Who’s really sexualizing our daughters, anyway?

The fabulous Stephanie Giese of Binkies and Briefcases wrote a viral post about her disbelief at the sizing and coverage in Target’s clothing options for young girls. She had been noticing what seemed to be a distinct reluctance to include…y’know…fabric…in items like shorts for girls as young as 5. Her post received a mostly positive response, but also a fair bit of backlash (One standout was a commenter who posited that she should put her “fat-ass kid” on a diet if she wanted clothes to fit her better. Way to keep it classy, interweb.).

Quite impressively, Target reacted almost immediately, reaching out to her, doing their own research, and promising an overhaul of their sizing practices including feedback from “real” moms like her, which is awesome – we should be able to find clothing for our children that fit with our own tastes and values without having to pull out our sewing machines and make or modify them ourselves.

But…(you know me…there’s got to be a but)…I don’t agree with the reasoning that we need more modest clothing options to avoid sexualizing our young daughters. Children are not sexual. Exposed skin is not sexual. Children with exposed skin are not sexual.

Children are children.

Look at babies. How many of you have albums on your FB page chock full of your babies dressed in onsies that just cover their diapers? I don’t know about you but I’ve got plenty of exposed roly-poly delicious-looking baby thigh and maybe even some tummy in there. Then they start toddling and we delight in poufy dresses with matching bum covers.

And the suddenly that’s no longer okay. Those roly-poly thighs have to be covered and we’ve gone from diaper covers to 3-inch inseams. Why? Nothing has changed for the kids, so why has it changed for us?

It comes down once again to the pesky concept of rape culture – you know, that all-encompassing, mostly unconscious set of beliefs that we don’t even realize is there but that whispers to us constantly – “Of course, no means no, but you have to admit, when you wear something like that…” “Of course she wasn’t asking for it, but even so, wouldn’t she have been better off not being out so late?” “Of course we have to teach our sons to respect women, but even so, make sure you carry this whistle.” “Of course it’s not excuse, but she did drink an awful lot…”

When we start talking about other people’s “modesty,” we are rape culture. It’s that simple. What you wear doesn’t equal the right to view you as an available sexual object. Let me break that down a little more – I’m not saying that if a beautiful woman walks down the street dressed in a way that highlights her assets, people who are attracted to her should somehow be able to turn off that attraction. I’m saying that they are perfectly welcome to say to themselves, “Mm-hmm. Nice. If we met in a socially appropriate setting, discovered a mutual attraction, and both enthusiastically consented, I’d totally hit that.” What she is wearing does not however give anyone the right to cat-call her from across the street.

Hard as it is to admit, it’s the same thing for children. Of course, we aren’t deliberately sexualizing our daughters, but we suddenly come to a point where we are simply scared. We have heard all the stories – maybe it’s even happened to us – and we ARE NOT going to let it happen to our own kids. And we know – WE KNOW that our young daughters are NOT sexual objects, but rape culture still whispers to us, “Are you really going to dress her like that? You know there are sick people out there. Don’t make it easier for them.”

This is a completely valid, real fear for parents. Child sexual abuse is a huge issue, and as parents we would do anything to protect our children from harm. We teach our children about private parts – that their “bathing suit parts” are private and no-one but them should be touching them or asking to touch or see them. We aren’t teaching that because those parts are dirty or shameful; and at some point we will teach them that one day when they’re older they may find someone they’ll want to share their private parts with (for more on talking to your kids about sex, read Beyond SuperMommy’s piece on sex-positive parenting).

Teaching young kids about private parts serves a very practical purpose – it’s not an abstract concept but a concrete, tangible line in the sand – if someone crosses that line, tell a grownup. Part of that concreteness involves keeping those parts covered in public because it’s much harder to teach a toddler or preschooler “private sometimes.”

It also confuses that message when we start layering “modesty” on top – “Your bathing suit parts are private. So are your thighs. Unless you’re wearing a bathing suit. Or your ballet leotard. Or your gymnastics outfit. But most of the time. Because if someone sees your thighs it might make them want to see more. Expect if you’re swimming. Then it’s fine.” The concept of modesty implies a personal responsibility – Merriam-Webster defines it as “the quality of behaving and especially dressing in ways that do not attract sexual attention.” Ergo, as long as you behave or dress “modestly” enough, you will not attract sexual attention. Cue rape culture whispering in my ear, “But what was she wearing?”

When it comes down to it, sexualisation is in the eye of the beholder. When a dance recital includes a child strutting around the stage mouthing “Call me!” while making “telephone” gestures with her finger and thumb, THAT is sexualisation. The choreographer has ensured that there is no mistake about it. It doesn’t matter what that child is wearing – she has been taught to move and act in a way that is well beyond her understanding. She could be swathed in fabric from the neck to the ankles and the message would still be clear – a message sent by the choreographer, not the child herself, because – and I feel this point needs to underlined (again, because I’ve done it before) – children ARE NOT sexual.

And don’t even get me started on pageants – although there is whole host of issues there, not just sexualisation. A costume and dance routine inspired by Julie Roberts sex-worker character in Pretty Woman? Sexualisation. False eyelashes and flippers? The message that your natural features aren’t pretty enough. Pageant moms? I can’t even…

Dang. I got started. Back to short-shorts.

Stephanie brought attention to an issue that many parents have encountered, and major kudos to Target for listening: From a practical perspective, most parents are looking for clothing with more coverage than Stephanie’s research has found is readily available for young girls. Short-shorts = wedgies. Short-shorts = sand in underwear. Short-shorts don’t pass the “fingertip test” for many school dress codes (read here for more on why I think that’s problematic in and of itself). From a personal perspective – absolutely do what you want to do. If your family/cultural/religious/personal taste leans towards more coverage, I will fight tooth and nail for your right to choose that – I just hope that you will do the same for my kids’ right to bare arms.

Molly ballet outfit

Molly in her ballet outfit. If you look at this and see sex, I am not the problem.

Just don’t tell me I’m sexualizing my daughter.


~ karyn

3 thoughts on “Who’s really sexualizing our daughters, anyway?

  1. I think your posting has some merit in regard to the hypersensitivity parents have developed in the desire to keep their daughters safe. Those cute little dresses with the frilly matching pants are still adorable, but the problem isn’t the role poly thighs and tummies. It’s the style that is attached to those new outfits. Why are little girls’ clothes featuring cleavage and slits; slogans on tops that are for older females? Did I wear those adorable little shorts as a five year old? Of course, but my wardrobe also included longer shorts, tops, skirts and dresses that were more appropriate for school or outings. There is a growing fustration for those “little girl” outfits at an affordable price. You can find them but mostly at stores that have a much higher price tag. What needs to happen is for more balance with both choices and prices.

    • Hi Kimberley,

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I absolutely agree with you. Simply exposing skin is not sexual, but as you point out, styles like cleavage and slits, which are intended to highlight the adult female form are sexualizing in the same way that the little girl strutting around with the “call me” gestures was. I’m really happy that Stephanie got Target’s attention with her post because it is wrong that those short-shorts are the only affordable option, and clearly she isn’t the only person who thinks so.

      ~ karyn

  2. Pingback: You're never too young to be ashamed of your body - if you're a girl! - PicklesINK

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