Tuesday, January 2, 2007

PART IV- Young Girls and Sexually Provocative Clothing: Not Just Harmless Self Expression

So why do companies want to sell sexually provocative clothing to young girls? Companies have various reasons for targeting young girls and have several techniques they use to help them. Ford states that these companies “. . . figure out how to manipulate their targets -- with flattery, with attention, with a promised sense of belonging” (Ford). The desire to fit in and belong is a common feeling amongst young girls. The pressure to fit in and belong with everyone when you are a preteen and a teen is very intense, so when these clothing companies can offer some sense of belonging to these girls, they have struck the right nerve. When teens get jobs, they often have a lot of expendable cash. With no bills, car payments, or rent, some of these girls have nothing else to spend their money on. Companies take advantage of this and use the power of advertising to get young girls to convince their parents to buy them what they want. CBC claims that, “Sex has always sold, but now its children that are buying. Tweens, kids aged eight to 14, are a hot target for companies. And now more than ever, sex is being used to get their dollars” (Buying into Sexy . . ., CBC). I believe this is true. Think about all the sexual images teens and preteens are bombarded with daily. Even dolls marketed to preteens and younger use sex to sell. The popular dolls called “Bratz” are dressed sexy and wear a lot of make up. These young girls see sexy images in popular magazines targeted to their age group, they see it on TV, and they watch music videos that are laden with sexuality. Bella English, writer of the article, "Countering Hypersexualized Marketing Aimed at Young Girls," asked a group of preteens “. . . what sort of sexual commercials they've seen on television, the middle-school girls mention Victoria's Secret bras and underwear, Viagra, and Trojan condoms” (English). The fact that sex is being used to sell to young girls is very disturbing, but when you think about it, we see sex all of the time in ads and on TV. The image is so common it almost seems normal. That in itself seems dangerous.

Some companies use sexualized images to sell their clothes to young girls. One company often critizized for doing this is Abercrombie and Fitch. Walking into the store, there are sexy images all over the walls. Their website is the same. In fact, on their website they have a separate A&F Lifestyle section that is dedicated to pictures of models (wearing little) in sexual poses. You can also send e-cards with these pictures to friends and even download Abercrombie and Fitch screensavers and wallpaper for your computer (www.abercrombie.com). Abercrombie and Fitch have a quarterly magazine they distribute. In Keven McCallough’s article “Abercrombie and Fitch to your Kids: Group Sex Now,” he discusses how the 2003 Christmas issue of this magazine is filled with “. . . 45 images [including] overt portrayals of group sex, lots of teen and young adult nudity, men kissing, and teens /young adults frolicking in a river engaging in sexual activity in multiple group settings” (McCallough). He then brings up the fact that no clothing is actually advertised in the magazine until page 120. This magazine was eventually pulled from the shelf, but Abercrombie continues to use sex to sell their brand. Abercrombie is only one among the many companies that use sex as a major selling point.

Not all companies that target preteens and teens use sex so blatantly. A popular website for young girls clothing is gojane.com. The clothing they sell still consists of low cut shirts, low rise jeans, short skirts, short shirts, and various other “sexy” items, but they also have a small variety of more conservative clothing for the teen who does not want to dress provocatively. One part of this website that I really like is that there are no tiny models wearing the clothing, just pictures of the clothes.

What motivates young girls to want to dress in this sexually provocative way? We know a desired feeling of belonging contributes to this behavior, but let us look beyond that. Many girls enjoy the attention that looking sexy brings them. Sexy is what their favorite actresses and pop-stars are, and what they long to be. Patricia Pearson states that:

“There is something spectacularly aimless about the state of undress of younger celebrities like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears, given that their supposed vocation is to sing rather than swing. And what's going on with their pseudo-lesbian French kissing and their hyper-sexual dance moves? Are they celebrating their sexual freedom after years of oppression? No. That happened several decades ago. Are they celebrating their fashion freedom after years of foot-binding and corsetry? No. Try the century before last. Did somebody spike their Evian with Spanish fly?”(Pearson 46)

So why is it? Shock value seems to play a major role in the desire to dress sexually. Madonna shocked us more than a decade ago by pushing the envelope with sexuality, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera pushed the envelope further, we watched Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction,” and pop-stars to come will most likely do the same. At what point do we draw the line?

Some argue that dressing in a provocative manner is empowering to young girls. They are free to express their sexuality and do not have to hide their sexuality as if it were something to be ashamed of. I believe in free speech, freedom of expression, and that it is good for people to feel free to express their sexuality. However, I do not think that young girls should be encouraged, even pushed, to be sexual before they are mature enough to have sex. Pollet and Hurwitz state that, “many adolescents embrace these products as a harmless and fun way to wield sexual power, defending their right to express themselves. . .” (Pollet, Hurwitz 20). Are they expressing themselves, or are they simply imitating a stereotypical image of what they believe femininity is? Young girls see so many images everyday of what femininity supposedly looks like, many young girls do not even consider that perhaps there are other ways to be feminine.

CBC followed around a preteen for a day. When asked why young girls feel the need to dress sexy, the girl replied, “You get more attention and strange guys come up to you and try and get you to go to nightclubs.” (qtd.in Buying into Sexy… CBC). The fact that this preteen believes that a “reward” for dressing sexy is to have “strange guys” invite her to nightclubs is absolutely frightening. Pollet and Hurwitz say that young girls enjoy “. . . a coy yet brazen, look-but-don’t-touch sexual persona” (Pollet, Hurwitz 20). This off-limits but desirable look makes young girls feel powerful.

It is important to realize that not all young girls want to dress like this. In 2005 Abercrombie and Fitch put out a shirt with the message “Who needs brains when you have these?” written across the chest. A group of high school girls were offended and organized a boycott or a “girl-cott” as they called it. The leader of the “girl-cott” states that, “We're telling [girls] to think about the fact that they're being degraded. We're all going to come together in this one effort to fight this message that we're getting from pop culture." (qtd.in Greenfield). These girls recognize the negative messages these clothes are sending. However, when other girls were asked about the shirts, many did not think of them as a big deal. I cannot think of a more blatant way to send the message that objectification is acceptable than by wearing a shirt that says, “Who needs brains when you have these” across the chest. Perhaps Abercrombie and Fitch should just quit beating around the bush and create a shirt that says, “My breasts are the most important part of who I am, please look at them,” or better yet they can really cut to the chase and sell a shirt with the words, “Objectify me.”

While some people believe that young girls dressing in a sexual way is just harmless, I very strongly disagree. I feel that it is dangerous on many levels. It is important to teach these girls that the media’s portrayal of what is sexy and feminine is not the only version of attractiveness. This narrow image of what is sexy can have harmful effects on a young girl's self image. Not every girl can fit into the commonly portrayed teeny tiny girl version of sexy. In order for some girls to try to achieve that rail thin, underweight look, they go to unhealthy measures. Crash diets, starvation diets, and obsession about weight are common among young girls. Sometime this obsession with weight can lead to more serious eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia[1].

Sex should not be used to sell to young girls (particularly preteens) who are not old enough or mature enough to understand sex and everything it entails. Some of the messages the clothes are sending give skewed ideas of sexuality to young girls. In a country whose government is pushing hard for abstinence-only education, it seems scary that girls are learning about sexuality this way. If we are letting our young girls dress in a sexual manner, the least we can do is teach them about sex.

Many of these clothing products, especially the slogans, are reinforcing negative stereotypes of women, which we have fought long and hard to break. Young girls also are opening themselves up to being objectified. For years women have been fighting against oppression and the sex object stereotype, but today it seems like young girls are actually volunteering to be objectified. In fact, it’s a style. They need to be fully aware of the implications of objectification.

Dressing in a provocative way could quite possibly pose the danger of attracting more attention from a child molester or any type of sexual predator. Seeing images of young girls as sexual beings over and over may start to make it seem more acceptable to view young girls as sexual objects, and that is very dangerous. The more we see something the more normal it becomes. I am not blaming the victim here, I am only seeing the possibilities of what a sexual predator may see and look for. This is especially dangerous for the young girl who has volunteered herself to being objectified.

So what is the parents’ role in all of this? Parents, as well as their children, need to be aware of the dangers involved in letting their young girls dress in a sexually provocative way. Some parents are afraid of squelching their children’s individuality if they govern too much about the clothes that they wear. Parents need to discover ways of being able to compromise with their young girls about what they wear to prevent them from dressing in an inappropriately sexual manner. They should educate their girls about the media and its narrow representation of sexy and feminine, and about the messages their clothes send. When push comes to shove, a parent is a parent and should have the final say in it anyway; it is a parent’s job to protect its young. Of course it is unrealistic to assume that all parents will do this, but the more parents that are educated about this situation, the more that will teach their young girls the same. Parents need to realize that the dangers of letting their young girls dress this way can drastically outweigh the benefits of letting their girls exercise their freedom to express their sexuality through this type of clothing.

The clothing marketed to pre-teen and teenage girls sends negative messages about body image and self image, promotes negative stereotypes and objectifies women; furthermore, creating images of these young girls as sexual beings is dangereous. After examining the popular clothing styles today, the underwear being sold to teens and preteens, slogans on clothing, clothing size and style in relation to body image, and advertising used to target these young girls, we can see more clearly the negative impacts of this problem. I strongly believe that in order to empower young girls we need to educate them about them implications of dressing in this sexually provocative way. If no action is taken to educate our young girls, I fear that we will be erasing the hard work of the women before us in fighting against oppression.


[1] According to The National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) as many as 1 million males and 10 million females in the US have an eating disorder (National Eating Disorder Association).

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