You're not wearing that to the party!" Have you ever found
yourself bellowing out those words to your pre-teen? Karen Janatka
of Long Grove has. Like a lot of adolescents, Janatka's 12-year-old
daughter has a definite preference for clothes that are slinky,
skimpy and skin-tight.
"She and her girlfriends dress basically like high school
girls," Janatka says. "They like very fitted outfits, tight shirts
and tight pants-clothes that show off their bodies."
Janatka doesn't think it's a matter of her daughter wanting to
be provocative, but rather that she just likes how the clothes
look. "My daughter's developed kind of early, so she's got a really
cute figure and I think she knows it," Janatka says. The fact that
all of her friends are wearing these kinds of styles makes her
daughter want to dress that way even more.
If you have a daughter anywhere near adolescence, you can
probably relate. Chances are, she doesn't care to wear loose
T-shirts and traditional cut jeans. The attire of choice for most
adolescent girls today is ultra low-cut jeans and shorts, micro
mini skirts, tube tops, corset tops and belly shirts. A lot of
times the shirts are emblazoned with catchy little words and
phrases like "Hottie," "Sexy" and "I know what boys want."
Gary Hill of Winnetka says that when he picks up his 15-year-old
daughter from high school, he routinely sees 15-, 16- and
17-year-old girls dressed "like they're 25 going out to a nightclub
in downtown Chicago." Besides being a parent, Hill is a clinical
psychologist and director of clinical services at the Family
Institute at Northwestern University.
"Adolescent girls today are definitely dressing above their age
level," he says. "Many, though, go a lot further than that. They're
dressing in a very seductive, promiscuous way."
What about the boys? Some of their clothing styles are "on the
edge," Hill says, but their clothes certainly don't send all the
sexual messages like the girls' styles do. "The boys tend to wear
the baggy, low pants and big shirts, which doesn't usually bother
parents nearly as much as what the girls are wearing," Hill
Should you be concerned?
Part of adolescence is "testing the limits" with the older
generation. Wearing different or even outlandish clothes is one of
the ways teens do that. Young people made a statement in the 1920s
by wearing cloche hats and knee-length skirts. In the '50s, poodle
skirts and saddle shoes were the "in" thing for teen gals. In the
'70s, they wore bell-bottoms and platform shoes.
Many psychologists and educators, however, believe today's
clothing fads are not in the same category as the way adolescents
dressed in past generations.
"Parents might not have liked the bell-bottoms that the teens
wore in the 1970s, but there wasn't anything sexual or provocative
about them like there is about today's fashions," says Marie
Schalke, principal of Twin Groves Middle School in Buffalo
The problem with today's girls' clothing styles relates to
safety. "When there's a group of girls just hanging out together,
they look at each other in a certain way and they understand that
what they're wearing is nothing more than being in style," says
Linda Marks, superintendent of Golf School District 67 in Morton
Grove. On the other hand, she says, when the girls go out in
public, "What they're wearing becomes a concern, because they may
attract the wrong kind of attention, which can lead to rape and
unwanted pregnancy. The fact is we live in a real world with many,
many sexual predators. But most girls aren't thinking about
At the very least, Hill adds, by dressing in a blatantly
sexually provocative way, "it sets the girl up for being viewed as
a sexual object and for guys to make inappropriate advances towards
her." He says it can be very stressful for a girl to have to
constantly deal with sexual advances.
The provocative clothing can also create misunderstanding
between the two genders.
"When a girl dresses provocatively, she might be thinking, 'I'm
not trying to come on to boys; I'm trying to compete with other
girls.' But what girls don't always understand is that when a boy
looks at that kind of dress, he's thinking sex, but girls often
don't go there so fast," Hill says. "If the boy then makes a sexual
advance towards the girl, she may get mad, but he doesn't
understand why. The boy thinks to himself, 'Well, wait a minute,
look how you're dressed. Weren't you coming on to me?' " Hill
Behind the trend
So what's motivating kids to dress the way they do? The number
one culprit in many people's minds is the media. "Kids are seeing
images of people like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton being
promoted as teen idols and they want to wear what they're wearing,"
says Kyle Sieck, seventh-grade counselor at Hadley Middle School in
Glen Ellyn. These scantily dressed entertainers appear in movies,
TV shows, magazines, music videos and Web sites-all targeted to
Peer pressure comes into play as well. "Whatever my daughter's
friends come to school wearing, then she wants to dress the same
way," Janatka says. "It may start with just a couple girls wearing
a trendy little outfit, and before long, all the kids want the same
kind of clothes."
Parents says another culprit is clothing manufacturers. "It's
just about impossible to find clothes that are appropriate for
young girls these days," says Sue Einersen of Morton Grove, mother
of a 9-year-old girl. "But you can sure find a lot of short skirts,
string bikinis, platform shoes, low-cut dresses and blouses that
are cut off at the midriff."
Long Grove parent Cheryl Spencer agrees. She says she'll often
have to drive all over town searching for "decent" clothes for her
seventh- and 10th-grade daughters. "Most of the stores all carry
the same low-cut shirts and low-rise pants, so you have to be
willing to hunt around a lot to find the few stores that have more
traditional clothes," she says.
But while retailers have certainly been flooding the market with
provocative clothing styles, they are only responding to market
demand, says child psychologist Sandra Burkhardt, who has a private
practice in Orland Park and teaches in the psychology department at
Saint Xavier University.
"There are a lot of 9-, 10- and 11-year-old girls wanting to
wear the teenage styles of clothing, and retailers have picked up
on this," Burkhardt says. The reason: Because they've already hit
the age of puberty, she says. In fact, girls today are entering
puberty about four years earlier on average than girls did a
century ago, primarily due to an increase in body mass in children
at a younger age, she says.
"As soon as the individual is of a sufficient body weight and
density there's no reason for her not to go into her reproductive
years," Burkhardt says. Once a girl enters puberty, all the
hormonal, social and emotional changes start, which includes being
more tuned-in to the opposite sex.
And finally, truth be told, sometimes it's parents themselves
who are the driving force behind teen clothing sales. Hill says
that "dressing provocatively has become a source of competition
among some parents, basically to see whose daughter looks the best.
It's like, 'Look at my 15-year-old daughter. Isn't she a
knock-out?' They feel a sense of pride that their daughter looks so
What can a parent do?
Most parents probably don't want their daughters dressing
promiscuously. But the alternative route is not always easy-not
when your daughter begs, pleads and even insists that you buy her
certain types of clothing. What's a parent to do?
Set the right example. Model the right kinds of dress for your
kids. Let them see by your example that you can dress modestly and
still be very stylish. If you're going out for a night on the town
with your husband, go for the classy, elegant look rather than the
suggestive or risqué look. "Modesty is something that needs to be
taught in the home," says Linda Marks, superintendent at Golf
School District 67 in Morton Grove. "If modesty isn't important to
you, it won't be to your children."
Shop together. With today's busy lifestyles, the temptation may be
to just give your daughter some money and drop her off at the mall
to do her own shopping. Don't. You need to be there with your
daughter-at least most of the time-to make sure she makes the right
choices when buying clothes. Be willing to go to as many different
stores as it takes to find decent clothes.
Establish reasonable rules before you shop. Set the limits with
your daughter and clearly communicate them to her-before you go
shopping. Some rules you might consider are: All clothes must be in
line with the school dress code. No skirts shorter than 3 inches
above the knee. Shirts must cover the navel. No tops or shorts with
flirtatious phrases or graphics.
Do try to strike a reasonable balance. You may not want your
pre-teen or teen to be dressing like a pop icon, but she doesn't
need to look like she just walked out of the set of "Little House
on the Prairie" either.
Be creative. Sometimes "unacceptable" types of clothing can become
"acceptable" when worn with something else. If your daughter wants
to wear the ultra short skirts, then buy her some leggings to wear
underneath. If she insists on a very low-cut party dress, choose a
nice camisole or wrap to wear with it. If she just has to have that
string bikini, then find a coordinating wrap skirt or coverall that
she can have on when she's not in the water. Find a solution where
both you and your daughter come out winners.
Don't be afraid to say "no." Be willing to take a firm stand and
say "no" when you really believe you need to-even if none of the
other parents you know are willing to do so. "Parents have the
responsibility to set limits for their children," says Emmah Welsh,
eighth-grade counselor at Hadley Middle School. Telling your kids
"no" can actually help them face their peers. "Your kids can kind
of use you as an excuse and say to their friends, 'I can't wear
that because my parents won't let me'-something they can use as a
crutch until they get to the point where they're able to identify
for themselves why certain clothing selections are
Acknowledge your child's
feelings. When telling your daughter "no," it's best to
acknowledge her feelings: "Yes, I know it's not easy to be
different." "I realize you had your heart set on that dress." "I
know you're disappointed." "I understand that all your friends have
string bikinis, but I'm not going to buy one for you. I'm sorry,
but I just don't think girls should be wearing string bikinis to
the beach." Your daughter will appreciate that you're validating
her feelings and not dismissing how she feels, even though she may
not agree with your decision.
Explain your reasons. Give your daughter an explanation of why you
are not allowing her to wear certain types of clothing. "Kids want
explanations and a framework for why you make the decisions you
make," says Sharon Dunham, sixth-grade counselor at Hadley Middle
School. Tell your daughter: "I'm doing this to keep you safe, I
want to protect your character, I don't want you to be sending the
wrong messages to others by the way you're dressed. My first job is
your protection, not necessarily your happiness for the moment,"
says Heidi Fitch, assistant principal at Hadley. "These kind of
explanations are really important, so that it's not just a
heavy-handed, 'this is what I say and so you're going to do it'
Stick to your guns. If your daughter conjures up a lot of original
and inventive arguments to try to change your mind, then don't try
to answer her with similarly brilliant counter arguments. If your
daughter starts crying or yelling, "You're the strictest parent in
the world!" then don't respond with an equally emotional
counterattack or cave in because you can't stand to see her tears.
Keep repeating "no" in a calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice.
Marks says, "No matter how upset your child seems right now,
deep down inside she appreciates the fact that Mom and Dad care
enough to set rules. And ultimately, it may not be in the immediate
future but at least some day-perhaps when she's an adult and making
decisions about her own kids' clothes-she's going to respect your
Rebecca Sweat is a freelance writer based in Chicago
specializing in family and health topics.
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