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Skin-tight skinny jeans or bottom-skimming short shorts are widely marketed at stores like Abercrombie Kids, which is targeted to children ages 7 to 14.
TODAY contributor
updated 5/19/2011 8:51:04 AM ET 2011-05-19T12:51:04

Shopping for summer clothes for your little girl? How about Abercrombie Kids’ “cute butt sweatpants”? Or tween jeans that the retailer describes as “fitted with a little stretch for a sexy look to give you the perfect butt”?

Because every mother wants her 7-year-old to have a sexy butt.

A new study examined the websites of 15 retailers and found that one-third of the clothes marketed to tween girls are sexualized. T-shirts with suggestive words, leopard bikinis and clothes designed to emphasize the legs -- skin-tight skinny jeans or bottom-skimming short shorts -- are widely marketed at pre-teen stores such as Justice and Aeropostale and even at the high-end clothing store Neiman Marcus, according to researchers at Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio.

“Sexualized clothing is clothing that reveals or emphasizes sexual body parts, or has a sexualized print,” says psychology professor Sarah Murnen, Ph.D. who conducted the research with Linda Smolak, Ph.D., a psychologist who focuses on body image and eating disorders in youth.

Revealing or provocative clothing more suited to Lady Gaga than a middle schooler reinforces the socialization of girls into “a sexually objectified role in which [they are] increasingly confronted with sexualized material,” the researchers wrote in the study, which was published recently in the journal Sex Roles.

'Less competent, less intelligent'
Girls who choose more sexualized clothing are more at risk for body image problems and are perceived as less intelligent, the Kenyon researchers suggest. In another study Murnen and her associates showed 162 college-age subjects three pictures of a fifth-grade girl: one in sexualized clothing, one in ambiguously sexualized clothing, and one in childlike clothing. “The [participants] found the girl in sexualized clothing to be less competent, less intelligent and less moral,” says Murnen.

The prevalence of skimpy fashions for the tween set represents how girls are being socialized into sexually objectified roles and “increasingly confronted with sexualized material,” the researchers wrote.

Marketing these sexy clothes to girls is part of the “pornification in the culture,” says Murnen. “It’s now normative for women to shave their pubic hair. There is a trickle down to girls,” she says. “All of this focus on appearance can be a backlash against women’s progress.”

Abercrombie Kids and Justice, which is owned by Tween Brands Inc., did not return calls for comment on the study. But Abercrombie & Fitch, parent company of Abercrombie Kids, was recently criticized when outraged parents protested a padded push-up bikini marketed to girls as young as 7. Although the "Ashley" bikini is no longer found at the website, other barely-there bikini top styles are still sold.

TODAY Moms: Why I hate my daughter's favorite, sexy shirt

But at least one retailer included in the study resists making girls’ shorts too short. “We absolutely think about the modesty issue,” says Sharon Hacker, vice president of design for Kids and Baby at Kmart, which scored somewhere in the middle of the 15 retailers studied.  “A lot of us have kids.” (Hacker has an 8-year-old daughter.)

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Hacker admits having to reign in a designer who wanted to include racy images -- such as a T-shirt printed with a girl wearing fishnets and high heels -- on tween clothing. “I told her that wasn’t appropriate for a little girl,” says Hacker.

The Children's Place and Gymboree, which are marketed to children, had the least amount of sexualized clothing, according to the study.

In 2003, Murnen and colleagues studied the marketing of media icons like Britney Spears to young girls. “Already the tweens in the study seemed to realize that girls were sexually objectified,” she said.

Eleanor Mackey, Ph.D, clinical psychologist at Children’s National Medical Center, advises parents not to allow their girls to wear sexualized clothing.

“It’s important to realize that these clothes are ubiquitous and they are hard to avoid.” Mackey. “But when young girls wear these clothes they send the message that they are sexually available. And the more they are exposed to clothes that suggest they should be attractive to the opposite sex, they could put themselves into risky situations.”

But how can a parent get the idea across to a willful 8-year-old who wants to wear the kinds of cool clothes that everyone is wearing?

“Say: ‘I think that the clothes send the wrong message,” Mackey suggests. “Tell them some things are appropriate for grownups, but not for kids.” 

And stand your ground, even if your daughter starts screaming.

Christina M. Kelly is a freelance writer living in Montclair, N.J., who has worked as an editor and writer for Sassy, ELLEgirl and ym.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: ‘Push-up’ bikini for kids gets pushback

  1. Transcript of: ‘Push-up’ bikini for kids gets pushback

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Back now at 8:09 with a brewing controversy over some sexy beachwear for young girls , some say too young . MSNBC 's Tamron Hall has details. Good morning, Tamron .

    TAMRON HALL reporting: Good morning, Meredith . Abercrombie Fitch is so popular people are actually willing to line up to get into their stores, but it's but their racy marketing techniques that often steal the spotlight. And now the retailer is selling a padded bikini top designed for girls as young as seven years old, and a lot of parents are outraged. Skin sells, and thanks to racy marketing, Abercrombie Fitch has built a retailing empire on it.

    Unidentified Woman #1: I don't think it's appropriate.

    HALL: But the retailer's new bikini top is a push-up that's inciting a whole lot of push-back.

    Unidentified Woman #2: I think a push-up bikini for a child is ridiculous.

    HALL: It's called the Ashley , part of the Abercrombie kids ' spring line. And the bikini with breast padding is made for girls as young as seven years old.

    Ms. MELISSA GERSTEIN (momsandthecity.net): I have two little girls and I would never purchase this despicable garbage for my child, nor should any other parent. It is completely sending the wrong message to your daughter. A second grader does not need a padded bikini top.

    HALL: Some experts agree and warn that it's just too sexy too soon.

    Ms. GAIL DINES (Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies): It gets young girls to think about themselves in sexual ways before that is developmentally appropriate.

    HALL: This is hardly the first time Abercrombie Fitch has been taken to task. Their ads often show more flesh than fabric and the company's got a history of young models in R-rated poses. Their provocative A&F quarterly was compared to soft porn, it was pulled from stores in 2003 . A 2002 thong line for young girls ages seven to 14 caused an outcry and the line was removed. And in 2005 , a boycott called a girlcott was staged over a T-shirt line with slogans like "Anatomy Tutor."

    Unidentified Young Woman: We decided that enough is enough and to do something about this.

    HALL: The company took the tees off store shelves. But despite this latest uproar, not every parent we talked to is concerned.

    Ms. DENISE ALBERT ("Moms and the City and a Dad Named David"): If we don't make such a big deal about it, first of all, these little girls won't know even what they are, they won't know. We're making such a big deal about it, parents make such a big deal about it. If you don't like it, don't buy it.

    HALL: Since the controversy erupted, Abercrombie changed the swim top name from the push-up triangle to the striped triangle. The company also dropped the price and the word "padded" from the description.

    Ms. GERSTEIN: The parents that are buying these horrifying items are actually the ones to blame here, not Abercrombie Fitch .

    HALL: And we should note the Abercrombie kids ' line targets children ages seven through 14. We contacted the company for comment and they declined.

    Meredith: All right, Tamron Hall . Thank you very much . Dr. Janet Taylor is a psychiatrist, Dr. Robyn Silverman is the author of

    VIEIRA: How Weight Obsession is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It ." Good morning to you both.

    "Good Girls Don't Get Fat: Morning.

    Dr. JANET TAYLOR (Psychiatrist): Morning.

    Dr. ROBYN SILVERMAN (Author, "Good Girls Don't Get Fat"): We have the top in question right there. There is something creepy about this when you think that it's being marketed to girls as young as seven, but you both believe it goes beyond creepy, that there's also an element of danger here. What message are we sending to kids with this kind of top?

    VIEIRA: Well, you know, as parents what we want to do is teach our young girls that self-esteem is from the inside out, not from the outside in. We already know that when children look at girls , they describe them as attractive, when they look at boys they describe them as their -- through their activity levels or their personality traits. So we want to focus on our girls ' intelligence, their talents and their empathy and ability to have friends and make friends, not how they look from the outside.

    Dr. TAYLOR: And early sexualization of girls can create a lot of problems. We're talking about mental health problems, eating disorders, depression, it's been linked with...

    Dr. SILVERMAN: All of that because of a padded top?

    VIEIRA: No, it's not just this, it's this plus the sexualized dolls, plus this other sexualized clothing, plus the messages out there. All of these things together create a picture that says, 'You must look sexy in order to be acceptable.'

    Dr. SILVERMAN: Because it's all about exposure, and when you have exposure to tops like this you really can prime young girls and also young boys about accepting sexual stereotypes that in some cases are too young to really know what they are. But we should be all about building children's and young boys ' and girls ' awareness of what is most important, and that's character, not what they're wearing.

    Dr. TAYLOR: There -- you know, there was one of the mothers in that piece who said maybe if we didn't make such a big deal about it, some of these younger kids, they wouldn't know about this controversy.

    VIEIRA: Mm-hmm.

    Offscreen Voice: Does she have a point?

    VIEIRA: Well, she has a point, but on the other hand it's a teachable moment. There's nothing wrong with taking your seven- or eight-year-old, showing them the ad and saying, 'What do you think?' Or talking to your son about, you know, 'What do you think's the most important characteristic about your friends?' and seeing what they say. So use it as a teachable moment. But I agree, don't buy it if you don't agree with what it stands for.

    Dr. TAYLOR: Right. I mean, at this point we have to understand that we need to get our children media-literate, we need them to understand there are tricks that are being used by the media to get us to feel inadequate, to buy things for our children and to buy things for us.

    Dr. SILVERMAN: So what conversation should we be having with our kids if this is all a teachable moment?

    VIEIRA: Well, we need to ask them, 'What do you think about this? What does this say to you? How do you want to be portrayed to other people? And is this in line with how you want to be portrayed?' Ask them what tricks the advertisers are using in order to get them to feel like they want to buy it.

    Dr. SILVERMAN: And if this is marketed to girls between the ages of seven and 14, seven I can understand, by 14 could it be appropriate?

    VIEIRA: But you could say -- even a 14-year-old doesn't need a padded anything. A 14 -year-old with a flat chest needs to understand her own value, her priorities and the fact that it doesn't matter what she looks like, it's how she treats people and how active she is and how hard she tries that really is most important.

    Dr. TAYLOR: The only time that I see some parents asking me this, and I would say, 'OK, they're 14 years old, they're going through puberty, they have uneven breasts growth, they don't even want to go swimming, perhaps that would be a time when slight padding might make them feel more confident.' I'm not talking about push-up anything because push-up means 'Here are my breasts out front and center so that everybody can look at and admire them.'

    Dr. SILVERMAN: But self-acceptance and healthy coping to get through whatever you're dealing with is going to carry them a lot longer than something superficial that -- whatever they're dealing with.

    Dr. TAYLOR: Absolutely. Absolutely.

    Dr. SILVERMAN: And yet this seems to be the MO of this company, to push the envelope all the time, so -- look, we're -- we've shown the bathing suit how many times?

    VIEIRA: That's right .

    Dr. TAYLOR: I know. That's what I'm saying, they -- we are part of the problem here because we keep showing this bathing suit and we keep saying, 'Look at this.' That's what they want. Isn't it convenient that we are right at swimsuit season and here we are with the swimsuit saying, 'Look at this.'

    Dr. SILVERMAN: All right. But parents, beware because they're the ones who are going to put out the money for this, so they should know what this bathing suit is about. Thank you both so much for joining us.



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