As the world becomes saturated with technology, our children are being exposed to adulthood earlier than ever. The internet, social networking sites, the media... all have the effect of flooding our kids with thoughts and images that their young minds are not ready for. Of course, adults are exposed to it as well so it's easy for us to become desensitized. But if we take a step back, and look at the issue critically, it's easy to see how this can be harmful.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the trend to dress children in clothes that aren't age appropriate. Children are not miniature adults, and shouldn't be dressed that way. We asked three experts in the field to talk about the importance of dressing little girls in age appropriate clothing.
TwirlyGirl: What do you consider to be age appropriate or inappropriate for little girls and tweens?
Mary Jo Rapini, LPC: Anything parents do to promote their daughter's sexuality is inappropriate. Having a bikini at the age of 7 or 8 is not necessary when a t-shirt and comfortable modest bottoms will do.
Kathryn Stamoulis, PhD: Age-appropriate clothing for little girls and tweens is anything they can comfortably move in. Girls need to be able to run, jump, and cart-wheel freely without worrying about being exposed. The same goes with shoes; they should be comfortable and not restrict movement in anyway. “Inappropriate” dress limits girls’ mobility or feels constricting. Uncomfortable clothing sends the message it’s more important that girls look good for other people, rather than feel good and have fun.
Dr. Stacy Haynes, Radio Host: Clothing in stores these days run the spectrum of appropriate and not appropriate for young children. For example, I have a hard time finding a dress shoe without a heel for my daughter. Flats are not as fashionable and many stores do not carry decent flat shoes. I find that clothing is an expression of who our children are and that we can help them to express themselves in appropriate ways.
TwirlyGirl: Do you have any tips to get young girls to come to these conclusions on their own?
Dr. Stacy Haynes: We can help girls understand fashion and style in a positive way. I use the example of the Bratz doll versus the Barbie doll. Each outfit is appropriate in different settings. We can use conversations about even their dolls to help them establish their own sense of style, fashion and appropriateness. We can also model appropriate fashion. Many young girls at this age are watching their mothers and women figures in their lives for fashion sense and style.
Kathryn Stamoulis, PhD: As girls become tweens and teens, there is pressure to look sexy. If girls want clothing designed to make them look physically appealing and sexy, they are at risk of self-objectification. Self-objectification is a process in which girls learn to think of their bodies as objects of others’ desires. To prevent this it’s important to have a continual discussion that “sexy is not a look, it’s a feeling”. Focus on comfort from a young age, and a girl will grow up picking clothes not just for its form, but for its function.
TwirlyGirl: What are the short and long-term effects of young girls dressing inappropriately?
Mary Jo Rapini: Girls who are sexualized by society or peer pressure really do grow up with a very narrow concept of beauty. This is not only damaging to self esteem, but it limits their capacity to develop confidence and comfort in their own skin.
Kathryn Stamoulis, PhD: Studies show that girls who self-objectify have lower self-esteem, and greater rates of depression and anxiety. Wearing body-conscious clothing can even have academic implications. A study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at young women who, in a dressing room, were asked to try on swimsuit or a sweater. While wearing the garment, they completed a math test. The girls in swimsuits performed significantly worse on the math problems than did those wearing sweaters.
Dr. Stacy Haynes: Peers can be cruel and you run the risk of having a child be made fun of or teased for being too promiscuous or inappropriate in dress. We know that girls that develop early also have higher rates of depression so we do want to help reduce risk of depression or self esteem issues.
TwirlyGirl: Do you think societal norms are trending towards the better?
I believe there is more recognition of the damage happening with the sexualization of young girls, and more media designed to help manage that... but girls who are raised in broken homes or with moms who don't feel good about their bodies or life will be more affected by media's sexualizing of young girls.
Dr. Stacy Haynes: I think societal norms are having our girls dress more mature to soon. Many stores are keeping the girl fashions in line with teenage fashions or young adult fashions. We need to establish a clear clothing difference to help little girls stay little girls while being fashionable.
TwirlyGirl: Do you have any other anecdotes or insights to share on this subject?
Dr. Stacy Haynes: We really have to help girls establish their own understanding of self and encourage them to be confident in all areas of their lives including their clothing. I encourage my daughter by allowing her to pick her outfits and her clothes each day (since she was 3) as this helps her. Also we need to stop buying outfits or clothing items that we would later restrict them from wearing. I work with parents and I am often surprised at how many morning arguments are about an "outfit" that is not appropriate. So why did we purchase it? Most 12 year olds do not have jobs.
Mary Jo Rapini LPC MaryJoRapini.com
Kathryn Stamoulis, PhD KathrynStamoulis.com