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:

Dear Cathy:

9781590205945_p0_v1_s260x420Yes, 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?


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  • hillsmom October 31, 2013 at 4:41 pm

    Ok, Tobysgirl beat me to the comment I was going to make. I do not agree with Victoria at all. Where is the party? Is it chaperoned, etc? You might be very surprised at who might show up uninvited, etc.

    Been there done that…no more worries about young girls here. We made our own costumes, too. There was a bust at a local University which netted Halloween candy containing pot. (I can’t spell marajuana) It was thought that it was not necessarily for children…but…

  • Tobysgirl October 31, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    In Waterville, Maine, there’s a group called Hardy Girls, Healthy Women, and they had a get-together to come up with non-sexy Halloween costumes for girls.

    Victoria, there is something not healthy about girls wanting to look hotter. If girls have something they are passionate about — horses, books, wildlife, etc — they don’t need to spend their time competing with other girls and obsessing over their bodies. This is not normal, this is not harmless, it is a sickness in our society, and I hope someday you can realize this.

  • Victoria October 31, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    As someone who is currently 20 years old and was only a 16 year old 4 year ago, I understand where your girls are coming from. I went to an all girls school for 13 years and at the same age as your daughters, I felt the need to dress “slutty” for Halloween. My mother, I’m sure, was upset with my decision to dress in such a way at a young age, but I think she knew that it didn’t mean anything about my morals. Girls at that age are very competitive and also experience the greatest amount of body image issues. In reality, it’s all about who can look hotter. And I know that is not what you want to hear but you have to understand that it is harmless. Them wanting to dress this way doesn’t mean they want to or are engaging in adult behaviors (i.e. drinking, smoking, having sex). The media also plays a huge role in our desire to dress this way – in the way that the media affects most of our behaviors! My advice to you, and what my mother did to me, was let me wear the costume and go to the party. After all, it’s only a party with other kids their age dressed the same way.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, MD October 31, 2013 at 10:39 am

    Great post, Dr. Ford. Parents do set the standards and we are called parents, not friends. When our children are grown up they can wear whatever they like at Halloween. And, we can be amused when they deal with this same issue when their daughters are 13!

  • hillsmom October 31, 2013 at 9:59 am

    It is quite refreshing to hear about parents who are acting as parents. Too often Mothers want to be friends instead of parenting their children. That’s my 2 cents. Good for her!

    As for Miley whoever, it would seem that the last letter should be changed so it is “twerP”.

  • Roz Warren October 31, 2013 at 9:26 am

    “A lonely, uphill battle.” You can say that again. But thanks for fighting it, not just on your daughter’s behalf, but on behalf of every woman who doesn’t want to open her door tonight to a 12 year old Dominatrix.

  • Cheryl October 31, 2013 at 8:46 am

    Another meaningful article by Dr. Ford. I just could not understand when I was growing up what the fuss was all about, as my parents said the same thing, “you look like a…..”

    It took many years to get this memo (right) … many.

    The girls in the article will change their thinking and wardrobe… as they grow… but puberty is such a difficult time. Mix that up with peer pressure and the boiler boils.. Happy Halloween … Cheryl