Sexualized Clothing Unhealthy and Inappropriate for Young Girls

Provocative clothing is being marketed to younger and younger girls. How did this trend get started, and how is it hurting our girls?

Several weeks ago, clothing company Abercrombie and Fitch sparked outrage among parents and child advocacy groups when it unveiled a push up bikini top, “The Ashley,” in sizes fitting girls as young as seven.

Following the onslaught, Abercrombie retreated only slightly. They kept the item available, renamed it (“padded” instead of “push up,” a subtle distinction), and issued this statement on their Facebook page, “We agree with those who say its best suited for girls age 12 and over.” Many parents would argue that breast enhancement is inappropriate for even a 12 year old. Last week, the product was pulled altogether.

Sexualized Clothing and Children

Unfortunately, this debacle is only the most recent and probably most publicized and criticized example of marketing sexualized clothing to young children. The reality is that clothing that many would find “inappropriate” is being marketed and sold for younger and younger girls. Some parents are outraged, some are complacent. Yet someone is clearly buying these items for their girls. Don’t parents understand how dangerous it is to sexualize young girls in this way?

In 2007, The American Psychological Association Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls issued a report that linked this type of sexualization with low self-esteem, eating disorders, and depression. Melissa Atkins Wardy of Pigtail Pals, an organization which works to create awareness about this topic and others that impact girls’ development, explains it this way, “The marketing trend has been to make clothing for children that essentially makes them look like mini-adults. The fault in this is one, it interferes with the work of the child, which is play. A girl cannot run, climb, leap, and crawl the way a young child should when at play if she is in heeled sandals, a short skirt, and top that keeps riding up.”

“The second issue with this is the sexualized clothing blurs that line of taboo that needs to firmly sit between children and sex. There is never a time when it is appropriate to look at a child as a sexual object or partner, yet when children wear clothing that sends a mixed and powerful message to members of society that would interpret it as sexual nuance, we create a dangerous culture for our children to grow in.”

What is Age Compression?

It’s the dynamic that changes our cultural norms about what is and isn’t appropriate for kids at certain ages. Generally, this “getting older younger” trend start with marketers who aim products, ideas, and values at younger and younger kids, hoping to increase sales. Parents and kids buy into these trends, and suddenly the consensus about what is “OK” for kids at certain ages seems to shift. Unfortunately, the result may be that children are surrounded by products, ideas, and values that are inappropriate and harmful for their healthy development.

Many parents fight the good fight, but many parents seem to get swept along in the cultural current, unaware that this is even a problem. That’s why it is not uncommon to see teenagers dressed in tight, low cut shirts, or extremely short shorts. Or to see younger girls wearing clothing that a decade ago would have only been appropriate for a teenager. Even clothing currently marketed for toddlers and preschoolers commonly offer things like low cut pants and skinny jeans.

What Parents Can Do

Set healthy limits with your children regarding clothing. For younger girls, explain that the clothing is more appropriate for older girls. Or, explain, in terms they can understand, that the restrictive nature of tight fitting clothing will limit how they can run and play. For older girls, start conversations about respecting her body and the message clothes send about a person, whether they are accurate or not.

Protest clothing you find inappropriate or offensive. Write letters, boycott stores, and spread the word to friends and family. If enough people speak up and don’t buy these products, eventually things have to change.

Join like-minded parents to discuss these issues. For example, Pigtail Pails maintains an active Facebook page with lots of conversations about these and related topics. Lots of good ideas and advice is shared here.