When Your Young Daughter Wants to Dress Sexy: What It Means Spiritually
Aw, Mom, Why Not?
She's Got Attitude Because...
Tweens and teens like clothes with attitude. Chances are you did too. When your strict parents weren't around you stuffed your bra or your pants, or wore forbidden makeup, or rolled your skirt up short. Fitting in with your friends and "making a statement" with your appearance were serious matters. As a budding adult you wanted to assert your independence in one of the few ways you could or knew how.
What your spirit was saying was: "I'm alive."
Just as you did, your daughter growing up wants to dress like others her age. That's what she'll say when you veto her alarmingly inappropriate belt with a buckle spelling out "HOTTIE" or a padded push-up bra with matching thong when she's only 9 years old. A tween girl feels a spiritual need to express herself, maybe for the first time in her life. Typically she doesn't know many avenues of expression besides acting out her emotions, copying what she sees, and wearing certain clothing or hairdos. That's why clothing and appearance are a constant battlefield between parents and children, and not only girls.
You might say that wearing punkish black lipstick or a short skirt is one thing, but dressing like a streetwalker top to toes, as today's styles dictate, is another matter entirely. Certainly we can blame the Internet, sex-saturated media, and a "pornification" ideal that says above all things a female should be "hot." It's also very easy for girls to dress that way. In 2011, Kenyon College professors and students studied 5666 pieces of clothing from 15 online retailers and showed that one-third of all available tween and teen clothing is "sexualized" clothing: skin-baring, animal-print, and so on. It's so cheap that a stack of coins can buy your girl a midriff top and short shorts at Wal-Mart and she can change into them at school.
Reasoning ("Honey, you don't want to attract the wrong kind of attention") won't persuade her, because her need is spiritual and won't respond to reason. Rules -- "You will not leave this house wearing that" -- don't work because she can test and subvert them. By "spiritual" I don't mean either that a tween's longing for grown-up autonomy can be simply cured with prayer. Let's leave aside all the fashion ads and peer pressure and threats of hell. Those were around when you were young, too.
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What She Is Really Asking For
What you know, and your girl doesn't, is that girls want to wear those clothes not because they want sex but because they want power.
- They want the power of choice. They're not very experienced in that area, and their choices, including clothing choices, are often unwise. They require guidance. But they are old enough to sense if your guidance is about what's best or easiest for YOU. They know too if you're a slave to their whims and have the backbone of a bagel. Either way they start a mental scorecard. From then on it's a contest you will always lose.
- There's power in fitting in with a peer group or generation. They want to differ from you. That is normal and natural. They need watching and boundaries and leadership, but your girl isn't your baby anymore. She is becoming a person. It is inevitable. It is life. If you don't like it or want to stifle it, the problem isn't her or her peer group, it's you.
- The one power all females can wield is the power of attraction. Tweens have just found out they have that power too, and that it takes no brains or skill to use. All it takes is an outfit that will get attention: a parent's negative attention or catching the eye of someone just as immature as she is.
Adults worry that if a girl wears these clothes she'll start having sex and get STDs or pregnant, or be hurt or exploited. But deep down we know devastation doesn't come from a choice of clothes. Her wish for sexy clothing doesn't mean she wants sex, especially if you have told her the facts and that she is too good to be an easy mark. She wants to wear colors and glitter because her spirit glitters and flares. She wants to show skin because she's thrilled to have it to show. She's alive! And she doesn't want the clothing as much as she wants the choice.
At her age she is not ready for the power and responsibility of adulthood. She can, however, choose some goals for herself besides attracting a boy or looking hot -- if her parents have evolved enough to have better goals for themselves as well. The discussion about her clothing shouldn't end with a door slam. Instead, find out what else she wants that will increase her personal power: a telescope, a camera, a bicycle, a diary or a musical instrument. At age 9 I really wanted a set of home encyclopedias. That's the truth. Let her take lessons in something she says she wants, not something you want. If she picks hip-hop over ballet, that's her choice. Let her paint a room or get an adult library card. Let her join a teen theater troupe, the after-school science club, Job's Daughters, a sports team, the glee club -- or quit it so she can try something new. Let her volunteer at the pet shelter, or subscribe to a magazine. She has roots. Now let her have branches. Specify what you can and can't afford. Be confident enough to let your girl experience the world. It takes a village. Unworldliness and self-denial are disciplines an 11-year-old is not ready for.
As your girl pursues her interests, you must loosen your grip on her. That she is maybe wearing a belly-baring top is not a catastrophe if you have taught her that she is fabulous and deserves to protect herself. She will soon change her mind about her interests and her clothes. She is alive and just now beginning to learn what she might do with the life you gave her.
Parents too have spiritual needs, to nurture and protect their children -- and to be accepted by their peers as good parents. As a parent you determine your children's appropriate clothing. You don't want your child attracting a stranger's attention or making permanent changes to her body, such as tattoos. There is however a difference between being firm and being a control freak. When a parent is firm, maybe the girl screams in protest. She does that because she's alive and immature and learning -- in this case, that she can't have the clothes she wants. When the parent is a control freak, the parent is the one screaming, and at some level has ceased to really live.
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