Steps parents can take to find clothing that empowers rather than sexualizes their daughters
“She is clothed in strength and dignity and she laughs without fear of the future.” ~ Proverbs 31.25
I have five beautiful granddaughters who are the love of my life. I thoroughly enjoy watching them grow up, while at the same time being eternally grateful that I’m not the one involved with the day to day raising of them. I didn’t know how I would handle such topics as the internet and cell phones, but naively thought that I wouldn’t have any difficulty buying clothes for them. I recently went to the local mall with a list that included my granddaughters’ clothing sizes and items they wanted for school. While there, I witnessed a young girl of six screaming at her mother. “I HAVE TO HAVE THAT. ALL OF THE GIRLS IN MY CLASS ARE WEARING IT BUT ME. IT’S NOT FAIR!” The item at the center of this drama was a mini-skirt which would cover this child’s bottom but not much more. When did the mall become such a battleground for parents and their children? After speaking to my daughter and other parents of young girls, I checked out a few stores, among them Abercrombie Kids, Walmart, The Gap, and Target. What I found disturbed me greatly. The only clothing choice for girls age 6 to 16 in many of the stores are mini skirls, short shorts, low-cut tops, and t-shirts with such words as “juicy or sexy’ plastered all over them. Why do the clothing designers think it’s OK to sexualize young girls? What can parents do to support their daughters to dress in a way that makes them feel good and, at the same time, doesn’t turn them into sex objects? Is it necessary to purchase those Daisy Dukes just because they are on the cover of the latest magazine? I learned a lot as I researched this topic.
According to a 2008 APA report, sexualization occurs when “individuals are regarded as sex objects and evaluated in terms of their physical characteristics and sexiness.” Concerns many parents raise regarding their daughters’ clothing choices illustrates the three sources of this troubling phenomenon.
- Cultural – You only have to turn on the TV or walk in a mall today, to see the source all around us: the micro-mini dresses and short shorts, the low cut shirts and padded bikini tops for seven to nine year olds; the advertising that sells all of these clothes; and often the shops themselves all sexualize our daughters.
- Interpersonal – Girls are sexualized by their peers and by other adults. In the high schools I worked in as a counselor, it was common for the principal to justify the dress code for girls with a warning that short shorts and mini-skirts distract boys, as though it’s the female body that prevents the boys’ from concentrating. In March 2016, students in a middle school in Evanston, Illinois protested a ban on leggings and yoga pants where female students were told that this clothing was too distracting to boys. Jason Brook, 16, a student in Palo Alto, California wrote in defense of the protest: “This dress code suggests that a school’s priority is to create an ideal learning environment for males while ignoring factors that may help females learn. A truly ideal learning environment is one where we are all taught to respect one another, regardless of our clothing choices.” Amen, Jason.
- Girls Themselves – Girls want to be hip. Wearing the latest fashion trend will help them to fit in. After all, all their pop culture icons are wearing these clothes. They are also given the message by the media that to be sexual is a source of their power and that all females manipulate with their appearance. Turn on the TV and you’ll find girls as young as 5 glamorized with everything from a spray tan to a full face of makeup on TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras. These messages are bombarding young girls at exactly the time when their self-esteem is tied more strongly to their image of themselves than at any time in their lives. Girls self-sexualize because our society models for them that this is the way to be a popular, successful female.
So how do we begin to fight this? Tackling the cultural-level sexualization of girls is a huge undertaking. But there are definitely things you can do.
- Recognize that you are also powerful. Speak up. Talk to your friends and neighbors about your concerns. Start a letter-writing or email campaign to the stores that are blatantly marketing sexy clothes.
- While you are working at changing the negative, also applaud the positive. Support companies and products that promote positive images of girls, including Lands’ End, LL Bean and Girls Will Be.
- On the interpersonal level, confronting those who sexualize your daughter isn’t easy. You can’t follow her around and chastise folks to look away and mind their own business. Besides, if you did do that, your daughter would probably be mortified. I believe that this step involves educating the boys and men in your daughter’s life. Teach them that girls deserve respect no matter what they are wearing.
- Question your daughter’s clothing choices and where she wants to shop before you get to the mall. If your daughter wants to wear something that you consider to be exploiting her sexuality, ask her to explain to you what she likes and doesn’t like about the outfit. Ask her questions like “Do you think that skirt is the most comfortable to wear to your AP exam? Or, “Do you think those shorts are the best choice for you to run fast on track-and-field day.” Remind her that if this outfit requires a lot of checking and adjusting, her focus will be less on her school work and more on ensuring that she is covered up. As a chaperone at proms, I witnessed firsthand girls spending more time pushing up their strapless gowns than actually dancing and having fun.
- You might be uncomfortable discussing sexuality with your kids but this is one of the most important talks you can have with them. Share your thoughts about when you think sex is okay as a part of a healthy, intimate, mature relationship. Discuss with them why they believe girls try so hard to look and act sexy. Effective sex education programs discuss media, peer and cultural influences on behavior and decision-making, how to make good, safe choices, and what a healthy relationship looks like. Find out what your child’s school is teaching.
- Encourage your child to participate in sports and extra-curricular activities. Athletics and clubs emphasize talent, skills, and abilities over physical appearance. Encourage your child to get involved.
- Recognize that you are a role model. Marketing and the media also influence you. When you buy something, you are also teaching your sons and daughters what to wear.
- And, finally, but most importantly, support them in building strengths that will allow them to achieve their dreams while developing into healthy adults. Remind your child that she is so much more than her physical appearance.
Help your daughter and grand-daughter understand the benefits of wearing outfits that reflect who she is and what she wants to do in life, not what the culture and media says she is or ought to be. These kinds of clothes enable her to focus on what is most important to her, becoming the best she can be. I still may not know about the latest app on their cell phones, but I now know all there is about the importance of clothing choice for the young girl.
In addition to her grandmother’ duties, Dianne is a nationally certified counselor who supports students and families through the college admission’s’ process. Interested in learning more, contact Dianne at email@example.com.