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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.

Parents -- sometimes without even realizing it -- put their daughters at risk when they camouflage these features by allowing them to dress in adult ways. Such dress prompts the child to imitate adult female behavior that she doesn't understand. This can short-circuit normal development. It can also encourage older children and adults to relate to these young girls as sexual beings, sometimes with tragic consequences.

My younger sister told me a story about visiting the home of friends when the teenage daughter's date arrived. The daughter came downstairs in a T-shirt that read, "Strippers do it with poles." The parents seemed nonplussed; it was the boy who said to them, "You're letting her go out of the house in that ?"

Some parents are just misguided when it comes to monitoring their daughters' dress. I will be the first to admit that mental health experts have contributed to the problem. A good example is the school of thought once prevalent among psychologists that even young kids need to have a voice in all decisions that affect them -- with the corollary that, if they marshal a particularly good argument, they can often get what they want. Another approach is to give children two choices, rather than telling them what they have to do. But my personal favorite is the zany idea that parents should never say "No," because it would be too negative! It isn't surprising that they also have a tough time telling their daughters, "You're not going out of this house in that outfit. End of subject."

Another even bigger problem I see is indecision: Parents lack confidence in their instincts and in their judgment. Previous generations had no trouble making hard and fast rules. Parents in those days looked like and conducted themselves as adults and role models; kids and teenagers wanted to grow up and get the perks of adult life as soon as possible. Therapists see the inverse today. There are lots of parents who are uncomfortable with their grownup role and want to be young again; their kids don't want to grow up, or wish to postpone it as long as possible.

There are definitely cases I see in which girls imitate their mothers' sexy style of dress, with their mothers' blessing. (Although there was one high school girl who confided that she was glad she didn't have a mother who looked like Goldie Hawn -- too tough an act to follow!) But the majority of mothers want their daughters to dress more conservatively but are afraid to take their daughters on. Fathers, too.

They make the mistake of thinking that a good relationship is largely conflict-free. One mother said to me, "I hate to rock the boat when she's a teenager; we got along so well when she was little." They don't want a child who complains about them to her friends and the rest of the world on her blog.

I've polled a number of therapist colleagues, and virtually everyone agreed: We almost never see autocratic, dictatorial parents today; it is far more common to see parents who have relinquished power, and kids who have assumed it. Which makes for very unhappy young people. They are petulant and angry; they lack respect for their parents because their parents haven't inspired respect through real leadership.

Without that leadership, kids have trouble recognizing lines of propriety. Boys don't know where the line is and where to stop; and girls -- or gurrrrrrrrls, as the new terminology puts it -- who have become accustomed to their deliberately outr styles of dress, are displaying increasingly aggressive sexual behavior.

One example of this aggression recently played out at a local private school, where it was charmingly dubbed "robbing the cradle." Two senior girls each solicited a freshman boy for sexual purposes by wearing a T-shirt to school with "I want (boy's name)" on it. It created quite a stir and bestowed some status on the younger boys in question. It also puts parents on alert that in our sexually predatory culture, parents also need to worry about safeguarding their boys from the girls, not just vice versa.

The girls who dress the most outrageously are often those most starved for adult male attention, first and foremost from their fathers. This happens most commonly with girls whose fathers have disappeared from their lives, perhaps following a divorce, or because their workaholic schedules leave them little time for their children. Children who are raised with attention and affection tend to identify with and admire their parents. This identification is the basis for both discipline and the transmission of values. Without it, parents can't do their job.

I often recommend that fathers be the parent to take the lead in setting limits on their daughters' dress, because opposite sex offspring typically cut that parent more slack. Fathers can say, "Honey, you can't wear that. I know teenage boys -- I was one!" A dad like this is looking out for his daughter and treating her as someone special.

While talk and reality shows and tell-all memoirs thrive and a majority of teenagers today say that they would like to be famous, there are still girls and women who value privacy and modesty. They reveal a quiet confidence, a different kind ofglamour. Even famous people can be modest. They don't have to be Britney Spears. Take Audrey Hepburn, who has no counterpart today. Part of her allure lay in the way she embodied humility and modesty. Yet she also conveyed spirit and originality and a strong sense of self.

Even though she worked in an industry that often promotes commonness, she was an uncommon woman. Even though our daughters live in a culture that clearly promotes coarseness, they can be uncommon, too.

Author's e-mail : daltonpa@aol.com

Patricia Dalton is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington.

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