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Sexualized Pre-teen Clothing Makes Adults View Kids As Less Intelligent

March 26, 2012

Well, I hope the people at LandsEnd, L.L.Bean and JCPenney are reading this article.  We parents don’t want overtly sexualized kids’ clothing, but apparently retailers haven’t heard the message.  I have written to the companies listed above to object to “feminizing details” added to little girls’ clothing, like ruffles added to the bosom of shirts to make non-existent chests seem larger, like shorter, tighter clothing being inappropriate for so many of our kids.  I didn’t get an huge response, but now science is putting its weight behind the debate we parents face over children’s clothing:  adults view preteen girls wearing clothing with adult-sexualized patterns as being less smart and competent. Finally, a woman studied this effect and published it.

I find this strange that this information regarding adults’ views of children changed based on clothing was pushed out of news’ organizations on the same day a woman was killed wearing a hijab.  The debate about the effect of children’s clothing famously emerged during the Jon Benet Ramsey scandal, but now now a study points out that there a specific attitudes about clothing that have been quantified:

Clothing for young girls has become increasing sexualized, said Sarah Murnen, a social psychologist at Kenyon College in Ohio and the senior author of the new study. Last year, a study by Murnen and colleagues found that 30 percent of children’s clothing at major retailers had sexualizing characteristics. Abercrombie Kids had the highest proportion of sexualized kids’ clothes, with 72 percent of preteen clothing featuring sexualizing aspects, such as suggestive writing, slinky material or a revealing cut.

With this in mind, Murnen and her colleagues wanted to find out if people judge sexily clad preteens the same way they do adult women.

“Given that we now have more sexualized clothing for girls, how might that affect how people see them?” Murnen asked LiveScience….

But across the board, people’s rankings of the girl’s capability, competence, determination and intelligenced ropped when she wore the obviously sexualizing outfit. They also ranked her as having lower self-respect and less morality than more modestly dressed versions.

Sexualization and self-respect

“They did see her as less competent and less moral and less self-respecting, as if we are blaming the girl for wearing that clothing,” Murnen said. Most likely, she added, preteens who pick these clothes aren’t doing so out of a desire to appear sexual, but out of a desire to fit in and look stylish.

“I don’t think they necessarily think, ‘This might make me appear not very serious to an adult,'” Murnen said. But if teachers or other authority figures make these negative judgments, she said, they may write them off as bad students and pay them less attention.

In fact, when the researchers asked participants for feedback after the experiment, many were quite aware of their judgments.

“I formed my assumptions based on her outfit even after being aware of her accomplishments,” one woman wrote.

“Seems like a caricature of a Bratz doll,” wrote another man, referring to a line of sultry-eyed, mini-skirted fashion dolls. “Overall first impression isn’t strong.”

I noticed last weekend at my daughter’s basketball tournament that other parents were dismissive of one of the star players who also happened to be, at that moment, wearing short-shorts rolled up to the point of the edge of an underwear line.  The player was one of the top-scoring athletes on that team, but the parents focused on her shorts.  I wondered then if her mother knew what other parents were saying, wondered the same thing when my next door neighbor found her 12-year old daughter’s ensemble of push-bra and tank top an appropriate attire for raking the lawn.

I am all for a woman expressing herself through her clothing, as long as I don’t see that expression as a simple reflection of an attempt to appease or attract men, whether that be push-up bras or hijabs.  If the clothing is an expression of a woman’s true self, it won’t reflect a man’s values, meaning it won’t be overly conservative/oppressive, nor overtly solicitous of attracting attention to a woman’s sexual organs.  Push-up bras and hijabs are not expressions of female identity, nor is a 12-year old girl’s desire to wear lots of leopard print.

The more troubling issue is that it took a scientific study to quantify adult views on children’s behavior through the clothing they wore.  As an adult woman, I have noticed a tendency for prepubescent girls wearing sexualized clothing to become sexually active at earlier ages, with more detrimental effects from the early sexual encounters.  I see the child wearing sexualized clothing as more of a lack of adult involvement in a child’s life, which then translates to less positive sexual experiences.

We all would agree that most children will grow up to be sexually active adults.  Humans are animals that reproduce mainly through sexual encounters, and biology is a force to be reckoned with.  Moreover, most parents are aware of this basic fact of biology.  I think what will be more shocking is that once again, a choice of clothing impacts a woman even before she becomes a woman.

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