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On Sexy Clothes, by a Recovering Teenager

May 17, 2011

PreventionYour parents let you out of the house wearing THAT?!?!

I’ve been having that thought a lot lately when I go to the mall. Or a neighborhood picnic. Or the local coffee shop. Actually, go pretty much anywhere with a temperature registering above 55 degrees, and you’ll see a lot of barely-teen girls wearing, shall we say, provocative clothing.

I’m 24 years old, and I grew up in the age of Britney Spears’ midriff. My friends had tube tops in every color and those plastic butterfly hair clips to match. Today, I cannot remember my husband’s social security number for the life of me, but I could sing to you every. single. word. from “Hit Me Baby, One More Time.” I think (I think) I still remember a few steps of choreography.

My parents, much to my absolute 15-year old disgust, would administer the Bellybutton Test before I left the house for school. It was a mere 24 inches of space between the bottom of our carpeted steps and the freedom of the front door, but they always heard me, now matter how quietly I flip-flopped in my flip flops down the stairs and towards the door. The inevitable showdown went something like this:

“Bye, Mom and Dad!  See you–”

“Hold it.”

If you’ve ever seen a teenage girl before, you’ll know the pose I immediately took: head back as far as it would go, shoulders up, mouth agape, spirit deflated. “Uuuggghhhh….

The dreaded Bellybutton Test. I would have to raise my hands above my head until my elbows were straight. If there was the slightest hint of Bellybutton Exposed to the Light of Day, it was “back upstairs” to change into a longer top. In my defense (sort of), I didn’t have the self-confidence of the “popular girls” at school, so an exposed midriff was barely a consistent problem.

About that time in the mid-90’s, there was a study defining the “objectification theory” (Fredrickson and Roberts), which proposed that:
“women from Western cultures are widely portrayed as objects of the male gaze, leading to the development of self-objectification, in which girls and women internalize these societal messages and view their own bodies as objects to be evaluated according to narrow standards of (often sexualized) attractiveness.”

A follow-up study in 2007 by the American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls (say that five times fast) explored girls’ clothing in particular as a major “socializing influence” that contributes to the “development of self-objectification in preteen girls.”

Recently a study of children’s clothing published in the journal Sex Roles took that particular topic even further. The researchers examined the websites of 15 popular U.S. stores that sell clothing to girls–not adolescents–sizes 6-14. They looked at 5,666 items of clothing in search of ones that “revealed or emphasized a sexualized body part, had characteristics associated with sexiness, and/or had sexually suggestive writing.”

The result? 69 percent of the clothing items were coded as having only childlike characteristics. 4 percent had only sexualizing characteristics. 25 percent had both sexualizing and childlike characteristics, like a mini-skirt with polka-dots. One percent of the items had neither characteristic. (White socks?) The highest rate of sexualized clothes were from exclusively tween stores, like Abercrombie Kids. The most common sexual feature was emphasizing the breast area or drawing attention to the buttocks area. Or whatever the kids call it these days.

Now, here I am just a few years later, judging teen girls in the mall with all the indignant self-righteousness of the Church Lady. I only ever mentally rehearse a speech on the over-sexualization of young girls in this country, about how it’s what is inside that counts, about true identity and all of that.

But I’ll never actually follow through on my imagined confrontation with these tweens in my town. Frankly, it’s not my job. Yet. Besides, I know just how they’d reply: head back as far as it will go, shoulders up, mouth agape, and their spirit, like, totally annoyed.  Uuuggghhhh….

By Heather Colletto, Communications Coordinator

The full title of the 2011 study is “Putting on Sexiness”: A Content Analysis of the Presence of Sexualizing Characteristics in Young Girls.” You can read the study in its entirety here. Read more in this Atlantic Wire article.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2011 10:31 am

    this is GOLD. thank you so much for writing this.

  2. May 17, 2011 10:35 am

    true story there!! Makes me so sad for how much our culture has cheaped what is sexy. I just wrote on that today. Love this post! WE need to bring the right kind of sexy back. our culture is in desperate need of redefining.

  3. May 17, 2011 11:30 am

    Well said, Heather. Thank you!

  4. Kristi permalink
    June 22, 2011 12:29 pm

    This article just moved me to tears. How true this is. I recently spoke to our church’s youth girls, and one of them asked “What is modesty? How do I learn to dress modestly?” I was taken aback. It was the first time I realized we must unteach what the world has been so aggressively teaching our young women. Thank you for writing this. -k

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