.  I can see myself clearly in a picture taken when I was in 6th grade wearing elephant pants (high-octane bellbottoms for those of you too young to remember) and some sort of cropped top. The cut-off top was standard hippie fashion for a while there, and my own mother dressed me like that. So why does this not confuse and concern me?

My parents were very strict in how they raised me. The clothes I wore were not shocking to anyone as far as I can recall. I did not even pick them out. I hated shopping. In those days, my mom came back from Sears and handed me a bag and said, “Here are some new clothes.” Why was there a greater sense of innocence—at least in my mind—about the clothing I wore compared to what girls the same age wear now? I think it’s perhaps because, somehow, and please help me out here…those midriff-bearing tops were considered “cute” rather than “hot.” So when the style came back in 1999, ushered in by a 16-year-old Britney and her gyrating bellybutton, was there something different about how it felt or was perceived?

I know one thing. At 11 or 12, I had no idea what “sexy” or “hot” really meant. I had never heard those words applied to a child, I saw no music videos of girls wearing them in a sexy performance I could emulate, I consumed no other marketing messages that I was or should be “sexy,” and I did not view myself as wearing those clothes to look grown up or to attract the gaze of boys. If anything, I wore them because I idolized Marcia Brady! Maybe the changing context of girl-in-society explains a lot, or maybe it’s a red herring, but I remain fascinated by the question.

The other day I saw this article in the Washington Post, and put it on Facebook because I was overjoyed that the topic of the sexualization of girls’ clothing had crossed over into educational journalism, with discussion about how schools can help parents with this problem. The clothing marketed to girls is coming under increased scrutiny for looking “hookerish” around (or before) puberty, so soon after passing through the very feminine and innocent pink-sparkle phase. Shoes, lingerie and cosmetic usage among teen and preteen girls has also changed dramatically. In England, where uniforms are common, several schools have now banned make-up because girls are acting “obsessed with their appearance” and “vain.” In one American Catholic school I read about recently, the uniform for girls has been changed from the traditional pleated skirt to unisex khaki pants, because the girls were rolling down the waistband of their skirts to make them shorter. So, even when uniforms are used, can they even work? What should we do? I am of so many minds on all of this.

As a former school administrator: The way some girls dress today—at ever-younger ages—is a huge distraction to themselves and boys. It detracts from their learning and the learning of others, and disrupts teaching. For those who assume it has always been this way, I can only say that it is very different now than when I began my career in education 25 years ago. And let me be clear. I do not place blame on the girls themselves for the societal pressures exerted upon them.

As a child who grew up wearing a school uniform: I can tell you from personal experience that kids need some freedom of self-expression, and they will subvert attempts to make them dress “appropriately” as defined exclusively by adults. I know I did! I also lampooned this behavior when I was the cartoonist for my school newspaper, making sure the administration knew how collectively put upon we all felt.

As a mother: I did not want my child going out of the house dressed as many of her peers were dressing, and fortunately she had her own well-grounded sensibilities. I asked my daughter, who is now 20, for a quote I could use about her observations of girls’ dress in middle school, and this is what she said:

“I feel that there was much more bullying and social pressure within the groups of girls who wore the skanky clothes, because if you were going to hang out together, you all had to have the same look to compete for boys’ attention, so kids trying to fit in were constantly comparing themselves to other girls who were considered popular. They didn’t bother people like my friends and me. They picked on each other more. That’s how the whole mean girls thing played out in my middle school.”

Because I did not experience the clothing wars with my own daughter, I would love to hear from some mothers who have!

One of the worst things that we do as adult women is to shame girls for dressing provocatively. I think we do it out of frustration, fear and embarrassment, and because we are all very conflicted in this society about how women should look and act. We have our own love/hate relationships with sexy clothes and beauty and youth, and it all changes and evolves, often in deeply dissatisfying ways, as we age and watch our daughters flowering. Lashing out at girls with their size zero bodies in micro-mini skirts is not helping them. But we do need to help them…I think…don’t we? Do we need to take any steps as parents to advise our daughters on how to survive in a culture where looks are everything for females, and the sexier the better?

Co-ed schools are a stage upon which some girls perform their sexiness. If schools are to be first and foremost places to learn, how can teachers and parents work together to help create a healthier environment for girls where they can be themselves rather than who the media tells them to be, at least during the academic day? This article does a really good job explaining a way schools could adopt dress codes that have enough structure to mitigate the hooker look, while leaving enough flexibility for girls to dress uniquely and creatively.

But an essential question that is hard to answer is, whose responsibility is it to police how girls dress? Should it be the school, through some sort of uniform or dress code, both of which do fundamentally require a lot of adult time be put into supervision and disciplining infractions? Or should it be parents, who lay down the law at home, and if so, how should they do this and when should they start?  Personally, I’m most invested in advocating for corporate social responsibility, but that does not help parents in the moment. Finally, for the sake of argument, how about the parents who don’t think it’s a problem—should anyone be telling them how their young daughters should dress?

I would love to hear from all of you. Please weigh in with your experiences, thoughts and ideas in the comments. Tell us how old your daughter is and how you view the roles of society, schools, parents, family, community and girls themselves when it comes to the “so sexy so soon” fashions of girlhood today. Let’s do some brainstorming!

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For more information on Rosalind Wiseman’s watershed book “Queen Bees and Wannabes”, click HERE.

 

 

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Lori Day, educational consultant

Lori Day is an educational psychologist and consultant with Lori Day Consulting in Concord, MA, having worked previously in the field of education for over 25 years in public schools, private schools, and at the college level. She writes and blogs about parenting, education, children, gender, media, and pop culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

Did You Just Call My Daughter A Prostitute?

Whore-friendly panties. If ever three words made my head explode, they were it, considering they were said about panties belonging to ten year old girls. Ten year old girls, 4th graders, cannot be whores.

Please repeat after me: A prostitute is a woman who trades sex for money. Whores, sluts, skanks, and tramps are judgements, not people. It is important to recognize that our sexily dressed little girls are not whores, they most likely have no sexual history at all. They are little girls being allowed to wear sexualized clothing by the parents who should be looking out for them.

Wal-Mart's 2007 #pantyfail

I think what LZ Granderson meant was the innuendo of sex for money/gifts that a pair of panties that reads “Who needs credit cards?” gives, suggesting the use of the anatomy the panties cover would garner the wearer the same end result as would the purchasing power of a credit card. The problem, of course, is the way Mr. Granderson worded it, the statement came off sounded like the slut-shaming of a girl too young to understand the message her panties send; a girl certainly not deserving of stigmatized and controlling views of her sexuality. Mr. Granderson has no right to call any female a whore.

Clothing, or lack of clothing, does not make someone a prostitute. When we are cavalier about the degrading terms we use for our girls, we belittle their inherent worth, and desensitize ourselves to what it really means to be a prostitute. From what I hear, it isn’t a great lifestyle. The proximity I had with it as an investigator revealed it to be brutal, lonely, and dangerous. Our culture sends mixed messages to young women to be hot and sexy and available at all times, and then as soon as these women or girls become sexual agents and act on their desires they face the repressive push-back from society and are branded sluts and whores. Confused? So am I.

When we see a girl dressed in an outfit sexy beyond her years, as a concerned parent like Mr. Granderson, we raise our eye brows, catch our breath, worry about what messages she is growing up with. As cited in the original CNN post, the 2007 watershed studyby the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls revealed that early sexualization harbors danger for our growing daughters: low self-esteem, eating disorders, substance abuse, poor body image, early promiscuity.

Do I think “Juicy” in glittery silk-screened paint across the bum of a child is inappropriate? Yes I do. Let’ s just put our cards on the table, although the Juicy brand actually has an interesting history of two entrepreneurial women behind it…..when someone is bent over and their ass says “Juicy”, that means exactly what you think it means, especially to heterosexual men ages 16-92 years old.

I loved and hated Mr. Granderson’s CNN piece. Loved it because yes, parents are not meant to be their child’s friend and we need to step up and say “NO” to a lot of what is being marketed to our kids. The money to buy this garbage is coming from somewhere, as Granderson says, “I guess I’ve been out-of-the-loop and didn’t realize there’s been an ongoing stampede of 10-year-old girls driving to the mall with their tiny fists full of cash demanding sexier apparel. What’s that you say? Ten-year-olds can’t drive? They don’t have money, either?”

Mr. Granderson misses two things, maybe because he doesn’t have a daughter – first, tween/teen girls usually shop in packs sans parents are become their own consumer-at-large in a marketplace ripe with sexualization at every turn. I made boodles of money as a teen from babysitting, and bought my own clothes with my friends. Second – everything is a battle for parents these days. Yes, LL Bean has nice, appropriate choices, but I did not shop at LL Bean when I was 14, did you? It is unfair to put the onus entirely on parents because the marketing of this crap is relentless. Relentless.

I hated Granderson’s piece because no man, certainly not a father, has the right to call someone else’s child a slut, whore, skank, bitch, cunt, stripper, prostitute, tramp or hooker. It hurts all women to speak that way, but to use those terms towards a young girl is particularly distasteful, and I will not stand for it. Nor will I stand for girls and women to be ashamed of their sexuality or sexual history.

The prefered term, should you know someone whose daughter actually is a prostitute or dancer (stripper), is sex worker. They work in the sex trade industry. 

Mr. Granderson, not raising a daughter, was perhaps not aware of his transgression as there are no words to the equivalent for his son, that morning the boy tried to wear his pants hanging off his bum.

I absolutely think parents need to turn this ship around, send strong messages to marketers and corporations, and teach our daughters how to dress themselves with respect. But we need to do this with grace towards other families. Not all parents are aware of this issue yet, or some are but have no idea what to do about it.

I adore this comment from Emily, a mama from the Pigtail Pals facebook page:

The bitter irony in using sexual terms to describe a girl who is wearing sexualized clothing is that the observer, in making that judgment, becomes a complicit participant in the sexualization. If we want to stop the sexualization of our children, we can stop by filtering them through a lens of adult-directed judgement. Just because they are wearing clothing we are used to seeing (and likely judging) on adults, doesn’t make them little adults anymore than putting a tutu on my cat makes her a ballerina.

How each family determines what is appropriate dress or not is going to depend on the family and the age of the girl. Generally speaking, there are some garments in cultural perspective that carry fetishized meanings with them – knee high boots, fishnets, mini skits, lace thigh highs, candy red high heels….I would say those are no-no’s for the under 18 set. And yes, I agree shorty short shorts and low cut tops are advertising body parts of young girls. You’ll have to decide where you draw your line. And yes, much of the girls departments offer clothing that turns girls into mini-adults and I’m not a fan of that trend. But no piece of clothing turns a girl into a tramp.

So what do we take away from the this week’s hullabaloo about kids, sex, gender, and childhood?

One – we can open a larger conversation about slut-shaming and stop assuming  and judging a person’s sexual history and sexual availability based on their outfit.

Two – we can see that there is no black/white to this issue. It isn’t just parents at fault, it isn’t just companies/marketers at fault. We need, as a culture, a fundamental shift in how we view our children, and how we value childhood. When our culture’s preoccupation with sex creeps down into middle school, grade school, and holy hell – preschool – we’ve got MUCH bigger problems than trashy panties with sexual innuendo and push-up bras for breasts that haven’t developed yet. Those are just symptoms of the problem.

If any media outlets are ready to talk about the real issues, I offer myself as a delightful guest. As long as we continue to focus on the symptoms, we only give lip service to the “too sexy, too soon” generation.

*Photo from Scared Monkeys blog, with post linked above, and again here.