Women have come a long way, but too far in fashion


A cigarette commercial of the late 1960s urged women to light up and flaunt their rights as fledgling feminists. "You've come a long way, baby" was the sassy, self-satisfied message promoted by the marketing geniuses behind the Virginia Slims brand.

The advertising slogan was frequently borrowed by women who recognized how far they'd come from where their foremothers had been. Women were finally a liberated force to be reckoned with.

I remember the headiness and hope of my gender in the 1960s and 1970s. Women were striving, and sometimes stumbling, to be noticed for more than their bodies.

They started a bold revolution to change sexist conventions, stereotypes, and attitudes that limited and largely objectified women. They were out to destroy what a male-dominated society had created to keep women in their place, to secure their second-class status, to eliminate enlightenment.

But something happened to the movement that raised women up to advance, achieve, and embrace a new day as equals, not as objectified embroidery.

It was waylaid by another movement, a throwback from the dark ages that treats women as sexual objects. In 2012, the regression is real and, in a highly disturbing trend, firmly taking root among very young females.

I saw vivid evidence of that during a recent back-to-school shopping trip with my teenage daughter. I'm convinced girls' fashions are competing to display the provocative tease of the millennium.

What's selling are super-short shorts (forget Bermudas), miniskirts, skinny jeans, skimpy lingerie-style tops, thongs, and push-up bras in kiddie sizes. What's selling from age 6 to 16 is sexy.

Developing adolescents in middle school are sold on it. So are high schoolers pushing the envelope.

Last year, researchers at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, studied pre-teen clothing trends for girls at 15 popular U.S. store Web sites. They found that nearly a third of the retail offerings had "sexualizing" characteristics, defined as attributes that emphasized body parts and sexiness.

Sarah Murnen, a social psychologist, native Toledoan, and Bowling Green State University graduate who co-wrote the study, lists examples ranging from low-cut or padded tops and bare midriffs to tight-fitting clothing, short hemlines, and nonfunctional shoes with extremely high heels.

She says that when fashion became more sexualized for adult women in the 1990s, it had a trickle-down effect on college-aged women and girls. She connects a "general culture of sexualization to the presence of pornography, or the fact that it's so much more accessible now with the Internet."

"Images that used to be seen only in pornography are making their way into everyday fashions, from thong underwear to stiletto heels," she says. Unfortunately, the retail result is reaching impressionable girls — teens, tweens, and grade-school divas.

The consequences of dressing or undressing to be hot or sexy could be profound for young girls and adolescents whose sense of self is forming.

"They don't understand the ramifications" of objectifying or trivializing sex in commercial culture, Ms. Murnen says.

Developmentally, they can't differentiate between healthy sexuality and degrading sexualization. "Sexy is selling among young girls because it's linked to popularity and attractiveness," she says.

"It's also linked to successful people," she adds. "Britney Spears was a Mouseketeer who was able to move from teen to adult star when she showed herself as sexy." Miley Cyrus, also known as Hannah Montana, posed seminude for Vanity Fair.

Young girls who are inundated with sexual images that pay off in jaw-dropping attention emulate what they see. Boundaries blur between girls and women, between sultry Bratz dolls and vampy Halloween costumes, between childlike and sexualizing characteristics.

Girls succumb early to pressure. But doing whatever it takes to belong, to get a boy, to be thin, pretty, and popular, can devalue a daughter.

It can lead to problems she can't handle, from eating disorders to depression. Parents can let it happen. They can buy into sexualizing their kids, in the misguided belief that they're buying happiness, Ms. Murnen concludes, or they can help their children "develop a critical lens about all this."

By refusing to reinforce demeaning stereotypes about women, by refusing to accept messages that equate sexiness with power, by emphasizing opportunity and self-definition over sex appeal, you'll prove that you've come a long way, baby.

With watchful guidance and wardrobe critiques, so will your daughter.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

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