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One-third of tween clothes are sexy, study finds

A new study examined the websites of 15 retailers and found that one-third of the clothes marketed to tween girls are sexualized. Researchers say that girls who dress in skimpy styles are more prone to body image problems and seen as less intelligent.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

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.)

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.