November-December 2008

Why Do Teen Girls Dress the Way They Do?

Girls are wearing revealing clothes at younger and younger ages. Why do they do it? Why do parents let them?

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Parents have to remember that for teens in puberty, getting attention is the goal, and some may not yet understand the difference between positive and negative attention, Abrams says. “We’ve got to walk a fine line. We want [them] to celebrate being a woman,” she says. “We certainly don’t want to shame them.”

Aparna de Weever of Bethesda knows firsthand how difficult it is to get her 12-year-old daughter, Malaika, to understand why certain clothing is not appropriate. “She’s not crazy about my nagging, but when she walks out the door, she doesn’t walk out alone. She represents her mom and dad and her grandparents and her family,” says de Weever, a physician whose family is from India. “I had to specifically tell her that I saw a particular mom looking at her and rolling her eyes. I don’t want guilt by association.”

And though de Weever tries to interest her daughter in being a different kind of trendsetter by offering to buy better-quality, more-appropriate clothes, the North Bethesda Middle School eighth-grader is happy with the brands that she and her friends prefer.

“They’re comfortable and I like the way they look,” Malaika says.

Not all girls are into wearing provocative fashions. Even in today’s sexualized climate, some girls favor more conservative clothing or choose comfort over style.

“A lot of this, to me, boils down to that whole thing about acceptance— getting attention from your peers, the boys,” says Pollack, the Bethesda mom. “They’re trying to figure out who they are and who they want to be, and they all go about it in different ways.”

Chloe Nickens, 14, of Silver Spring, a freshman at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, says wearing uniforms to school probably helps ease the pressure to wear certain brands of clothing. She and her friends like to shop at a variety of stores, but most aren’t into wearing sexy clothes.

“Normally, we just think that looks kind of ridiculous, especially at this age. We just giggle,” she says.

Chloe, who is “not a Hollister person,” says she’s angry that Victoria’s Secret has opened its Pink store because “they’re marketing to, like, 10-year-old girls. It’s basically lingerie made for girls. It’s not right.”

Girls who aren’t into provocative clothing say they know that others wear it to get attention, even though the attention may be more negative than they’re seeking.

Sabrina Chanock of Potomac, a senior at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., says she’s not comfortable wearing suggestive clothing and thinks “it’s kind of sad” that girls want to draw that kind of attention from boys.

“Guys definitely notice it,” the 17-year-old says. “They realize she’s probably going to be ‘easy’. You don’t dress that way without looking for a response.”

Middle School Pressure

The desire to look good often begins in middle school, when sixth-graders are bitten by the fashion bug as they check out what the seventh- and eighth-graders are wearing. At some schools, the pressure to wear the right brands can be intense, leading to exclusion for those who can’t afford or don’t wear certain clothes.

At Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, students aren’t required to wear uniforms, but peer pressure is so strong that many students end up dressing the same way, Principal Michael Zarchin says. “It’s almost a student-imposed uniform,” he says. “It’s a shame, because not everyone has the same taste.”

Katey Lazarchik, whose 13-year-old daughter, Emma, is an eighth-grader at North Bethesda Middle School, says she is frustrated by her daughter’s need to buy expensive brands because that’s what her friends are wearing. “Our issue is more the brand attraction that her peer group is caught up in,” Lazarchik says. “At 13, at least with this group, they’re not developed. So a tank top on a 13-year-old is just a tank top.”

Bothered that her daughter insists on shopping at more-expensive stores, Lazarchik says she recently followed another mother’s lead and began giving Emma $150 per month to spend on clothing, her cell phone and social activities.

“I don’t see any way to control it. It comes from outside this house,” Lazarchik says of her daughter’s brand obsession. “It’s rampant through the schools. It’s rampant through society.”

Emma acknowledges that fitting in at school is important to her.

“You don’t want anyone to stare at you and think you’re weird,” she says.

Although she shops in stores frequented by her classmates, she sometimes wishes she didn’t spend so much on so few clothes, partly regretting the time she blew her whole month’s allowance on one pair of jeans.

But Emma’s not about to change her style and risk rejection by her classmates, even though she notices that the less popular kids “don’t really care what they wear. It’s probably better.

“I sometimes wish I could just wear a T-shirt and sweatpants, but I don’t want anyone judging me,” Emma says.

Pajamas in School?

For many girls, the pressure to wear the right clothes and fit in continues when they enter high school, where freshmen take their cues from older students.

“You’ll see a group of girls who have virtually the same outfit on,” says Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Principal Karen Lockard, who can remember calling her friends when she was a teen to find out what everyone planned to wear.

Anne-Marie Fisher, the WJ sophomore, says looking good is not just about attracting attention from boys. “It’s not just guys. It’s also how your appearance is at school,” she says. “You want to make an impression on everyone. There’s lots of peer pressure in looking good. If something doesn’t look good, everyone notices.”

Jessica Pollack, a Wootton senior, recalls how hard she tried to fit in when she was a freshman. She straightened her hair every day and made sure she never wore the same outfit twice. “I don’t know who I was trying to impress,” she says.

Now that she’s in her final year, Jessica and her friends are taking a much more relaxed attitude toward clothing. They’re more likely to show up for class wearing sweatpants or pajama pants, topped with a camisole and a sweatshirt. “No one even bothers to put contacts in,” she says.

Jessica, who describes her style as bohemian, has friends who are into trendy clothes. But she much prefers creating her own casual look—maybe adding a scarf to an outfit—even if her parents disagree. “They’re always like, ‘You need to look nice.’ But I like wearing sweatpants because I’m comfy in it,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve been in Abercrombie in three years.”

Jessica’s mom, Cindi, says she tries to teach her daughters a sense of decorum, pointing out that the clothes they wear to school aren’t suitable to wear to a nice restaurant.

“They’re very adamant about not looking dressed up or like they tried,” she says.

Catherine Master of Bethesda thinks her daughter, Elizabeth, a freshman at Stone Ridge uses “good judgment” when choosing clothing, but she is baffled that Elizabeth, 14,  and her friends want to wear their UGG bedroom slippers or pajama pants whenever they can.

“They can’t wear slippers to school, but they do wear their slippers to the mall, shearling slippers in the middle of summer,” she says, noting that the issues she has with her daughter’s clothing are fairly minor. “All of us have to deal with what our kids are wearing. It’s more challenging for some families than others.”