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Resisting the Hot-Mama Preteen Looks

September 15, 2000|Jeannine Stein

As children head back to school, some parents find themselves faced with a dilemma: Do they buy their 10-year-old daughter that leopard-print miniskirt and tight, belly-revealing T-shirt . . . or not?

Here at Fashion Police Headquarters we know that dressing kids for school has always been a challenge as far as finding affordable clothes that satisfy mom, dad and child. But parents with daughters in the "tween" age range of 7 to 12 face a special problem: How to deal with the increasing amount of sexy, age-inappropriate clothes?

We're talking about cropped, tight T-shirts, Spandex miniskirts, iridescent, hip-hugging, form-fitting jeans, T-shirts that spell out "Hottie" in sequins--those sorts of things. The kinds of outfits 18-year-old sex kitten singer Britney Spears might wear on stage. Not necessarily the kinds of things you'd expect to see on a girl who has barely graduated from her Barbies.

Young, impressionable girls like having older, glamorous, more sophisticated girls to look up to, and each generation has its role models. We just happen to be living in an age when role models have breast implants and nose jobs, and wardrobes that would make a stripper envious.

But let's not blame this phenomenon on Miss Spears or peers such as Christina Aguilera. A show of hands, please, of those who don't know our culture has become increasingly obsessed with sex. Anyone? So it should come as no surprise that children's clothes have become skimpier and--let's face it--sleazier.

And the stuff sells. Kids want it, and parents buy it for them. Tweens aren't shy about letting their parents know when they hate something. Ergo, they have an enormous influence over what their parents purchase.

That's why marketers love this age group. Never have they been targeted more than now, as they have their own magazines (American Girl) and stores (100% Girls, Limited Too).

While all this might be great for the kids, it leaves parents in a quandary: How to straddle the fine line between letting their children wear what they want and not having them appear like little Lolitas?

What adults must understand is that while children as young as seven are aware of sex, they don't fully comprehend the implications of presenting themselves as sexual beings.

So says psychologist Lawrence Balter, a contributing editor to Family Circle magazine and author of the soon-to-be-published book "Parenthood in America: An Encyclopedia."

Children's "purpose may be to mimic [a sexy look]," he says, "but they don't have a full grasp on how they're presenting themselves, nor do they want to be responded to as sexually mature people when they're hardly that. . . . You shouldn't be promoting sexual precocity in your children, even if it doesn't bother you all that much. There is a potential risk that they're going to be receiving unwanted attention."

Instead of just saying no, Balter advises that parents can use this opportunity to explain how clothes not only make the man, but the child as well.

"This is a chance to teach your child something about dressing and how you appear to others. If your kid says that it's OK to dress in those clothes because they're being sold in the stores and their friends are buying it, remind them that the way you present yourself leads to a person reacting to you in a certain way, and it may not be comfortable."

Sarah Banet-Weiser believes all adults bear some responsibility when it comes to sexualizing children. Says the USC assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication, "We have a curious relationship with children and sexuality. There's this kind of immediate response that we have when we see something as sexualizing little children, we see it as repulsive and twisted. It's quite easy for the public to become outraged by these endlessly generated photos of JonBenet Ramsey. But certain aspects of that are not that different from selling leather miniskirts at Gap Kids. I think we have a curious relationship with this--we are repulsed by anything that overtly sexualizes little girls; at the same time we participate in this consumer culture, which produces precisely this sexualized little girl."

So how should parents approach dressing their daughters when the little ones insist on tube tops and short shorts?

Simple--be the parent. Set limits. Say no and mean it when something is inappropriate.

It's not as if parents don't have a choice. There are lots of clothes within the bounds of good taste and decorum.

Mike Dagne is a divisional merchandise manager for Chicago-based Sears, and also the parent of a 9-year-old girl. "It's sometimes a fine line to walk," he says of his job finding more traditional clothes for this demographic. For back to school, he's stocked shirts long enough to be tucked in, and above-the-knee skirts that have shorts attached for coverage on the playground.

Dagne says that in "fit sessions" with parents and children, he finds out exactly what they think about Sears brand clothes--if skirts are too short, tops too revealing, pants too low-slung.

His shopping advice: "I think you have to give the kids a little bit of latitude, but you also have to know where to draw the line. It's important for parents to feel comfortable with the clothes the child is wearing, but children have to feel in control most of the time over what they're wearing. There has to be give and take."


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