It’s been a banner year for inappropriate girlswear. Padded “push up” bikini tops. Butt-perking shoes. Tops declaring the importance of beauty over brains. Now Halloween season is upon us, with girls’ costume options ranging from (sexy) alien to (sexy) zombie. This trend is horrifying — but it’s not really surprising.
Attractiveness has always been the prized virtue of females in our society. It’s been a constant struggle for girls to get as much credit for being smart as being pretty. But this has been complicated by the triumph of the “bad girl” archetype. As explicit sexuality (i.e., porn) has become more accessible and accepted, its aesthetic has seeped into the mainstream. In the past, there were demure “girls next door” and prim “ice queens.” Now, nearly every female celebrity works an overtly sexy look.
Little girls want to look like big girls — especially the ones they know are celebrated by the world at large. They are eager to define their identities according to what is expected and appreciated. Which is what makes the increasing flow of messages that oversexualize girls and undermine their intelligence so disturbing and so dangerous. When a mom on the TV show Dance Moms complained about her 9-year-old gyrating on stage in fishnets, the coach countered, “But she loves it!” How can a parent combat the flow of products AND a daughter’s appetite for them?
First of all, parents can let merchandisers know that what they are doing is not okay. If you feel that girls are being inappropriately represented or targeted, or that marketers are preying on girls’ desires to get on the sexy bandwagon, you now have the opportunity to voice your disgust without even leaving your seat. Send an email. Better yet, post publicly on Facebook and Twitter. Viral campaigns have successfully resulted in offensive products — like the JC Penney Shirt at the left — being removed from the market.
Sometimes when parents complain, they get hit with a libertarian defense: She’s your daughter. It’s your job to control her wardrobe. This is, of course, true. But it’s also easier said than done. Sure, we can all be hard-asses and tell our daughters they have to wear what we want them to. We are the parents. We make the rules. But these are girl-children we are talking about, and although I know there are girl-children who don’t rear up like king cobras when forbidden to express themselves with their choice of clothing, I can count the ones I personally know on one hand. And none of them live here.
Peggy Orenstein quotes Deb Tolman and Lyn Mikel Brown on the marketing of porn-inspired clothing to little girls:
“It’s easy for moralizers to blame parents for saying yes and to blame girls for wanting and wearing. Placing the blame on individuals deflects attention from the rampant commercialization of childhood and the pornification of products marketers peddle to younger and younger children. Sure, we can say no. Many of us do. But we’re up against corporations willing to invest billions to cultivate our child’s desire for the right look and heighten their anxiety about not matching up.”
I’m not saying I’m for government regulation of clothing. I do think that, in reality, we parents are ultimately responsible for teaching our kids values and showing them how our own values might differ from the ones being sold to them. But parents need support to fight the power.
Here are some resources to help parents provide empowering, age-appropriate messages to their daughters to counter the rash of sexy and stupid:
Pigtail Pals: Redefine Girly
Peggy Orenstein’s list of smart books for girls
Relevant Article: My 5-year-old wants to wear makeup. Cute or cause for alarm?