Over at the Atlantic’s Sexes blog, Nanette Fondas asks, “Is there any way to shield young women from damaging messages about their bodies?” The impetus behind this evergreen question is a trip that Fondas made to Pink (Victoria’s Secret’s offshoot for teens) to buy a gift card that her adolescent daughter requested as a Christmas present. Fondas nearly has a panic attack when she sees “inappropriate photos” of scantily clad Victoria’s Secret models near the cash register, and she deplores the marketing forces that bombard girls with sexualized images. Later, when her 12-year-old son asks her, “Why do girls want to dress like sluts?” Fondas replies with a rant against pop culture: “Girls see it everywhere: on TV, in stores, magazines, movies, online. That’s why they think it’s the definition of ‘pretty’!” Her son is unconvinced.
I’m unconvinced, too. As someone who was a teenage girl not too long ago, I can’t help but think that Fondas is overlooking a much simpler answer to her son’s question: Teen girls dress like sluts because they’re teenagers, with all the excellent decision-making skills, well-developed impulse control, and exquisite taste that teens are renowned for. Are there cultural factors in play? No doubt (although I’m more concerned about the message sent by Victoria’s Secret models’ lack of body diversity than by the message sent by their sexuality). But let’s not pretend teen girls are just passive victims of nefarious marketing forces. Teens are hard-wired to rebel against authority and to explore their sexuality; it’s a necessary part of growing up. The notion that teen girls wouldn’t ever show off their cleavage if we burned every Victoria’s Secret catalog in the world reminds me of the absurd rationale behind abstinence-only education: If we don’t tell kids about sex, they won’t have any.
Of course, not every teen girl rebels by buying push-up bras and mini-skirts—some of them dye their hair pink and pierce their noses instead (or as well!). But many do, and most of them grow out of it. When I was 13, my wardrobe included quite a few tight, low-cut, and generally tacky items of clothing. I even—and this is very likely the most embarrassing confession I will ever make publicly—once bought a tank top with a glittery Playboy bunny printed on it. Now, in my 20s, I favor shifts and cowl-necked sweater dresses, and I spend a good portion of my free time railing against the patriarchy over drinks with friends. Despite my slutty-dressing teen ways, I turned out mostly OK. And I attribute a good part of my turning out OK to the fact my parents just rolled their eyes at me every time I left the house with my bra peeking out from underneath my shirt, instead of wringing their hands about whether my clothing choices were irreparably damaging.
I can’t help thinking that a much better answer to the question, “Why do girls want to dress like sluts?” is “What’s so bad about being a slut?” Girls who play up their sexuality via their clothing choices—and girls who explore their sexuality with more than one partner—are people, too; putting on a tube top does not mean forfeiting one’s dignity. Fondas’ approach, though obviously well-intentioned, plays into the notion that a woman’s appearance is of paramount importance. And I fear her answer to her son’s question conveys the message that it’s OK to pity or disrespect girls who dress a certain way, since, according to her worldview, they’re just helpless dupes. But if we really want to prevent girls from being victimized, perhaps we should teach boys to spend less time judging what girls wear and more time listening to what girls say.