I was startled not because of the question or the girl's attire but because Tom and I had just been discussing the very subject, after yet another extended family holiday gathering with a gaggle of underdressed young relations. The conversation regularly pops up here during holiday get-togethers, children's clothing shopping expeditions, and the obligatory cousins' dance recital, where students and teachers writhe around in suggestive clothes to suggestive music performing suggestive choreography; all that's missing, Tom has said more than once, is a pole. This time the conversation took place with the school photo variation, as in, why on earth were some of the girls allowed to pose for their school photos, invariably included in the Christmas cards, wearing tops that drew such startling attention to cleavage? Or what is supposed to be cleavage.
The Maclean's cover story was inspired, I learned, by the publication this fall of Southern humorist and syndicated columnist's Celia Rivenbark's book, Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank, and indeed the same issue of Maclean's features an interview with Ms. Rivenbark along with the cover story, "Why are we dressing our daughters like this?". But on this particular subject, and in this interview, Ms. Rivenbark leaves the humor behind: "I don't think it's harmless to wear a glittery shirt hanging off the shoulder when you're seven years old. I think that's just ridiculous, and borders on obscene. I'm a humour columnist by trade and this is probably the most strident thing I've ever written. I don't normally get so agitated over things, but this one, I'm just shocked about it." The newspaper column was inspired by a trip to the mall:
Well, I went shopping with my daughter, and I saw all these tween skank clothes, and one thing led to another. I just went off on the notion that these clothes are inappropriate, these hoochie-mama Las Vegas showgirl clothes marketed to kids who are as young as seven. There were all these sequined, sparkling midriff tops, lots of fishnet, shirts saying things like Jailbait, Made Ya Look or Juicy on the bottoms of the pants. Pretty disgusting. ...Amen. Other things not meeting Ms. Rivenbark's parental approval for her nine-year-old daughter include the latest sex-sound stylings of Justin Timberlake and the loose and promiscuous not to mention Canadian Nelly Furtado. And once again I'm reminded that one of the things I appreciate so much about home education is that the conditioning about society's values and expectations just isn't a factor for our family, for the children or the adults.
Obviously the stuff sells because the stores are full of it. Parents buy it. They feel a lot of pressure -- particularly parents who work all the time -- to appease the kids by giving them what they want, so I think that's why so many parents just finally give in. They feel like this is a battle they don't want to fight. ...
I think sometimes, as parents, we get so conditioned to what we see in the stores it's almost like you get numb to it, and so this was for some parents, they said, a bit of a wake-up call, you know? If you're used to seeing ripped jeans and some questionable phrases on kid clothes, you roll with it. Especially when you see it in really nice department stores. You think, this is what they're selling and you almost get used to it and conditioned to accept it. I'm not a prude, by any means, but I just don't think there's any way you could possibly say that these kinds of clothes are suitable for anybody under, I'd say, 24. ...
More of Ms. Rivenbark's thoughts from the interview on modern, ahem, parenting:
... generally speaking, for whatever reason, kids tend to run over their parents a lot more than they used to. The whole child-centered thing is really big now. I see it over and over again just among the friends I have: the child makes the decisions on, for example, what kind of entertainment they watch, what they do on Friday night. Sometimes they need to realize that. But I think that when the kids are running the show it's not really a good thing. These are little kids, and if you give them that much power they're not ready for it. ...But we're not talking about a "whole child-centered thing". The correct term is "wholesale absence of parental responsibility". Yes, it's easier to give in and say yes most of the time, and not to hang around the house long enough to monitor your child's attire and even, heaven forfend, send him or her back to changed into something appropriate when you could be picking up your daily coffee at Starbucks or slouching about the water cooler exchanging the latest adult conversation with your colleagues. But don't sugarcoat terms for "slacker parents" -- and I understand that Ms. Rivenbark has referred to herself as such at times -- who want to take the easy way out, to the detriment of their children and their futures.
We've lost the notion, as parents, that it's really okay to be the grown-up and say no. My daughter hears no all the time -- occasionally she hears yes, but a lot of no. There was a dress she wanted a couple of months ago, and she had a real meltdown wanting it, and I thought the dress was inappropriate, and we all survived it. Parents almost think that it's in their contract that they have to negotiate. Well, no, they really don't. Some things, maybe, but not everything. If your kid is trying to go out of the house looking like a mattress-back, then you just send the kid right back in there and try again.
Asked by the interviewer, "Do you think the kids are conscious of the meanings of what they're wearing? Does the fashion come with attitudes and behaviours?", Ms. Rivenbark replies,
That's a real good question. I haven't seen a correlation there. I think they just think it all looks cute. I don't see that it particularly changes their personalities. They think, "This is hip, I saw it on TV, this is kind of cool." It doesn't turn them into monsters. I'm more concerned about the perv who sees them at the mall. A little girl, if her parent is idiot enough to buy something that says Jailbait on it, goes to the mall -- it's the perv who sees that that bothers me.I do see a correlation, and it's been there at least since I was in fifth grade about 30 years ago. Kids are indeed conscious of the meanings of what they're wearing, and they're conscious -- and more cavalier -- at ever younger ages. And while the threat from child molesters is not to be discounted, what of the threat of the warped attitudes and paucity of the imagination with which so many boys and girls are growing up? What sort of lives will they have, with friends (or, I suppose, "hook ups"), colleagues, spouses, and their own children? Do I really want my daughter, her cousins, and their friends to think that their bodies for a few drinks and some airtime on Girls Gone Wild is a fair trade? Sex even far from its best isn't a toy, a tool, or a joke, but the greatest expression of love between two people.
The Maclean's interview and article both mention Bob Herbert's October New York Times column (reprinted here since the original is behind the Times Select firewall), "Why Aren't We Shocked?", written after the Amish school shooting and inspired in part by an Abercrombie & Fitch t-shirt reading Who needs a brain when I have these?:
The disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous treatment of women is so pervasive and so mainstream that it has just about lost its ability to shock. Guys at sporting events and other public venues have shown no qualms about raising an insistent chant to nearby women to show their breasts. An ad for a major long-distance telephone carrier shows three apparently naked women holding a billing statement from a competitor. The text asks, “When was the last time you got screwed?” ...What continues to surprise me is how many mothers around here, and remember, I'm far away from liberal east coast urban types, so your experience may be wide of my mark, are the ones who choose to
We have a problem. Staggering amounts of violence are unleashed on women every day, and there is no escaping the fact that in the most sensational stories, large segments of the population are titillated by that violence. We’ve been watching the sexualized image of the murdered 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey for 10 years. JonBenet is dead. Her mother is dead. And we’re still watching the video of this poor child prancing in lipstick and high heels.
What have we learned since then? That there’s big money to be made from thongs, spandex tops and sexy makeovers for little girls. In a misogynistic culture, it’s never too early to drill into the minds of girls that what really matters is their appearance and their ability to please men sexually.
We tell girls that, in wearing these things, they are somehow expressing themselves in an essential way. "If [T-shirts] expressed who a girl is," write [Lyn Mikel] Brown and Sharon Lamb [authors of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes], "you'd think she'd be wearing the T she got at the summer camp she went to, the music festival she attended or the Humane Society where she volunteers to walk the dogs. But instead they express 'attitude' rather than interests, skills, concerns, and hobbies." Worse still, in their very construction, these clothes prescribe behaviours that are hard to describe as empowering. A micro-mini, for instance, is a great disincentive to playing on the monkey bars. A halter top and tight, low-rise jeans make it rather more challenging to run and jump. "Every message to a preteen girl," write Brown and Lamb, "says that it's preferable to pose on the beach rather than surf, to shop rather than play, to decorate rather than invent."Now there's a challenge for the daughters of North America and their parents for the new year: step away from the fishnets and those size 2 stilleto heels and run, jump, play, and invent. Who needs a brain, indeed.