First Threads: The Origin and Impact of Clothes

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The Origin and Impact of Clothes

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"Do any of you like to shop?" my economics professor asked, scanning the room of students. Several students raised their hands, but none higher than a scantily clad blonde in the fifth row. "Really?" the professor asked, his full attention now focused on the girl. Whatever his initial point had been, it was long gone. "Do you like shopping for clothes?"

"Yes!" she gushed in response.

"Then why don't you wear more of them?" he growled.

Clothing has caused strong feelings almost since people started wearing it. As far back as the book of Genesis, Joseph's brothers were jealous of the coat their father gave to him. Marie Antoinette, the 18th-century French queen, was hated for her lavish wardrobe (among other things) and eventually beheaded by her own subjects during the French Revolution. Today, countless blogs mercilessly criticize celebrities' more unfortunate apparel choices.

Since clothing has always been controversial, it's easy to dismiss criticism from people like my economics professor as mere opinion. He's just an old-fashioned prude, right? Or perhaps he's missed too many issues of InStyle or Lucky. Not according to the experts.

The effect of clothing on women

The constant parade of sexualized images of young girls and women in the media is harmful to girls' self-image and healthy development, the American Psychological Association (APA) determined following a recent study.

The Feb. 19, 2007, report from the APA's Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls gave the results of its research on the content and effects of media, including television, music videos and lyrics, magazines, movies, video games and the Internet. The task force defined sexualization as basing a person's value predominantly on sexual appeal or behavior.

Adult women aren't immune to these images, the report concluded. Its authors linked the onslaught of sexualized images to three of the most common mental health problems among both girls and women over the age of 18: eating disorders, low self-esteem and depression.

Some in the fashion industry have even recognized this link. Last fall, the Spanish Association of Fashion Designers banned models with a body mass index of less than 18 from appearing on runways at the prestigious Madrid fashion week. Spanish officials cited a desire to set a more positive, healthy example of beauty for youth, and estimated up to 30 percent of would-be models missed the mark because they were too thin.

"Fashion is a mirror, and many teenagers imitate what they see on the catwalk," said regional official Concha Guerra in a Sept. 13, 2006, report by the BBC. And the promulgation of these looks doesn't negatively effect girls only.

The effect on guys

The APA's study concluded that the barrage of sexualized images sets narrow standards for female attractiveness. As a result, some men can have a hard time finding "adequate" partners among real women, according to the study. In fact, experiments quoted in the study showed that looking at pornography leads men to consider their female partners less attractive.

Boys also are sexualized in the media, the task force acknowledged, in underwear ads and catalogs for some popular teen clothing stores. The study focused on girls, however, because the media objectifies them so much more frequently. In fact, a 1997 study in the journal Sexual Abuse showed that 87 percent of ads sexualizing children featured girls.

Marketing to girls

The emphasis on girls may be because girls are encouraged to focus on their appearance at increasingly earlier ages. Last holiday season, several consumer Web sites listed Bratz products as among the top 10 gifts, some recommending them for girls as young as 6. Trademarked under the catchphrase "the only girls with a passion for fashion," these dolls often sport sultry eye makeup, dark lipstick, embellished jeans, short skirts and belly-baring tops.

For the same age group targeted by Bratz—roughly 7 to 12—$1.6 million was spent on thong underwear alone, according to a Feb. 20, 2007, special report in The Washington Post. In one popular store, graphic tees sized for these "tweens" are emblazoned with phrases like "D is for Diva," "Flirt" and "High Maintenance," on a shelf around the corner from hot pink low-rise panties that read "ooh la la."

Combined with objectification in the media, this type of marketing can lure young girls into an unhealthy focus on their appearance, according to psychologists quoted in The Washington Post. And once the girls are hooked, it's a never-ending cycle. They simply graduate from child-sized thongs to push-up bras and the low-cut tops marketers encourage them to buy.

Being preoccupied with appearance can hold women back even after they reach adulthood, according to The Washington Post. Research quoted in the report suggests that women college students who were overly distracted with their looks scored worse on tests than other students. And everyone knows that guys are also distracted when girls wear overly revealing outfits—tight-fitting to accentuate the feminine figure or showing too much skin. This type of dress invites lust—which is a sin (Matthew 5:28).

The Bible on clothes

Not surprisingly, advice found in the Scriptures about healthy attitudes toward clothing backs up what many experts have determined. The first biblical reference to clothes appears in Genesis 3, shortly after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Genesis 2:9). They suddenly were aware that they were naked and immediately sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves (3:7).

Adam said that he hid from God because he was afraid for Him to see him naked, indicating a newly discovered sense of shame (verses 9-10). This was wrong, as there should be no shame in nakedness before God or between a husband and wife (see 2:25). However, nakedness is not appropriate when other people enter the picture. Immediately after noting that other human beings would come through Eve, the Bible says that God made clothes out of animal skins to cover the first couple (Genesis 3:20-21).

Concerning attractive clothing, it is perfectly fine to wear—indeed, it's good to make ourselves presentable before others, as we are able. Yet Jesus warns His followers not to overly worry about this aspect of their appearance (Matthew 6:28-29). Here, Jesus also says that not even Israel's richest king was dressed as beautifully as wild lilies, which do nothing to achieve their good looks.

What is most important in this regard? Ezekiel 16 makes it clear that there isn't anything inherently wrong with wearing nice clothes. Here we find the figurative story of God providing clothing and accessories for His bride, ancient Israel. This passage tells us that God dressed His wife in fine linen, costly garments and ornate jewelry. Yet we also should learn from Israel's example later in the chapter, when God chastises His bride for trusting in her own beauty and straying from His ways.

The Bible teaches us that our focus must not be solely on our outward appearance. According to 1 Peter 3:1-4, we are to focus more on developing the timeless beauty of a "gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God." VT

Benefits of School Uniforms

The negative impact that an improper focus on dress can have on both girls and boys in education has led some school administrators to enact student uniform policies. Many who push for uniforms cite results from the California Long Beach Unified School District, which adopted a mandatory uniform policy in 1994 in hopes of reducing gang-related violence. No longer allowed to wear gang colors and paraphernalia, students were required to wear white shirts or blouses and navy blue or black shorts, pants, skirts or jumpers, depending on the individual school (

In the years after the policy was enacted, crime rates dropped by 76 percent and attendance hit all-time highs, according to the school district's Web site. Many administrators, law enforcement officials and even students—like former middle school pupil Luis Rodarte—noticed other unintended benefits. Students got along better and were able to focus more on their studies.

"The uniforms, in my opinion, are a good idea. They are very professional looking, they are cheaper than buying clothes every week and they show school spirit," Rodarte said in a quote on the school district's Web site. "This also means we don't have to worry much about how we look."

William Ellis, former Long Beach police chief, said that the uniforms seemed to equalize the playing field among the students. "Students concentrate more on education, not who's wearing $100 shoes or gang attire," he said in a quote on the district's Web site.

Those who oppose school uniforms counter that the policy couldn't be entirely responsible for the positive changes, since other policies went into effect at the same time. However, even skeptics maintain that the uniforms improve the learning environment, especially in younger grades, because children are less focused on what they and others are wearing (