We Have to Stop Clothes-Shaming Teens for Showing Too Much Skin
7 mins read

We Have to Stop Clothes-Shaming Teens for Showing Too Much Skin

Last week, my take on young girls, high heels, and bikinis generated a lot of dialogue – ok, mostly disagreement – from my fellow moms.  So it seems worth it to dig into this topic again.

Here’s a sampling of what other moms wrote:

“Call me a mommy buzz kill, but I am way DOWN with mini-heels (I’m looking at you, Suri Cruise…)”

“My 4 year old daughter still wears SPF 50 shirts and thigh long shorts on the beach and I swear she’ll have to be a teen to even consider a bikini. She is a kid — not a mini me. I want her to stay a kid while she develops and figures out the world. There will be plenty of time to figure out how to be a woman later on.”

“The ‘sexed up’ clothes, shoes, makeup that seems to assault the senses everywhere you go is alarming.”

“What I want to know is…who is purchasing this stuff?”

“My daughter is a girl whose body was sensual from the time she began to develop. She had friends in middle and high school whose bodies weren’t as sensual. Her friends could wear stuff that, on them, didn’t exude sensuality or sexiness. My daughter could wear the exact same thing, and look ‘provocative.’ Some girls wear bikinis and it’s just fine. Others wear bikinis and because of their sheer physical make-up, they look ‘hot.’ And also they may be completely unaware or, at least, confused that they give off cues they know nothing of and don’t intend to.”

I agree with everything said.  But it’s a complex issue.  It’s easier when your daughter is four, and you can pick her clothes.  Harder when she is 14 and both of you want her to develop her own judgment.  Which is what makes bikinis, makeup, and other parenting dilemmas such Technicolor challenges – we’ve got no black-and-white rule book to follow.

I hear too many adults stigmatizing young girls with a kneejerk “showing skin is bad” message. Kids listen to what we parents say as if they have little tape recorders everywhere.

There is enough shaming of women and girls in our culture that we moms — the most powerful influence in our girls’ lives — don’t need to be piling on with our own “clothes make a girl a slut” messages.

Some kids (one of mine, in fact) take a long time to be proud of their bodies. My daughter is larger and taller than the other girls in her class. Last year, she finally wore a plain pink camisole top to school after years of wearing baggy long-sleeved shirts. She looked cute and appropriate and totally a kid.

I was so proud. (And relieved.)

Then at school, one of the teachers — in front of all her classmates — told her she was dressed inappropriately, even though the school does not have a dress code that bans cami tops.

My daughter came home in tears, terribly embarrassed (again) about her body. When I called the school, the teacher told me she knew from her vast experience that kids who show off their bodies like that are more prone to eating disorders. She asked if we kept fashion magazines around the house.

The experience was insulting to my family and hurtful to my daughter. The teacher was treating her as a stereotype, not as an individual kid who was growing and discovering her body and trying to feel good about herself. The adult in charge objectified a young girl and judged her based on her body and clothes. On top of that, she acted oh so self-righteous.

Experiences like this make me suspicious when I hear moms make blanket judgments about “no high heels,” “no makeup” and “no bikinis.” Clothes, shoes and makeup are inanimate objects. I know from my early days as an editor at Seventeen Magazine how treacherous the teen waters are for girls trying to find their way in a duplicitous culture that demands independence of women, while also denigrating and undermining them.

I also believe we need to be careful not to “blame the victim” here by calling young girls “sexed up” (unless of course we are talking girls of age walking around Las Vegas). I know many girls under age 15 who dress a bit too provocatively. They are not doing it intentionally.

These girls are discovering their bodies, a beautiful but at times awkward process. They make mistakes, in person, on Facebook and Snapchat, and in school, as a few of us may also have done in our day.

When you assume anything about a young girl because of how she is dressed, I think you send an undeserved message of shame. Kids internalize sexual stereotypes by hearing authority figures denigrate their peers.  The saddest part is that we parents don’t even realize what we are doing.  We think we’re venting in the privacy of our kitchen, our car, or while we are on the phone, and so our judgment doesn’t really count. 

But in parenthood, every word you say counts.

Do you want your son to think that a girl wearing a short skirt is fair game for catcalls?  That it is okay to have sex with a girl because she’s drunk at a party?  Do you want your daughters to feel there is something wrong about dressing or feeling sexy?

I certainly don’t.  So I try really hard to watch what I say, all the time.

Additionally, if a girl is dressed waaay too sexily, it could be a sign that she was sexually abused at a younger age.  Dressing and acting sexually grown-up is one of the primary signals of childhood sexual abuse.  Sadly, an adult may have already taught her that her sexuality is all that matters. Her clothing may be a cry for help. The last thing she needs is judgment from another adult.

However, there is a right time and place. 

Instead of a snide comment, I’ve heard moms handle this issue beautifully, saying very, very lovingly, “Honey, you have a gorgeous body. But for this event, let’s keep the clothes PG-13, ok?” or something similar. Funny, casual, supportive…but filled with guidance and boundaries. 

No matter what age your daughters and sons are, they’ve got us adults under a microscope. The last thing girls need is harsh judgment from older wiser women, including – perhaps most importantly – us as their mothers.  They’re already getting enough of that from American culture.

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