For girls from the preschool through the preteen years, trendy clothing can dictate the bounds of popularity. With the abundance of clothing advertised on TV, Web sites, billboards, and displayed (of course) in the aisles of stores. Experts advise taking a close look at how these clothes are marketed to girls. They offer strategies for talking with your daughter the next time she says, “But I gotta have that!”
Sexy clothes are now being marketed to preschoolers.
In the book Packaging Girlhood, authors Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., and Sharon Lamb, Ed.D., note that the industry used to push cereal and toys to this age group but that today, this has changed. “Many brands now market clothing in sizes 4-16, which means your little girl can be very much the big girl when it comes to that halter, camisole or demi-mini-skirt.”
Logos on clothes tell girls who they should be.
In Packaging Girlhood, Brown notes that “logos don’t just represent products; they signal status and group identification. Because access to logos is often determined by wealth, many kids learn that privilege and power belong to those with money.” Diane Levin adds, “A teacher told me how on the first day of school a five-year-old girl pointed to a group of girls wearing designer clothes and said, ‘Those are the popular kids.’ When asked why, the child replied, ‘They have the fancy clothes.’ ”
Clothes fit little girls but the style reads sassy teen.
In many retail stores you’ll find things such as tight hip-huggers for five-year-olds; faux black-leather jackets for second-graders; low-rise flared jeans for middle-schoolers; and thongs, camisoles and lace panties for preteens. And you’ll even find little girls’ dolls wearing these same fashion items. How does all this affect girls? Levin reports that eight-year-olds are begging for belly-baring shirts and are telling their parents they want to go on diets so they can be “skinny, like the popular girls.”
These clothes make girls feel grown-up and powerful.
“Sexy clothes give girls a sense of control, of making some choices, and of a more grown-up identity, but this is a false sense of power,” says Brown. “Girl Power was a real movement in the 1990s, a way for young women to change the world as girls. The marketers loved the ‘as girls’ piece of this, but dropped the ‘change the world’ part. They gave girls the message that they have power to dress in sexy clothes, the freedom to choose between mango or cherry lip gloss. As a result of all of this, girls are learning that ‘girl power’ is merely the power to purchase clothes and manipulate their appearances.”
Marketers have real power.
According to Brown, “tween” was a marketing term designed to create a cross-over market, by creating cute products for younger girls with a distinctly teenage message and flair. The marketers’ goal above and beyond everything else is to get kids to part with their money. So parents of preteens should “be aware of the ways marketers, through the media, are channeling their daughters’ desires,” says Brown. “Not only are they encouraging girls to be older (sexier, hotter) at younger ages, but they’re introducing girls to a very narrow image of what it means to be a girl.” Brown recommends parents take the opportunity to talk with their daughters about both financial responsibility and about the reality that girls can have tons of varied interests and activities.
Here are some strategies for shopping with girls.
Preschool (under 5)
Buy clothes that are appropriate. Don’t dress your daughter in clothes that you think are too sexy for her age and stage. This goes for both your preschooler and your school-aged child. In addition, consider the clothes you buy for their dolls. Are these clothes you’d want your own daughter to wear?
School Age (5-9)
Listen to why she wants the clothes, without criticism.
If your daughter insists on clothes you don’t approve of, discuss it instead of just saying no. “She might want the clothes in order to fit in, feel powerful or be popular. Try to make these issues the focus of the conversation, not whether you like the sexy t-shirt or the low-rise jeans,” advises Lyn Mikel Brown.
Ask follow-up questions.
If your daughter says “All my friends have it,” you might say, “Yes, but these clothes are really for grown ups” or “Why do you think your friends like it?” In this way, you are helping her become a critic instead of a consumer.
Offer her other options or other colors.
“Offer her counter-examples to the trends,” says Brown. “Help her to notice, for instance, that wearing only one color limits her world, so she can step back and say, ‘That’s not me.’ ”
Negotiate but stay in charge.
Let her make choices within the limits you set. If you feel certain types of clothing send negative messages about her body, tell her you won’t buy them or allow her to purchase them (or get them from friends), but explain why.
Introduce the concept of stereotype.
“You can help your four- or five-year-old develop a vocabulary and a way of talking that will set the stage for conversations for years to come,” write Brown and Sharon Lamb in Packaging Girlhood. “What better way to introduce the word ‘stereotype’ to your daughter than by walking through the girls’ department of any clothing store or the ‘blue’ and ‘pink’ aisles of any toy store? If you question, she’ll question. Model a way of seeing and talking about the different choices presented to her. Ask her to imagine stories other than romance, shopping sprees, or saved by the prince versions she’ll see over and over so she can step back and say, ‘That’s silly. That’s a stereotype. Girls aren’t really like that.’”
Middle School (10 and up)
Ask your daughter what she likes about an item of clothing.
Let her explain her reasons (but be aware that her reasoning is not likely to be the same as yours) so that she feels her opinions are valued.
Discuss it without judging.
Instead of just saying “That’s too short, not for you,” talk about the image the clothing item projects, and ask your daughter questions that help her connect this image to more adult experiences she may not have thought about. You might explain why you think this clothing (or makeup) is inappropriate and ask her what she thinks. Helping her gain some perspective will be stronger than a simple “no,” which may only make her want the item more.
Ask questions to get her thinking about self-image.
If she’s begging to wear a belly shirt or low-cut jeans that expose more of her body than you approve of, ask her, “What message do you think you’re sending to people when you show that much of your body?” Your questions may help her become aware that how she displays her body has an affect on others, whether positively, negatively, or (even) suggestively. You might also ask “Who dresses like this and what do you think about how she looks?”
Pick your battles.
You think her color choices don’t go together? Not worth the argument! Allow her to dress herself the way she likes, within age-appropriate reason. That said, big decisions about clothes and makeup remain yours to make, albeit with lots of input from your daughter.
Help her understand the power of words.
“When you talk with your daughter about clothes you approve of, use words and concepts like ‘choice, freedom, and power’ to help her create a valid and true identity,” recommends Brown. “Marketers use those words for a reason — they know girls are creating identities through fashion.”