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 says.
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 Grove.
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 that.”
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 says.
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 adolescents.
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 grown up.”
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 inappropriate.”
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’ approach.”
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 stands.”
Rebecca Sweat is a freelance writer based in Chicago specializing in family and health topics.