By Tomi-Ann Roberts, PhD (Professor of Psychology, Colorado College)
Moms and Dads have to constantly confront issues that arise from their daughters’ bodies maturing in a society that seems to sexualize them more and more. One nearly daily battle is around clothes. Too sexy? Not appropriate? What can be done to help our girls dress in a way that makes them feel good and doesn’t turn them into sexy objects?
In our APA Task Force report on the sexualization of girls we detailed three sources of sexualization. And the concerns raised by parents regarding their daughters’ clothing choices actually illustrate all three.
The first is cultural. When we walk into the mall, we see this source all around us: the micro-mini dresses and tube skirts, the low cut shirts and the padded bikini tops for 7 to 9 year olds, the advertising that sells us these clothes, and often the shops themselves (adult stores “downsized” for younger and younger clientele such as Abercrombie Kids) all sexualize our daughters.
The second source is interpersonal. Girls are sexualized by their peers and by adults. One mom described her extreme discomfort when grown men give her young, developing daughter’s body the “up and down” with their eyes. Absurdly, society doesn’t seem to question that this is just what boys and men do. It’s common for schools to justify their dress codes for girls with a warning that micro-shorts and fitted deep v-neck shirts distract boys, as though it’s girls’ flesh that keeps boys from being able to concentrate. Recent cases in the news warn, even more menacingly, that grown men must be protected from girls’ bodies, as teens are sent home from dances if they’re wearing dresses deemed “too short.” Apparently in one case, the fathers chaperoning a dance claimed a girl was causing “impure thoughts” in the boys, and she was sent home.
The third source is girls themselves. Girls want to wear hip, trendy clothes. And these seem, increasingly, to be exactly the clothes that make us worried. Why shouldn’t they want to? Those are the clothes all their pop culture icons are wearing.
And self-sexualization is even sold to girls as a source of power! If what you wear “makes the boys drool” then you’re more popular. The message is that females manipulate with their appearance. And this message is coming right at the time (tween and teen years) when young people’s self-esteem is tied more strongly to their mirror image than at any other point in life. Girls self-sexualize, in other words, because they see all around 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 big job. Parents and girls have successfully campaigned against marketers who sexualize egregiously, and I would strongly encourage letter writing, “calling out” on social media venues, and even “girlcotting” whenever and wherever you see fit. It might be fun to make a project with your daughter of “I spy sexualization!” the next time you go to the mall together. Being more mindful of the sneaky ways marketers sell the notion that girls’ only value is in their sexiness makes your daughter a more savvy consumer. But this kind of fighting back doesn’t really help parents in the morning when their daughter comes downstairs wearing something that barely covers her backside.
On the interpersonal level, confronting those who sexualize our daughters is also not easy, especially when there is such a pervasive “boys and men can’t help it” attitude. We can’t follow our girls everywhere they go and tell people to look away, though some of us might want to. I do think, however, parents and schools can and should do more to educate boys and men to stop objectifying the female body. They can help it, and they should. Let’s not accept that it’s solely the responsibility of girls’ to keep others from looking at them like lunchmeat. When safe, stare right back and hold a mirror up to sexualizers – they ought to be ashamed. Parents of boys: teach them that girls deserve dignity and respect, no matter what they wear.
And now we come to the battleground of the third source of sexualization: us versus our daughters themselves. Here, decades of research on the negative consequences of self-objectification give us some ammunition. Studies show that girls and young women who have a more self-objectified view of themselves (and wearing sexualized clothing puts girls in a state of self-objectification) perform more poorly on a math test, throw a ball less effectively, and feel more body shame and anxiety.
What is it about self-objectifying that leads to these negative consequences? The answer seems to be, in part, that it fragments a girl’s stream of thought. Think about it. Sexualizing clothing typically requires a lot of mental energy for the wearer. She has to adjust this and that (I’ve seen more hoisting up of strapless-dresses by girls at Homecoming than dancing!). She has to check herself in the mirror a lot, she has to whisper to her friend, “is anything showing?” All this equates to time and energy taken away from other more important things she could be concentrating on or doing!
So here’s an idea. Ask your daughter, “do you think that skirt is going to be the most comfortable one to wear to your AP test?” Or “I wonder if those shorts are the best choice for you to run fast on track-and-field day?” Let’s shift the conversation away from what our daughters’ clothing choices do to boys and men and instead ask them what their clothing choices mean for their own ability to think, learn, move freely, and truly enjoy their day. This way, we help them make choices for themselves about their appearance.
Remember the old phrase “sensible shoes”? Let’s reconsider it from a new perspective. It’s not the shoes (or the clothes) themselves that are sensible (read: ugly). Nobody wants to wear something ugly. Instead, it’s us – ourselves and our daughters – who become more “sensible” when we wear clothes that feel comfortable.
So, help your daughter see the benefits of wearing outfits that reflect who she is and what she wants to do, not who the sexualizing culture says she is or ought to be. These kinds of clothes enable her free and non-self-conscious movement in the world. She’ll lose track of what she’s wearing and become absorbed in the things she’s doing. And it’s my bet, when you ask her how she feels in this kind of outfit, she’ll say what you’ve always known about her: “beautiful.”
Dr. Roberts is the Chair of the psychology department at Colorado College. Her research interests center around the social psychology of women, gender, and the body. She is fascinated by existential questions relevant to our “corporeality,” and particularly to living in a female body in a culture that sexually objectifies girls and women. To this end, she explores attitudes toward women, as well as girls’ and women’s own self-evaluations and emotions that stem from internalizing these attitudes.
Sexualization of Girls: What Parents Can Do
Sexualization of Girls: What Girls Can Do
Empowering Girls: Media Literacy Resources
Sexualization of Girls: Girls Talk Video
I agree basically with this article, but girls are witnessing pop-music stars, models, and actresses function and dance in stilettos and mini dresses. They aren’t being obstructed by these things in media portrayals. Sometimes we hear about back pain caused by high heels, but that’s not stopping the celebrity foot fetish with statuesque pedestals that cause the entire female body to shift into a “better sex object”. Girls are still being sold princesses. Kate Middleton is a bit of a frumpy dresser in my opinion, but Prince William was remarked for having admired her sheer dress as she modeled in university. Baby bumps are being dressed in tight fashions by NBC Today show hostesses and they like to show how classy Princess Kate is. So it’s sex object leading to breeding that girls are being sold. Three babies are being born everyday according to the NBC nightly news… as the supreme court fails to protect women’s health by allowing employers with faith based morals to judge their female employees reproductive choices and not cover birth-control in their health benefits… Family planning allows women to work. To be part of the work force. Birth-control should be funded. The pregnant trend in fashion is just as bad as the sex object one. Girls are being sent back to the fifties as the word feminist is being cast as a villain. We should honor the suffragists, the women’s lib movement, women’s history and teach girls who our founding mothers and sisters were. We would not be here without them.
Sometimes “who she is” and “what she wants to do” WILL have something to do with her own sexuality and not that of others. At that point, dressing for authenticity and agency becomes more tricky, both for girls themselves and the well meaning parents who are guiding them through the gauntlet. Unfortunately, it is all too easy in this scenario to deny or erase girls’ sexual desire and agency. Parents need to think carefully about these conversations to avoid denying the existence of their daughters’ sexual feelings. Later in her life, our daughters’ sense of sexual agency and entitlement to sexual well being will have an important influence on the quality of their relationships.
“So here’s an idea. Ask your daughter, “do you think that skirt is going to be the most comfortable one to wear to your AP test?” Or “I wonder if those shorts are the best choice for you to run fast on track-and-field day?”
Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ll get the wanted answers. I bet that most teens will answer positively dissmissively
Those questions worked on me. Never did I feel that my clothes were criticized because of any other reason than that they were not comfortable for the situation or that other types (hiking clothes, formal clothes, everyday clothes etc) of clothes were more appropriate. Never can I remember being criticesed for “sexy clothes”.
I believe that because of this my entire focus and trail of thought leaned more on what I felt comfortable in than what signals I sent out. Of course, I dressed up some days for the occasional crush, but never really having sexy clothes made it hard for me to wear sexy clothes for my crush.
You might think I was naive, and I would agree 100% with you. But I also believe that as the naive girl I was, I also sent out very few “sexy” signals to the people surrounding me. As a result of this, I think that if I now happen to dress up in some more challenging clothes, my attitude and everyday behavior and look, defeat most of the signals my clothes could ever send out.
My point: it’s all about where the focus lies, and these questions will certainly help putting the focus where it should be.
Reblogged this on Steph Benson and commented:
Great article about girls and their clothing choices. With the need to feel sexy and the marketing that comes with “being sexy,” what choices do you make as a consumer and WOMAN?
Very informative blog post.Much thanks again. Great.
Worst parenting advice I’ve ever read. Article was long winded and took way too long to get to the parenting advice, which was ultimately weak and completely unhelpful. No teenage girl is going to accept that her choice to wear a mini skirt is going to diminish her math grade or her ability to perform well in sport. I think you need to get real and join the real world of parenting where arming kids with meaningful advice they can relate to is useful. I could have written better advice and I’m an Architect not a psychologist.
Stumbled on this discussion by accident. I have three daughters (17, 14, 10) and the way they dress has never been a problem. I think it is because we have had a very clear and simple dress code for all 3 of them since infancy: at home they were dungaree pants or dungaree shorts (not the skimpy type) , and to go out they were skirts and dresses of their choice but always with tights underneath.
They love dungarees and all 3 of them at have often chosen to wear dungarees to go out, even to school.
Our daughter is 16 and last year when she was 15 we finially had her baptized at Easter vigil.All of the preteen and teen girls wear the traditional white,poofy,short sleeve,knee length baptism dress with the matching bonnet,lace anklets and white ‘mary jane’shoes.The standard white cloth baptismal diaper with plastic pants over it is worn under their dresses with a tee shirt as their top.many of the girls ignore the knee length,and have their dresses up to mid thigh length,and our daughter did it also,had her dress hemmed up to mid thigh behind our backs!Since these girls have to bend over to recieve the water on their heads,their dresses went up in back and their diaper and plastic pants could plainly be seen,including our daughters! These girls werent embarrassed in the least bit and the teen boys all got a good look and their diaper and plastic pants.My husband and i were somewhat embarrassed tho and the daughter thought it was ‘cute’! I dont know how teen girls can do this and expect boys to respect them!
To Clarice a.-Yes! at our parish the preteen and teen girls also wear the same traditional outfits like at your parish,and there are always a few of the teen girls who ignore the knee length and have their baptism dresses at mid thigh or even shorter!There were at least a half dozen girls in the 15 to 17 year old range last easter vigil whose dresses were midthigh length and when they all bent over to recieve the water on their heads,everyone could see their diaper and plastic pants,two of the girls had ruffles across the back of their plastic pants and other girls thought they were cute! Some of these girls had their boyfriends with them and i can only imagine what the boyfriends must have thought!
Written by a true femminist. You see ever since to stone ages males have been attracted to females because of their bodies. Animals today show off parts of their bodies to attract mates and it has been done since the stone ages with humans. Its retarded to think now because females want to be the same as men (wich can not happen because of our DNA simply, you can get a sex change but your DNA will still be man and woman) that the men should just drop their instinct to be attracted to a female showing off parts of their bodies that the men dont. If you want to be treated the same how about you dress like a man and be comfortable, us men are confortable in knee shorts and a t-shirt why does a female have to wear tiny clothes.
As a 17 year old, I have to say that I’m a bit offended by this article. What if I WANT to dress “sexy” because it’s what I feel
comfortable and confident in? You can’t categorize a certain style of dress to be better. If a girl wears jeans and a tee, is she better than me just because I want to wear a mini skirt or tight jeans? NO. We, as women, need to lean that we shouldn’t judge either other based on clothing. We should learn to support on another. Yes, we should be mindful about when dressing a certain way is important ( i.e. work), but I can wear a mini skirt to an AP test if I want to and be happy doing so.
To Clarice A and Linda-Yes,i agree with both of you! It is not only baptism that i have seen girls in short dresses,but also teen flowergirls in weddings! I have been to several weddings over the years and have seen teen flowergirls in the 13 to 15 year old range dressed like little flowergirls in top of the knees to midthigh length puffy dresses with veils or headwreaths,with lace socks and white shoes.Just about all of the girls had either a disposable diaper with rubberpants or a cloth diaper and rubberpants on under their dresses and they looked like toddlers! I dont know how these girls could want to be seen by people in their outfits and not be embarrassed!The one wedding i was at back in 2011 was a large one and there were four teen flowergirls,1 at 13,two at 14,and one at 15,and all four of them had pastel pink,sleeveless dresses with a flowercrown with ribbons down the back,pink socks with white lace and pink shoes.They each had a cloth diaper with pink rubberpants over it and their dresses were so short that the bottom of their diaper and rubberpants stuck out! I couldnt believe what i was seeing and that these four girls would allow them selves to be dressed in the outfits.
This article is clearly written by someone with a weak libido. The harsh truth is, people with stronger sexual drives always suffer because of uneducated people with weaker sexual drives who try to make us feel like freaks and monsters.
This is why you neurotically view the male gaze as something destructive and this is why you constantly tell other women what they can or cannot wear in order to express their sexuality.
We are all sexual beings, we all have the right to exist as such and we all have the right to look ar whomever we get the impulse to look at and the right to wear whatever we get the impulse to put on. And we are also allowed sexual emotions at all times, no matter what what the zeitgeist, feminist propaganda or the sexually consevative current of our time tries to sell you.
Dress as you wish. Look at who you wish. And don’t let the bastards grind you down.
As a 17 year old I disagree with this article. It is discusting how men are able to look up and down as you said to girls and parents make it our fault because we “initiated” it even if it’s wearing a bikini at the beach or pool which is 100% normal or in school showing our shoulder or back. I have mostly been allowed to wear whatever I want but as I get older and grow into my style and myself my parents start to think I am becoming more sexualized even though I am confident and not wearing things too skimpy as they say. I do agree that there is a line between dressing in your style and being a straight hoe but I think parents need to understand as their kids grow older it is basically ineviditable for their daughters to get looked at no matter what they are wearing and they should have the choice to decide how they want to be precieved by others; male and female, but it definitely should NOT be the girls fault at all because of the way she is expressing herself. Men will always get away with sexualizing women; we all know it won’t change, but I think women need to stick together and help support each other and rather then telling your kid she can’t buy these perfectly normal clothes because she is a teenage girl try to encourage that she is a beautiful girl no matter what. All in all please do not tell your child that she is not allowed to buy or express herself in clothes she wants to as it is a step backward from where we are in society right now and you don’t want to plant seeds of body image in a girls head. I do know from friends how unhealthy body positivity and self esteem issues can start with parents weather you believe so or not and you could be doing more harm then good.