You’re not wearing that to the party!” Have you ever found yourself bellowing out those words to your teenager or preteen? Karen Janatka of Long Grove, Illinois, 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.
So what’s motivating teens to dress this way?
“She and her girlfriends dress basically like high school girls,” Janatka sighs. “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.
It all adds up to a certain amount of conflict in the Janatka household. “We’ll go shopping for a dress for her to wear to [a party] and she’ll want to buy one that’s really low cut and very revealing—and there’s no way I’m going to let her wear that,” Janatka relates. “A lot of times we can come to a compromise, like we’ll buy the dress but she has to wear a tank top underneath. Still, clothes are a constant issue for us.”
Sound familiar? If you have a daughter anywhere near adolescence, you probably can relate. Chances are she doesn’t care to wear loose t-shirts and traditional-cut jeans. The attire of choice for adolescent girls in recent years includes ultra low-cut jeans and shorts, micro mini skirts, tube tops, corset tops and belly shirts. A lot of times the shirts will be emblazoned with catchy little words and phrases like “Hottie,” “Sexy” and “I know what boys want.” True, girls may not always be able to get away with wearing these clothes to school, but anywhere else they go—whether it’s to the mall with their friends, to a party, or a day at an amusement park—that’s their garb.
Winnetka, Illinois, parent, Gary Hill, 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” as well, Hill observes, 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?
Of course, 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,” notes Marie Schalke, principal of Twin Groves Middle School in Buffalo Grove, Illinois.
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, Ph.D., superintendent of Golf School District 67. On the other hand, she continues, 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 this can be very stressful for a girl to have to be constantly dealing with a lot of sexual advances and always having to say “no.”
If you have a daughter anywhere near adolescence, you probably can relate.
The provocative clothing can also create misunderstanding between the two genders. Explains Hill: “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.”
If the boy then makes a sexual advance towards the girl, she may get mad, but he doesn’t understand why, Hill says. The boy thinks to himself, “Well, wait a minute, look how you’re dressed. Weren’t you coming on to me?”
“You not only end up with a lot of miscommunications,” Hill says, “but the boy might also be charged with sexual harassment.”
Behind the trend
So what’s motivating teens to dress this way? The number one culprit in many people’s minds is the media. “Kids are seeing images of people like Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton being promoted as teen idols and they want to wear what they’re wearing,” observes Kyle Sieck, seventh grade counselor at Hadley Middle School in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. These scantily-dressed entertainers appear in any number of movies, television shows, magazines, music videos and Web sites—all of which are targeted to adolescents. Kids see all the attention these celebrities are getting, Sieck says, and “they feel if they dress the same way, they’ll get a lot of attention too. The trouble is, they don’t put it together that that’s not the kind of attention they really want.”
Peer pressure, of course, comes into play as well. “Whatever my daughter’s friends come to school wearing, then she wants to dress the same way,” Janatka relates. “It may start with just a couple girls wearing a trendy little outfit, and before long, all the kids want the same kind clothes.”
Another culprit cited by parents is clothing manufacturers. Many parents bemoan the fact that it’s become very difficult to purchase “wholesome” or “little girl” clothes. They say fashion designers have simply shrunk teenage styles to fit younger girls. “It’s just about impossible to find clothes that are appropriate for young girls these days,” says Sue Einersen of Morton Grove, Illinois, 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. This can take a lot of time, which a lot of parents don’t have, so she figures that’s why some parents just give in and let their kids buy what they see at the first store they shop at.
But while retailers have certainly been flooding the market with provocative clothing styles, child psychologist Sandra Burkhardt, Ph.D., ABPP, maintains that retailers are only responding to a market demand. “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,” asserts Burkhardt, who has a private practice in Orland Park, Illinois, in addition to teaching in the psychology department at Saint Xavier University.
Of course, part of adolescence is “testing the limits” with the older generation.
The reason so many preteens want to wear older girls’ clothing, Burkhardt says, is because they’ve already hit the age of puberty. Girls are maturing faster today than young women did a generation or two ago. In fact, girls today are entering puberty around four years earlier on average than girls did a century ago, according to Burkhardt. This, she says, is primarily due to an increase in body mass in children at a younger age.
“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 wanting to wear the more provocative clothing, Burkhardt says.
Clearly retailers are pushing these kinds of styles.
Clearly retailers are pushing these kinds of styles, she acknowledges, but what’s really behind this trend is that the girls want these clothes. “You simply can’t get youngsters interested in that stuff until there’s started to be some physiological changes that make them more aware of these kinds of things,” Burkhardt says.
And finally, truth be told, sometimes its 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.” These parents may actually encourage their daughters to wear certain kinds of trendy outfits, to make them look more grown-up, Hill says. It doesn’t bother them that their daughter is 15 and dressed like she’s going out to a nightclub.
Some parents will even buy the same types of outfits for themselves. Laments one school principal: “A lot of times, when we’ll notice that a student is dressing inappropriately, we’ll call the parent in so that we can talk to her about how the daughter is dressed. Then when the mother comes to school to meet with us, we see she’s dressed the same sleazy way! It then becomes very difficult for us to tell the13-year-old not to dress the way she does when her mother is wearing the same kind of clothes.”
What parents can—and should—do
It is probable, however, that most parents do not want their daughters—young or old—to be 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?
“If modesty isn’t important to you, it won’t be to your children.”
Set the right example. First and foremost, model the right kinds of dress for your children. 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. Your kids notice what types of clothing choices you make. “Modesty is something that needs to be taught in the home,” Marks says. “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 do this. 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. If she’s just shopping with her friends, she’ll be more tempted to buy clothes that won’t be appropriate. Make time to go shopping with your daughter and be willing to go to as many different stores as it takes to find decent clothes. If time is lacking, check out different retailers’ Web sites to preview what they’re selling so that you don’t waste time going to stores that don’t meet your needs.
Establish reasonable rules before you shop. Set the limits with your daughter and clearly communicate them to her—before you go shopping. She should know in advance what is definitely out. Some rules you might consider are: All clothes must be in line with the school dress code, no skirts shorter than three inches above the knee, shirts must cover the navel, no tops or shorts with flirtatious phrases or graphics, etc. But do try to strike a reasonable balance. You may not want your preteen or teen to be dressing like a pop icon, but she doesn’t need to look like she just walked off 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, buy her some leggings to wear underneath the skirt. 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, find a coordinating wrap skirt or coverall that she can have on when she’s not in the water. Try to 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. When you tell your children “no,” this 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,” Welsh says.
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 think girls should not 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. Provide your daughter with 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.” “These kinds 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,” Fitch says.
Stick to your guns. If your daughter conjures up a lot of highly original and inventive arguments to try to change your mind, don’t try to answer her with similarly brilliant counterarguments. If your daughter starts crying or yelling in an angry tone of voice that “you’re the strictest parent in the world!” etc., don’t respond with an equally emotional counterattack or cave in because you can’t stand to see her tears. Simply keep repeating “no” in a very calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice. The truth is, 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.”