Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week, she answers a mother who wants to know how to combat a culture that sexualizes young girls way too early.
How young girls dress: Where should a mother draw the line?
Dear Dr. Ford:
I am the mother of two teenage girls, 14 and 16, and I am just beside myself this Halloween. The costumes that my daughters chose to wear were skimpy and nothing short of slutty. They could have been costumes for prostitutes. Their girlfriends had chosen equally inappropriate costumes: Playboy Bunnies with push-up bras, and one even rented a dominatrix outfit. ”Everyone” was going to a big Halloween party. I had no luck getting my girls to change their minds about the costumes, so I refused to let them have a costume, and they are certainly not going to that Halloween party. I am not a prude. I work in media, and I was reasonably wild when I was in college . . . but these girls are still in high school. Needless to say, I will be known as the witch of our town. My husband, at least, supports my decision about costumes. I know that there is nothing I can do to make this event any better (my decision to make the girls stay at home since they would not choose reasonably appropriate costumes), but what is going on with this trend? Why are parents allowing their young daughters to become so overtly sexual at such a young age? Is there anything we can do about this?
Dr. Ford Responds:
Yes, those costumes are “slutty”! That’s the effect they are going for, in fact. And yes, I am sure the girls are telling the truth when they say that “everyone” is wearing them. One look around a costume shop and you can see from what’s available that Halloween has become less about ghouls and goblins and more about making mischief. I doubt that it is possible to find a “Dorothy” costume or a bunny costume at Rite-Aid in a size above children’s 12, though you can find plenty of Witches and Female Vampires—as long as they are sexy. Adults have led the way in this respect: in recent years, more and more adults celebrate Halloween by having costume parties and “letting loose,” so to speak. The wider problem is that the barriers between adults and children have become so ambiguous and permeable, as M. Gigi Durham writes in her book The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What You Can Do About It.
Your problem really involves three different, but highly intertwined, social systems: family, community, and society. You have influence and control over your immediate family, yet the extent to which we as individuals can influence values in a social milieu that offends or worries us is questionable. You have asserted your right to lay down the law in your family, but are left feeling ambivalent, since they are missing their party, and after all, it is you who are out of step with the times.
Actually, you are doing your daughters a service. As in the story “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” you are the only one seeing, or admitting to herself, that these girls have The Wrong Clothes. The sexualization of young girls is now so prevalent that we hardly notice it anymore, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. Durham writes that the World Health Organization reports that in the United States today, 25 percent of girls are likely to sexually molested. The media and marketers understand and cater to people’s taste for “youth” by using younger and younger models. Meanwhile, they sell to kids themselves with a code which they call KGOY: Kids Getting Older Younger. There is some factual basis in this, since it has been shown that the age of menarche has dropped three to four months every decade since 1850—but girls’ cognitive development has not kept pace with this change, so that they are little girls in women’s bodies, in effect. In the end, these factors synergize to create a world in which our daughters are bombarded by images of hyper-sexualized teenagers selling to and speaking for their generation.
The journalists and the news media do not help: girls are much more likely to find coverage of Miley Cyrus than of Sonia Sotomayor everywhere they might look. So you as an individual are fighting a lonely, uphill battle. It is also complicated because, as you say, you are not a prude. I’m sure you want you daughters to develop a healthy attitude toward sexuality and you don’t want to imply by your disapproval of these costumes that there is something wrong with either of the girls. If they can get over being angry (they will), this could be a good teaching moment for you to show them the difference between being attractive and being a sex object. It’s a complex lesson for young girls to understand how to be sexy when and where you want them to be, rather than to conform to others’ conceptions and stereotypes. But women who do learn to do this are much better off, both socially and emotionally, and who better to teach them than their mothers?