Jackie Fisher was beginning high school two years ago when she figured out that her developing figure was going to be her best asset.
So when the Bethesda teen dresses to go out with friends these days, she slips on a pair of jeans, flip-flops and a low-cut top.
It drives her mother crazy.
“I’m always telling her that you have to cover it up,” says Lisa Fisher. “You can’t just have it out there.”
But Jackie, a 16-year-old junior at Walter Johnson (WJ) High School, doesn’t understand what the fuss is about. “You feel like it’s one of your best features, so that’s what you want to show to people,” she says. “If people are looking…I don’t mind.”
Parents and daughters have been fighting over what is “appropriate” dress for generations. What woman doesn’t remember tangling with her mother over the hairstyles or fashions of the day? But some parents, educators and parenting experts say the undertones of the disagreement are different now, sharpened by the explosion of sexual imagery on television and the Internet, in movies and advertising, and in the marketing of sexy and provocative clothing to an ever-younger audience.
Saturated by these images, some teens have adopted styles that seem more suited for the red-light district than the school district. Some dress so casually that they show little understanding about what’s appropriate attire for a given situation.
“Coming to school is not like going to the pool, just like going to the pool is not like coming to school, and you should dress differently for those” activities, says Walter Johnson High School Principal Christopher Garran.
Today’s teens are bombarded with sexual imagery and innuendo the moment they turn on the TV, open a magazine or step into a shopping mall. Sex is used to sell all manner of products, from clothing to cars. Just check out “Live Unbuttoned,” the new advertising campaign for Levi’s jeans. The campaign “centers on the experience of ‘unbuttoning’ yourself and breaking free from inhibitions and convention,” according to the Levi Strauss & Co. Web site.
That translates into television ads starring young actors with their jeans unbuttoned suggestively and movie commercials depicting a couple flirting as they unbutton their jeans, undress and fall to the floor in a sexual embrace.
“One thing that has changed is how much our children are inundated with pop culture,” says Dr. Kay Abrams, a clinical psychologist in Kensington who conducts local parenting workshops and therapy groups for adolescent girls. “Kids are inundated with images and culture in a way that we weren’t. There wasn’t as much exposure to sex, sexuality and sexy things.”
Dr. Diane Levin, author of So Sexy So Soon and an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston, says much of the blame lies with the deregulation of children’s television in the 1980s, which made it legal to promote toys and other products linked to programming.
Toys, often based on TV characters, became gender-specific, with those for boys targeting action and violence, and those for girls encouraging dressing up, looking like princesses and playing with such dolls as the sexy-looking Bratz collection—“the only girls with a passion for fashion,” according to Bratz.com.
“What we’re doing is teaching girls to view themselves as objects,” Levin says. “What they buy and how they look determines their value.”
The constant exposure has led girls to decide at even younger ages what they’re supposed to look like to be attractive, notes Silver Spring psychotherapist Laurie Young, who works with area teens and families. “I really do think that the sexual hormones start really, really young,” she says. “This whole idea to be attractive is tremendously, tremendously appealing. There’s power in it. Every girl loves to be pretty, regardless of age.”
And for teens and tweens, looking good is driven by what’s fashionable. While high school girls usually are focused on attracting boys, middle school girls are more likely to spend their energy trying to fit in and impress each other, girls and parents say.
But there’s a big difference between being cute and pretty and being provocative. Gaithersburg High School Principal Christine Handy-Collins notes that what is sexy today is different from when Handy-Collins, 45, and other parents of today’s teens were growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.
“You want to look good. You want to be fashionable. That’s always been the case,” she says. But “our mini[skirt] was different than their mini is.”
Lisa Fisher of Bethesda says she doesn’t remember having such battles over appropriate clothing when she was raising her two older daughters in the mid-’90s. The girls, now in their late 20s, attended a private school and wore uniforms. Although the uniforms made life easier, Fisher says there also weren’t as many issues over sexy clothing.
“I don’t remember struggling with them the way I struggle with these girls,” she says of Jackie and her younger sister, Anne-Marie, who is also a WJ student.
For today’s teens and preteens, stores like Aeropostale, PacSun, Forever 21, Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch represent shopping meccas, especially for many middle schoolers who live and die by the brands they buy. Although many of the fashions at these stores seem geared more for the 20-something crowd, dozens of girls can be found perusing the racks in shops at Montgomery Mall.
Even Victoria’s Secret is cashing in on the teen market with its Pink collection of pink-hued athletic wear, pajamas and underwear—supposedly marketed to college students, but in hot demand by the middle school crowd. And then there’s Juicy Couture, a pricey and sometimes suggestive line of clothing that few girls, it seems, can live without.
Teens’ standards for appropriate attire have changed so much that some girls don’t even realize their clothing might be considered inappropriate. They say they are only following current fashions at a time when showing bra straps is de rigueur and when body-hugging tank tops and camisoles with spaghetti straps line the shelves of trendy stores along with skirts and shorts that barely skim the tops of thighs.
“My mom gets mad because lots of times my bra straps show and she doesn’t like that,” says Anne-Marie Fisher, the WJ sophomore.
But she and her friends don’t see the problem. “No one really focuses on them,” she says. “They focus more on the outfit.”
Eighteen-year-old Katie Friedman and 17-year-old Sahar Nesvaderani, both of whom graduated from Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville last spring, like trendy clothes. But “we’re more modest,” Katie says while pulling up her strapless top during an August shopping trip at Montgomery Mall.
“I won’t wear Abercrombie & Fitch or Hollister. Everyone looks the same,” Katie explains. “There’s nothing that really fits a body type that’s not stick straight.”
Sahar, however, is an Abercrombie fan. “It’s not, like, flashy,” she says. “It’s appropriate.”
Levin, the Wheelock College professor, says the teens’ attitudes reflect marketing messages about what is fashionable. So, while parents may think today’s fashions show too much skin, teens consider such clothing as low-cut tops and rolled-up shorts to be the norm because that’s what they see everyone wearing.
But some teens say the girls who take it an extra step and couple the super-short skirt with the tight, low-cut, clingy top, or show their underwear outside the back of their jeans, are going too far.
“They’ve come to develop ideas about slutty-looking girls,” Levin says. But teens don’t realize that what they consider acceptable also may be over the edge, she says.
Cindi Pollack of Bethesda says she worries more that her two daughters, 12-year-old Natalie and 17-year-old Jessica, dress too casually rather than provocatively. But she acknowledges that the casual look of sweatpants and a camisole, preferred by Jessica, can be “sexy in its own way.” And it’s bothersome that some of today’s styles make girls look older than their years, she says.
Pollack recalls feeling uncomfortable when walking in public with one of her daughters. “I see men looking because she’s got short shorts on. That bothers me,” she says. “They may be 14, but they look like women. That’s too young. They’ve got a whole lifetime to be women.”
The Right Impression
Parents’ discomfort over their daughters’ clothing choices is normal, experts say. That’s because parents are “thinking with the sexual brains of adults,” rather than realizing that teens may not yet see things as adults do, says Abrams, the clinical psychologist in Kensington.
“As parents, we’re facing a generation that’s facing so many confusing images before they’re sexual beings,” she says. “How do you teach teens what exploitation is? They don’t get it yet because they’re not sexual beings. Our responsibility is to teach them.”