Every year during the back to school season, parents and their daughters go shopping for new clothes to wear. These clothes must not only be fashionable to allow adolescent girls to conform to the beauty standards of their peers, but also modest in order to conform to the dress codes that systematically suppress the freedom for girls to dress. This conflict between what is advertised in stores, on social media, and by other teens as “cool” and what schools and society mandates as “appropriate” creates self-objectification in girls from a young age. As girls develop a greater sense of self-identity, these images of sexualization lead to decreased self-esteem and lower body satisfaction. While it’s easy for schools to dictate limits on girl’s dress, the lack of variety and trend of over-sexualization in the clothes advertised to them makes it difficult for them to conform to them. Even from a young age as girls begin to care about the fashion choices they make, the girls clothing in popular stores like Target is consistently more tight-fitting, shorter, and more revealing than the clothes made for boys of the same age. The push of this type of clothing on teenage girls is amplified by additional examples of revealing clothing on the media that they consume daily. Ultimately the struggle between satisfying the expectations of what society and schools deem appropriate clothing and adhering to current fashion standards can be damaging to girls as they develop a sense of self-identity.
The sexualization of young girls through clothing
The advertisement of sexualized clothing to girls from a young age in major retail stores is an undeniable issue in today’s society, but the term “sexualization” applies a broad context to it. “Sexualization occurs when: a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.” To be defined as “sexualizing”, something must meet at least one of these conditions, but the “inappropriate imposition” of sexaulitiy upon a person is most relevant in the context of sexualized clothing that is made for children. The characteristics that can define clothing as sexualizing includes fit that reveals certain body parts and or is overly tight, “sexy” features such as certain frills and patterns, and inappropriate writing. A 2011 study that examined 5,666 articles of clothing at various stores meant for girls ages 6-14 found that 30.86% of them were categorized as definitely sexualizing, ambiguously sexualizing, or adultlike. Many of these clothing items combined sexualizing characteristics with more childlike qualities, creating a normalization of these characteristics in clothing meant for girls. Examples of these articles could have “girly” features such as ruffles or sparkles but also have inappropriate writing or a revealing fit. This was seen in 2002 after Abercrombie & Fitch was forced to take off of shelves a line of g-string underwear marketed to girls with slogans such as “eye candy” and “wink, wink”. In addition to clothing with sexualizing characteristics, another factor commonly seen in clothing marketed to young girls is inconsistent sizing. Across multiple popular retail brands, girls shirts are an average of 1-3 inches slimmer and their shorts are about 4-8 inches shorter than boys clothing of the same size. This disparity between the size of clothing that young girls are expected to wear versus the clothes that boys of the same age are expected to wear creates an early precedent for normalization of clothing with a tighter fit that excludes girls of larger sizes. These shorter shorts and tighter shirts are marketed to girls to make them look “cuter”, but what happens when they get to elementary school where girls and boys are required by a dress code to wear shorts of the same length? While passionate mothers such as Sharon Chonski and other members of our community are attempting to bring to light the discrepancies in the fit of boys and girls clothing that major retailers provide, the issue remains. As the inappropriate characteristics present in young girls clothing increase, the normalization of how young girls are sexualized contributes to the trend of more revealing clothing that stores sell to adolescents.
Prevalence of revealing clothing in the teenage fashion market
As girls mature and move in junior’s and women’s sizing, the clothing advertised to them becomes even more revealing and sexualized, continuing to conflict with how public schools expect them to dress. Of course the presence of this type of clothing can be attributed to current fashion trends that teens follow today, but it’s undeniable that the amount of variety available to teens is limited to styles that are widely considered inappropriate within society. A great example of a store that is constantly attempting to perpetuate teen fashion trends is Forever 21. Known for its affordable clothing and constantly evolving styles, you could say that the clothes in Forever 21 at any given time encompass the type of clothes being advertised to teen girls by the entire fashion industry. I can say from personal experience that anyone shopping at Forever 21 has to relinquish any attempt to dress conservatively, as their store is full of crop tops, tube tops, and short shorts. A 2017 survey found of all of the shorts sold at Forever 21 at that time, 72.3% of them had an inseam of 1.5 inches or less, which is considered “too short” by the majority of high school dress codes. Despite Forever 21’s constant attempt to keep up with fashion trends, their use of a “fast fashion” market is receiving recent criticism for its bad quality and lack of sustainability. Though the company’s debt and earnings aren’t public, it has begun to close locations and downsize their existing stores. With the decline of traditional stores like Forever 21 and others, advertising now plays an even larger role in today’s fashion industry, especially with the prevalence of social media. Retailers consistently use advertising to market model wearing clothes that are revealing and sexualizing with the knowledge that this will affect the clothes adolescents are drawn to. Though they are not as relevant in today’s fashion market, these revealing advertisements find their origins in the sexualized images of women and teen girls common in magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, and others. “In one analysis of women appearing in advertisements in Time and Vogue from 1955 to 2002, Lindner (2004) reported that an average of 40% of ads featured women as decorative objects” (Clark, 2004). While most of these women posed seductively are meant to attract attention and sell products, they have an unintentional impact on young girls. When developing girls see the images of “sexy” women that are perpetuated throughout the media, they are subconsciously led to believe that this is how they should portray their own bodies. Advertisement and the teen fashion industry can’t be examined without mentioning the unrealistic body types that are depicted by the industry. One of the most popular brands today, particular for tween and younger teen girls is Brandy Melville, which exemplifies the practice of limiting the body types that they cater to. Almost all of Brandy’s clothing including shirts, pants, and skirts are sold in one size, which may as well be called “Small”. The Brandy Melville website and instagram page further represent the types of girls they want wearing their clothing: pretty, tall, white, and skinny. Despite the drastic lack of inclusivity in their clothing, Brandy Melville has grown dramatically in the last 5 years, as shown by the 3.9 million followers on their US instagram account and $62.1 million in global sales in 2018. It’s clear that the fashion industry is a main contributor to the sexualized clothing and lack of inclusive sizing that faces teenage girls every day as they shop for clothing. The impressionability of young girls allows the fashion industry to target them using specific advertisements and clothing items that sexualize them, a trend which will continue to increase as teens begin to shop online more and stores become less relevant. Most teens spend about $2,600 per year on food and clothing alone and so stores will continue to profit off of teens their estimated $75 billion in spending power in 2018, detrementing those consumers in the long run.
Limitations of the Free Market
While it’s clearly inappropriate for the fashion industry to sexualize girls in the manner which they’ve been doing, it’s also within their rights. In America’s capitalistic market retailers can sell what they want, which leaves it up to the consumer to choose what they purchase. Therefore the argument against the sexualization of girls by the fashion industry is limited by the free market under which retailers operate. Regardless of the moral implications of the clothing and advertisements which they produce, it’s difficult for customers to change these trends. Ultimately, parents and adolescents have the ability to choose the kinds of clothing that they want to purchase regardless of the advertisements that they are exposed to. While this argument against fashion retailers is clearly valid, their economic freedom to advertise in any way that they believe will sell products limits the ability of consumers to combat these trends.
Solutions to the issue
While the nature of the economy under which fashion companies operate does limit the solutions available for this issue, consumers do have some options to counteract the oversexulization of girls’ clothing. It might be difficult for one person to change an industry, but many people protesting for a cause together clearly can. Examples of this concept can be seen in the outrage that followed the advertisements of more provocative clothing such as padded bras that were taken off of the Primark website in 2010 after criticism. Individuals such as Stephanie Giese, who wrote a now viral blog post to Target in 2014 about the fit of their girls clothing, have also demonstrated the ability of consumers to stand against issues in the fashion industry. Even supporting and contributing to organizations such as UNICEF and the American Psychological Association work to identify and combat examples of sexualization and objectification of girls can help the cause. By recognizing problems with the clothing and advertisement pertaining to young girls and teens and consciously choosing not to purchase those products, individual consumers can begin to force companies to examine their products and marketing practices. However, the trend apparent in this industry doesn’t show any sign of reversing, and therefore we must question the societal expectations of modesty we place on teenage girls. While it’s not a solution, understanding on the part of public schools to take the lack of options and styles available to adolescents into account when implementing their dress codes would significantly ease pressure on young girls. Though dress codes attempt to target the superficially perceived epidemic of revealing clothing rampant among today’s teen girls, their failure to recognize the clothing retailers themselves as the root cause makes it difficult for girls to conform to their strict standards.