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!



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




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+.