By Tomi-Ann Roberts, PhD (Professor of Psychology, Colorado College)
Moms and Dads have to constantly confront issues that arise from their daughters’ bodies maturing in a society that seems to sexualize them more and more. One nearly daily battle is around clothes. Too sexy? Not appropriate? What can be done to help our girls dress in a way that makes them feel good and doesn’t turn them into sexy objects?
In our APA Task Force report on the sexualization of girls we detailed three sources of sexualization. And the concerns raised by parents regarding their daughters’ clothing choices actually illustrate all three.
The first is cultural. When we walk into the mall, we see this source all around us: the micro-mini dresses and tube skirts, the low cut shirts and the padded bikini tops for 7 to 9 year olds, the advertising that sells us these clothes, and often the shops themselves (adult stores “downsized” for younger and younger clientele such as Abercrombie Kids) all sexualize our daughters.
The second source is interpersonal. Girls are sexualized by their peers and by adults. One mom described her extreme discomfort when grown men give her young, developing daughter’s body the “up and down” with their eyes. Absurdly, society doesn’t seem to question that this is just what boys and men do. It’s common for schools to justify their dress codes for girls with a warning that micro-shorts and fitted deep v-neck shirts distract boys, as though it’s girls’ flesh that keeps boys from being able to concentrate. Recent cases in the news warn, even more menacingly, that grown men must be protected from girls’ bodies, as teens are sent home from dances if they’re wearing dresses deemed “too short.” Apparently in one case, the fathers chaperoning a dance claimed a girl was causing “impure thoughts” in the boys, and she was sent home.
The third source is girls themselves. Girls want to wear hip, trendy clothes. And these seem, increasingly, to be exactly the clothes that make us worried. Why shouldn’t they want to? Those are the clothes all their pop culture icons are wearing.
And self-sexualization is even sold to girls as a source of power! If what you wear “makes the boys drool” then you’re more popular. The message is that females manipulate with their appearance. And this message is coming right at the time (tween and teen years) when young people’s self-esteem is tied more strongly to their mirror image than at any other point in life. Girls self-sexualize, in other words, because they see all around them that this is the way to be a popular, successful female.
So how do we begin to fight this?
Tackling the cultural-level sexualization of girls is a big job. Parents and girls have successfully campaigned against marketers who sexualize egregiously, and I would strongly encourage letter writing, “calling out” on social media venues, and even “girlcotting” whenever and wherever you see fit. It might be fun to make a project with your daughter of “I spy sexualization!” the next time you go to the mall together. Being more mindful of the sneaky ways marketers sell the notion that girls’ only value is in their sexiness makes your daughter a more savvy consumer. But this kind of fighting back doesn’t really help parents in the morning when their daughter comes downstairs wearing something that barely covers her backside.
On the interpersonal level, confronting those who sexualize our daughters is also not easy, especially when there is such a pervasive “boys and men can’t help it” attitude. We can’t follow our girls everywhere they go and tell people to look away, though some of us might want to. I do think, however, parents and schools can and should do more to educate boys and men to stop objectifying the female body. They can help it, and they should. Let’s not accept that it’s solely the responsibility of girls’ to keep others from looking at them like lunchmeat. When safe, stare right back and hold a mirror up to sexualizers – they ought to be ashamed. Parents of boys: teach them that girls deserve dignity and respect, no matter what they wear.
And now we come to the battleground of the third source of sexualization: us versus our daughters themselves. Here, decades of research on the negative consequences of self-objectification give us some ammunition. Studies show that girls and young women who have a more self-objectified view of themselves (and wearing sexualized clothing puts girls in a state of self-objectification) perform more poorly on a math test, throw a ball less effectively, and feel more body shame and anxiety.
What is it about self-objectifying that leads to these negative consequences? The answer seems to be, in part, that it fragments a girl’s stream of thought. Think about it. Sexualizing clothing typically requires a lot of mental energy for the wearer. She has to adjust this and that (I’ve seen more hoisting up of strapless-dresses by girls at Homecoming than dancing!). She has to check herself in the mirror a lot, she has to whisper to her friend, “is anything showing?” All this equates to time and energy taken away from other more important things she could be concentrating on or doing!
So here’s an idea. Ask your daughter, “do you think that skirt is going to be the most comfortable one to wear to your AP test?” Or “I wonder if those shorts are the best choice for you to run fast on track-and-field day?” Let’s shift the conversation away from what our daughters’ clothing choices do to boys and men and instead ask them what their clothing choices mean for their own ability to think, learn, move freely, and truly enjoy their day. This way, we help them make choices for themselves about their appearance.
Remember the old phrase “sensible shoes”? Let’s reconsider it from a new perspective. It’s not the shoes (or the clothes) themselves that are sensible (read: ugly). Nobody wants to wear something ugly. Instead, it’s us – ourselves and our daughters – who become more “sensible” when we wear clothes that feel comfortable.
So, help your daughter see the benefits of wearing outfits that reflect who she is and what she wants to do, not who the sexualizing culture says she is or ought to be. These kinds of clothes enable her free and non-self-conscious movement in the world. She’ll lose track of what she’s wearing and become absorbed in the things she’s doing. And it’s my bet, when you ask her how she feels in this kind of outfit, she’ll say what you’ve always known about her: “beautiful.”
Dr. Roberts is the Chair of the psychology department at Colorado College. Her research interests center around the social psychology of women, gender, and the body. She is fascinated by existential questions relevant to our “corporeality,” and particularly to living in a female body in a culture that sexually objectifies girls and women. To this end, she explores attitudes toward women, as well as girls’ and women’s own self-evaluations and emotions that stem from internalizing these attitudes.