FOXSexpert: Clothing and the 'Britney Syndrome'

Oops, they did it again. Major retail outlets are sexualizing young girls.

This past spring, Kmart sold cropped sweatpants flashing the words “True Love Waits” across the derriere. The pants are no longer available in stores or online, but they have reignited the debate on how we’re dressing our children.

Whether they are wearing it or stating it, are we pimping our youth with sexual messaging? And if so, who is to blame?

Parents have long been dealing with the problem most recently tagged the “Britney Syndrome.” While the pop princess and her counterparts Beyoncé, Christina and Jessica have been pegged for corrupting American youth, it seems every decade has an icon who challenges our fashion tastes.

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For my generation, it was Madonna. I remember longing to emulate the Material Girl’s netted, cut-off tops, lacy tights, short skirts and rubber bracelets. I begged and pleaded with my mother to let me do so. I could be super cool, and dance just like Madonna, if only I could bare my stomach with a midriff top. But my mum firmly said, “No.” Go figure — I was only 10.

Gone are the days of good sense when it comes to fashion sense for children. For years now, we’ve seen little girls running around in tube tops, miniskirts, thongs, and cropped t-shirts. Our jaws dropped as they donned short shorts with the words “Juicy,” “Yum,” and “Hot” printed across their butts. We nearly had a stroke when Bratz released tiny padded bras and matching lingerie sets for 6-year-olds. We were beyond dumbfounded when “Hooters Girl (In Training)” t-shirts came out for toddlers.

Sure, Kmart’s sweatpants, which are encouraging abstinence, aren’t exactly raunchy clothing. But they’re equally offensive. Whether you agree with the message or not, it’s a bit disturbing that little girls are once again being sexualized. And sadly, plenty of other companies have been doing this for years. When is it going to end?

The marketplace will continue to exploit young people unless we do something about it. The marketplace will continue to turn our youth into sex objects as long as parents are still buying products seeking to do just that.

We can blame the media all we want to. We can blame those making and supplying the clothing. But children’s attire comes down to what parents are purchasing and allowing their youth to wear. Whether it involves stilettos or claims virginity status, parents are enabling their children to wear clothes with sexual overtones.

The lines of what’s appropriate and what’s not when it comes to dress are very blurred for our youth. We need to talk to them about what is permissible to wear, depending on where they are going and whom they are with.

If you see a youth who is inappropriately dressed, take that opportunity to discuss it with your child. Ask her what she thinks of the outfit and why it is being worn. Ask her what messages that kind of outfit sends to the public. (Yes, those messages may not be politically correct, but they are a harsh reality we need to face.) Use this as an opportunity to share your values and opinions — and, equally importantly, to listen to your child’s needs, issues, and interpretations.

Now, I can’t promise that these moments are going to be easy. Although many parents feel uncomfortable buying inappropriate clothing, they feel badly about not doing so. They sympathize with the peer pressure their child faces. They want their child to feel accepted and happy.

Making matters more complicated, your child may throw a “hissy fit” if she is not allowed to wear the sparkly, low-cut shirt, hip-hugging jeans or platform sandals. But don't give in to pressure and allow her to look like a little Lolita. You’re the parent here.

There are, however, ways you can compromise. There are lots of things you can do to make your child feel attractive. Perhaps you can buy the more conservative versions of such inappropriate clothing. In my Madonna-obsessed days, my mother allowed me to wear the harmless rubber bracelets and the sleeveless, netted top I longed for – as long as it was full-length and did not show any skin.

Children need to understand that many adult styles are not for kids, and they shouldn't be wearing them in the outside world. At the same time, we can’t shame sex or our sexuality with negative messaging. We need to acknowledge the fact that we’re all sexual beings from the day we are born. We need to balance these difficult conversations with information about healthy sexual decision-making, effective communication skills, setting sexual limits and how to be assertive when it comes to your sexual boundaries.

Good parents want their children to feel good about themselves — to love themselves, their bodies, and their budding sexuality as is age-appropriate. Good parents — and not some clothing line — should be offering kids firm, thoughtful guidance when shopping. You need to make sure that that good parent is you.

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Dr. Yvonne Kristín Fulbright is a sex educator, relationship expert, columnist and founder of Sexuality Source Inc. She is the author of several books including, "Touch Me There! A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots."

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