What's Wrong With This Outfit, Mom?

By Patricia Dalton
Sunday, November 20, 2005

I heard about it in my kitchen before I read about it in the newspaper: After visiting the expanded Tysons Corner Center this fall, my 23-year-old daughter said, "You won't believe how weird Victoria's Secret's gotten: It's all red and black with a bunch of mannequins that look like porn stars." Some shoppers were so outraged at the raunchy lingerie display that they threatened to boycott the store; others just yawned.

I've been hearing a variation on this theme with increasing frequency in my office. Mothers voice distress over the suggestive clothing their teen and preteen daughters are wearing, inside and outside the house. In fact, conflict over clothing is what prompts them to come in for family therapy. The daughters themselves may be imperious or sullen, but almost all employ the everyone-is-doing-it excuse. And an awful lot of girls are doing it.

Women once complained about being reduced to sex objects. Now, their daughters are volunteering to be sex objects. And while parents register disapproval, they often fail to take action. In that failure, they unwittingly place their daughters at risk by allowing them to bypass girlhood. When a daughter moves straight from little girl to woman, she's playing a role rather than gradually learning to live her own life. These girls may seem whole, but they aren't. There is often a lost girl inside.

Many who endorse provocative styles of dress have picked up on the liberal message of the '60s and taken it a step further. They see those who express distaste over the sexually explicit as hung up, old-fashioned. One young woman pointed out to me, "It's almost politically incorrect to say that something is inappropriate."

One of the most unsettling sights today is that of little girls dressed in teeny bikinis at the pool, or walking around in low-rise pants with midriff tops, or in heels and skimpy dresses, sometimes complete with makeup and jewelry. And this doesn't occur only at dance recitals. It can be everyday attire.

Have we come a long way, baby? The Lennon Sisters and Gidget of girlhoods gone by are light-years from today's Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan. The bridge between these two generations of stars was Madonna -- before she had children and cleaned up her act. Sometime over the past couple of decades, while we adults weren't looking, class went out and trash came in.

Think back a few decades (if you're old enough) to the arrival of the pill, the first reliable method of birth control. What we're witnessing now is the fallout from the subsequent sexual revolution. Gone was the fear of unwanted pregnancy. Along came the assumption that sexual problems were the result of hang-ups, and that relaxing the strictures and structure would free everyone to live in a kind of sexual utopia.

Well, the so-called utopia is here, and older women have reason to be alarmed at the dangers young women are bringing upon themselves. These girls are treated as objects just as surely as in any earlier generation. It's pre-liberation treatment in post-liberation disguise. "Turn back before it's too late!" we want to warn them -- because what awaits them is not Prince Charming. It is more likely to be loneliness and regret.

For some reason, though, many adult women are failing to follow the instincts they've relied on for eons to protect themselves and their daughters. No longer are there common standards of dress and behavior -- which parents, schools and society used to work together to enforce. In my high school, we wore uniforms; your skirt had to touch the floor when you knelt -- and the teachers checked! Parents are left to fight it out, from neckline to hemline, with their teenage daughters.

Mothers who come into my office frequently express doubt about their own judgment, not knowing where to draw the line when their daughters dress provocatively. Girls, meanwhile, freely admit that they are only aping what they see in the media. One young woman told me, "I love 'Sex and the City,' but I know it's contributed" to the problem. "Desperate Housewives" does, too.

It's hardly surprising: Jessica Simpson and her husband agreed to have an MTV camera record virtually their every move as newlyweds. Paris Hilton unwittingly personifies the harm that women do to themselves and their capacity for intimacy when she says: "My boyfriends always tell me I'm sexy. Sexy, but not sexual." The lights are on, but there's nobody home.

When I see little kids dressed like vamps, I'm reminded of the words of author Marie Winn in her 1981 book "Children Without Childhood": "The age of protection has ended." She described the research of the Austrian animal behaviorist Konrad Lorenz regarding what he called neotenic characteristics in the young of various species and the purpose they serve. In children, these characteristics include outsized heads and eyes, and short, rounded bodily proportions. Lorenz hypothesized that these traits function as built-in "releasing mechanisms," eliciting nurturing, protective responses from adults.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company