Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Little Girls in "Sexy" Clothes

I have three boys. This means I'm not exactly savvy when it comes to the latest little girl fashions. Frankly, I'm not well versed in the little boy fashions, either, except boy clothes are typically a shirt and pants, with little variation beyond the plaid versus stripes versus graphic debate. School uniforms are easy, too: polo shirt and khaki pants. Done and done. I like boy clothes.

Girl clothes, I gather, are a whole different world. First of all, in the kids' clothing section of your average department store, at least two-thirds of the clothes are girls'. After all, when it comes to boys, it's pretty much pants or shorts and a shirt. Girls have pants and shorts and many different kinds of shirts and then dresses and skirts and dresses and dresses and dresses and, oh, did I mention dresses? Dresses scare me. I don't even like to wear dresses, except on special occasions. I was never very girly. I see my friends' daughters wearing dresses and glittery stuff and princessy stuff, and it's just way outside my vocabulary.

But even so, I know that I get disturbed when I see little girls wearing "mature" clothes. By this, I mean toddler and elementary aged girls wearing small bikinis, short shorts, strappy shirts, off-the-shoulder shirts, pants and shorts with words on the butt, skinny jeans and leggings without a suitably long shirt over them, and so on. These styles are meant to be sexy on an adult woman, and there's something vaguely uncomfortable to me about seeing a little girl in "sexy" clothes. I've heard many arguments for and against little girls wearing such clothing, from "But it's cute!" to "What about the pedophiles?" but none of those arguments fully explained why I personally am made uncomfortable by it.

It was walking home from delivering my son to kindergarten one morning that I finally understood exactly what bugs me.

In Judaism, we have a concept called "tzniut," which roughly translates to "modesty." Tznuit is a very basic fact of religious Jewish life and refers to how both men and women should dress as well as the subjects that are discussed in public. When a woman wants to dress according to tzniut, she wears a long skirt and long-sleeved, high-necked shirt. A man should dress in a way in which he positively presents himself, in clean clothing that is well maintained, appropriate to his situation. From childhood, girls and boys are taught to dress in a tzniut way, to present themselves modestly, and to stay away from non-tzniut discussion such as what might go on in the bedroom. When children grow up always wearing modest clothing, it comes naturally to continue to dress that way.

On the flip side, then, if a girl grows up having been dressed in "sexy" clothing as a young girl, it will continue to come naturally to her to dress that way as she grows. If she's always worn short skirts and bikinis and tiny tank tops, she will not be uncomfortable dressing this way, and she might not realize that she may be inviting unwanted attention, or that others may be objectifying her. She doesn't necessarily dress this way, at eight years old, to attract men or attention; she dresses this way because she always has, and she has been raised to think it's "cute."

I realize, of course, that at some point a girl is going to grow up and want to dress like her friends, in what's stylish, regardless of her upbringing. I have no advice or perspective on this, since I do not have a teenage daughter, nor was I your typical teenage girl. However, there's something distinctly different, to me, about a 15-year-old girl wearing short shorts and a nine-year-old girl wearing the same. A 15-year-old is likely considerably more aware of her sexuality and will deliberately dress in a way which she believes enhances her desirable traits to teenage boys she wishes to attract. A nine-year-old should not be thinking or behaving in such a way. (Not that I'm condoning a 15-year-old acting this way, but at least, to my mind, it makes a certain amount of sense - teenagers are supposed to act that way.)

In the same vein, how we dress reflects how we want others to see us. When young girls are already objectifying themselves as sexual objects, how can we expect young boys not to see them that way? If we teach our daughters to dress in a way that is respectful of their own bodies, they can learn that the types of boys they might attract by dressing inappropriately are not the types of boys they should want to attract, anyway.

My husband and I were wandering around Kohl's the other day, and he pointed out a rather short skirt in the young girls' clothing section and said, "I would never let my daughter wear this." I agreed instantly, assuming we have a daughter one day to avoid dressing that way, and mentioned that I was working on this very blog post. I don't have a problem with little girls wanting to look pretty. But there is a difference between "pretty" and "sexy," and little girls need to learn that boundary. It is our duty as parents to help them find that line, and it can start with how we dress them as toddlers and preschoolers.

On a related note, I try to teach my boys to show respect to themselves and others in the way they dress, as well. We don't leave the house if they're not dressed, and I don't like them to wear dirty, stained, or ripped clothing (well, at any rate, we don't start out in stained or dirty clothes - they are boys, after all!). It bothers me if they look not-put-together, for example, if their shirt or pants are put on backward. Dressing in clean, well-maintained clothing shows that you respect yourself and others who will be seeing you. So while my boys have no desire to wear skinny jeans or short skirts, we do still have standards that we try to have them stick to.

1 comment:

  1. While I was not raised with the tzniut or other religious modesty ideals, I completely agree with you. The idea of sexualizing prepubescent girls is sickening to me. I have absolutely no idea how people can find that cute. To be cute is to emphasize their innocence and other childish qualities.

    There are several moments in your post that you really hit the nail on the head for me:

    "If she's always worn short skirts and bikinis and tiny tank tops, she will not be uncomfortable dressing this way, and she might not realize that she may be inviting unwanted attention, or that others may be objectifying her. She doesn't necessarily dress this way, at eight years old, to attract men or attention; she dresses this way because she always has, and she has been raised to think it's "cute.""

    "When young girls are already objectifying themselves as sexual objects, how can we expect young boys not to see them that way?"

    "But there is a difference between "pretty" and "sexy," and little girls need to learn that boundary."

    "Dressing in clean, well-maintained clothing shows that you respect yourself and others who will be seeing you."

    Perhaps I am especially sensitive to this issue because I was molested as a young girl, though it had nothing to do with the clothes I wore. Still, I strongly believe that it is important for children to understand that there is a line that is not ok to cross, to protect those children from pedophiles. It is not acceptable, let alone cute to turn children into mini sexual objects. Instead, children should be taught to be proud of themselves, and to respect themselves and others. That way, they can grow up to be strong, confident adults, who take charge of their own actions, their own bodies, and their own sexuality. I don't subscribe to the levels of modesty proscribed by tzniut or hijab, but I absolutely believe there is a level at which you are no longer confidently celebrating your body, but flaunting and cheapening it. An adult woman can be sexy and appropriate at the same time, but a pre-pubescent child cannot and should not.

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