British Prime Minister David Cameron has decided to join the British group mumsnet in addressing the problem of what one psychologist shockingly calls “pimping our children.” You aren’t a prude if you’re concerned about the direction children’s videos, music, games, and clothing, have taken. You don’t even have to be a parent. We should all worry about the message that kids are getting from overtly sleazy, attracting clothing.
The wearing of alluring clothing is the norm in many segments of Western (though not world), society. Loudly announcing your sexuality and desirability through your choice of clothing is considered to be not only normal, but a valid expression of your identity and personal freedom. In fact, it has been the norm for so many years that a kind of “blindness” has set in. But it wasn’t always this way.
In many cultures and many time periods (though not all), clothing largely covered the body. The shattered boundaries between under and outer clothing didn’t start with Madonna wearing a bra as a top, but that surely was a major turning point in how American women dress. At that moment in time (and many others, such as when women first began openly wearing pants during World War I), American women declared their fashion-choices to be a mark of emancipation and strength. We told the world that we were dressing for ourselves (and not for men).
But this has created an obvious paradox. Once a woman is dressed, she doesn’t actually look at what she is wearing. Men, and other women, do. They can’t help it. Most of us look at whatever wanders into our range of vision. Sure, in an ideal world we would all control ourselves, but not everyone is up to the task.
Arguably, the most powerful sense is our sense of sight. So, by default if not by actual intent, people other than you are looking at what you’ve got on. And, fair or not fair, they’re also making value judgments about what you have on. And if we’re honest, we are too.
We look at others and make judgments about who they are based on what they’ve got on. We instantly size others up–”that shade of red is so awful with her hair,” “her jacket looks cheap,” “her hat is so cool,” “she looks so professional and together in that suit,” “her shoes are so old-school they’re kindergarten,” “she looks so fat in that style,” “her top is see-through, her bottom is see-through, and she wants to be taken seriously?,” and so on.
I dressed very differently when I was young than I do now. Not merely because of maturity or my sense of age-appropriateness, but also because my sense of who I was was far more fragile. I was a total slave to society’s view of what a woman was and could be.
I was taught that a woman was strong, impervious to the negative opinions of others. I was taught that it didn’t matter what other people thought as long I was true to myself. I was taught that I could wear whatever I felt like wearing and no one had the right to censor me for it.
But, at the same time, I was also taught that a woman should always highlight and accentuate her outer beauty and outer desirability. I was taught that this was an important part of a woman’s power. On the one hand I was told that wearing eye-catching clothing was my right, on the other hand I was told that if my clothing caught the eye of someone undesirable, well, that was their fault. This just didn’t add up. It still doesn’t.
It is a very mixed message that women and now girls are getting.
Teeny-bopper beauty pageants used to be one of the only venues for focusing attention on the outer physicality of children. No more. Today, it has become totally normal for girls younger than puberty to wear eye catching, even “sexy” clothing.
A short while ago a brilliant friend of mine, a reasonably well-known social scientist, allowed her six year old daughter to choose her school clothes with no censorship. (She has since dramatically changed her mind about this practice). Her daughter chose off-the-shoulder, belly-baring tissue tees, short-shorts, beyond mini-skirts, skin-tight jeans and well, you get the picture. My friend felt she had made a promise to her daughter and simply paid for the clothes.
To this day, she regrets giving in to her daughter. Since then the family has undergone a radical television-ectomy and age-and-taste appropriate clothing once more fill her closet. In fact, for big-picture reasons (which include shifting away from the sexualization of children’s lives), my friend has found a home-schooling group with other parents who share her views.
I have come to believe strongly, that as intelligent, powerful women, making our sexuality the first thing noticeable about us damages our credibility and our psyches. But to do this to children is even worse.
The implications are far-reaching. Not only might children dressed this way lose their childhood innocence, they might also lose themselves.
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Last reviewed: 13 Jun 2011