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Think Twice About What Your Daughter Wears

Girls in grown-up, sexualized clothes rated as less intelligent and moral

Elizabeth Hurley, actress turned fashion designer, was recently criticized for her new fashion line that features leopard print string bikinis for two-year-olds. In fact, these high-end bikinis – swimsuits that seem better suited for an episode of Real Housewives than a spin around the baby pool – are selling quite well.

In part, moms seem to enjoy dressing like their daughters, and instead of themselves donning OshKosh B’Gosh, they are dressing their daughters up in clothes once reserved for adulthood. This is part of an even stronger trend in which girls' bodies and clothes are becoming increasingly sexualized.

Just look around at what elementary school-aged girls are wearing in their daily lives. You don’t have to watch an episode of Toddlers and Tiaras, you simply have to go to your child’s school. At last year’s talent show at my daughter’s school, most of the elementary school girls, regardless of their talent, wore midriff-baring shirts and short shorts. A recent trip to my local clothing store revealed thong underwear and shoes with clear, light-up high heels in my 8 year old’s size. Both are much more common in, ahem, certain adult professions.

I think part of this growing trend, only possible because moms are willing to buy the clothes, is a naive fondness of seeing children in adult-like clothes. Who doesn’t “Ohhh” at the little baby boy in a suit and tie? But the danger for girls, clad in their mini-skirts and halter tops, is that this trend is also driven by our increasing sexualization and objectification of women. Women are consistently portrayed as highly sexualized, very thin, and eager for the attention of ogling men. On TV, even women who are theoretically not stereotypical (such as crime-solving forensic scientists) wear very tight pants, low cut blouses, and very high heels. Research studies have shown that these sexualized women are perceived as less intelligent and competent than women dressed in more conservative clothes. It isn’t surprising that this constant barrage of sexualized women is seeping into younger and younger age groups.

Who cares, you may say, as you pick out your daughter’s next pair of shorts with “Cute Stuff” written across the butt? You should.

In a new study in the journal Sex Roles, researchers showed adults one of three pictures featuring the same tween girl in differing outfits. She was either wearing jeans, a ruffled tee-shirt, and Mary Janes; a modest-length leopard print dress; or a short dress, a leopard print cardigan, and carrying a purse. These were taken from clothes at regular mall department stores, like Neiman Marcus.

Does it matter what the girl was wearing? You bet. When she was in the short dress, she was rated as less capable, less competent, less determined, and less intelligent than when she was in the more modest, child-appropriate clothes. She was also rated as less moral and less self-respecting. The girl was the same – the only difference was the jeans versus the mini-skirt.

This is a disturbing problem with an easy solution. What your daughter wears matters. It affects how other people view her. Do you want your child’s teacher to think of her as less intelligent and moral simply because you think it is cute to see her “dress up”? Most moms would never make that trade-off. And we know, if other people consistently see us in a certain light, we will eventually see ourselves in that same light. So the girls in the sexy clothes are thought of as less intelligent, less self-respecting, and less competent than their more modest peers. Over time, those messages will become internalized until the girls are, in fact, less intelligent, less self-respecting, and less competent than their more modest peers. Considering the costs of the bikini, that purple one-piece bathing suit with glitter butterflies doesn’t look so bad.

To read the American Psychological Association's report on the increasing sexualization of girls, click here.