EdNews Parent expert Theresa Byrne addresses a question many parents have about what their middle school-aged daughters want to wear to school. 

Q. I am concerned about the clothes middle school girls are wearing – even to school. Short shorts, skimpy tops, etc. Any thoughts on how to really get through to young girls without making them defensive re: appropriate dress for school?

A. It is pretty cool thing, moving from being a little girl to a young woman. How girls handle this transition has a lot to do with the next few years of their lives. In many cultures it’s represented by a ceremony or ritual showcasing the woman she will become.

Stock photo

It’s a time of attempting to figure out who you are, or who you want to be.

Let’s say you drop your daughter off at school only to see the belly button or cleavage of one of her middle school friends.

“But mom, that’s the STYLE!” she says.

How do you address these young women and girls wearing clothing that attract attention to their…more obvious outward assets? And for that girl, creating very loud non-verbal attention?

Most of what we “know” about people, or listen to, has nothing to do with what they say. Non-verbal communication is about the way people carry themselves, the tone of their voices, the looks on their faces, and yes, even the style of their clothes if it “speaks loudly” in one direction. Appropriate dress doesn’t distract from the gifts and talents of a young girl, it allows her most powerful assets to speak louder than her clothing.

Battling low self-esteem

There are some girls and women that crave or want attention…even if it’s solely for their body to make themselves feel better or to make them feel more important. Maybe they’ve been told they don’t have much to offer, or they don’t matter. So they search for the sense of false power that attraction from the opposite sex can offer. They have low esteem for themselves, and tend to look at themselves as “better” if they attract this kind of short-term attention from men or boys.  The power of women comes from who they are, not what they wear or how much skin they show.

Non-verbally, what is a girl in short shorts or skimpy tops saying about HERSELF? “I don’t like myself very much. If you pay any kind of attention to me I’ll feel better.”

If you were to take a look in any magazine that catches celebrities or supermodels “off the clock” on their own time, you don’t see them prancing around in tiny outfits. Most of the time you’ll see them in baseball hats, comfy clothes, or in more conservative clothing. Their bodies are their JOB, wearing crazy sexy outfits in magazines, on stage or on TV is part of their work. Girls miss that vital piece of information.

Showing respect

Much of this is the media. We see women in their 20’s wearing little clothing and younger girls think that they will be “cool” if they copy that dress code. Have your daughters watch TV shows. Ask them what they think when a girl in a really skimpy outfit shows up on screen. Is it that we are meant to see them as “trying too hard” or “easy”? A scantily clad woman is often seen as having no respect for herself.

Respect means understanding that while you are beautiful, it’s on the inside as well as the outside. And you respect yourself enough to let people get to know the real you, not just the outside version.

What about self-expression?

The issue isn’t necessarily just about freedom of self-expression. When teens wear such skimpy clothes it becomes a distraction. It distracts others from who that girl really is, what she has to offer and that girl risks becoming an object. Objectifying women or girls means looking at them as if they were “things.” And what you say or how you treat “things” doesn’t matter because they aren’t as important as human beings.

Girls in skimpy outfits become seen as objects – or just as bodies. Not human beings with intelligence, wit, humor, sensitivity or heart.

People stop looking at these girls for their qualities like smart, funny, witty, happy, kind…and they objectify the girl as one thing. Easy. Trying too hard. Sexy. Or Slutty. It doesn’t matter that this is not the message that the young girl wants to send. In our culture that is the message sent by a skimpy outfit.

It’s a question of respect. Can you respect yourself enough to allow your best qualities to shine through without making it about your body? Talk to your daughter and her friends about this.

This is a very difficult and touchy subject, and I invite others to comment. I hope that I’ve handled this with respect and understanding.  I get concerned every Halloween when the costumes for young girls get more and more revealing. The last thing we need to see is an 11-year-old  sexy kitten.