The fashion plate debate

By Shelley McKinney
web posted January 29, 2001

If you view your brain as a compact yet miraculous sort of filing cabinet, file this under "What's This Country Coming To?"

When I was leafing through the January 2001 issue of McCall's magazine, I found an article titled "The Dress Up Debate." On the article's first page, there were two pictures of little girls and their mothers, with comments written by the mothers below.

One mother had a little girl who desired nothing more in life than to while away the hours of her girlhood dressed in ruffles and an Alice-in-Wonderland style pinafore, serving tea and shortbread to her stuffed teddy bears. Just looking at the picture was enough to give one hope that there is still something sweet and sane and innocent in this crude, crass post-modern era.

The second mother's child looked like a pint-sized Madonna, all decked out in sexy sunglasses and a short, tight leopard print shirt and jeans. In the paragraphs Mom had penned, she said that her daughter has a preference for anything that bares her midriff, teeny-weeny mini-skirts and platform sneakers. Mom added that her daughter learned about this style of dress through watching Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera videos on television.

Some days, you could gulp down digitalis tablets by the handful and it still wouldn't be enough to stop the chest pains.

Through the words of these two mothers and the accompanying photographs, the Great Dress-Up Debate was illustrated and the magazine wondered at large if it is okay for little girls to dress like tarts-in-training. The editors invited readers to write in and express their opinions (yes, I did) and provided a sidebar of helpful statistics -- I was glad to note that I'm not the only mother with an objection to a seven-year-old's wearing platform shoes -- as well as the obligatory commentary from three child psychologists. One was firmly against allowing little girls to dress like tramps, but the two others stated that children should be able to choose their own clothing, since this allows them to express their creativity and learn about themselves.

And to think that there are so many of us who think that crayons and a big stack of blank paper are a great way for a kid to express her creativity...

I keep waiting -- Heaven knows, I keep waiting -- for some women's magazine to have the courage to risk offending a segment of their readers by coming down solidly with an actual opinion. Instead of dancing around the Dress-Up Debate and cluelessly wondering "Is it right? Is it wrong?" why can't they be brave and come out and tell the truth?

Here's the truth: allowing a little girl, or a big girl, to dress like Britney Spears is wrong.

Spears during a recent MTV awards program
Spears during a recent MTV awards program

I'm sure that Britney is a nice girl in person, but let's face it, folks: her outfits in videos, on album covers, at music awards shows, could make a stripper blush. This is the girl who, at the ripe old age of 17, posed on the cover of Rolling Stone in her underpants and bra. She looks like the sort of role model you'd want your daughter to have if your daughter's highest aspiration is to have a job in some murky club where she serves mixed drinks to drunk guys.

Britney's contemporary, Christina Aguilera, is just as bad, which is a pity. It's a pity because Christina has a remarkable voice which takes second place to her ever-present belly button and cleavage. Add that to the hip-thrusting, crotch-grabbing dancing that takes place on several of her videos and it's no wonder that it comes as a surprise to some of her fans that she can actually sing. Forgive them, Christina. They were distracted.

So it's wrong to allow young children to display overt sexuality through their mode of dress, simply because it is a look that is too old for them. But there are two other reasons that dressing little girls in a va-va-voom fashion is wrong that strike me as being even more compelling than the first.

One of those two other reasons is this: Our society seems to be lavishly endowed with quite a number of what used to be boldly called "perverts," back before everything became so politically correct. It's bad enough that we have fourteen-year-olds that dress like they're eighteen and sixteen-year-olds that look like they're twenty-one -- could it ever be considered right to allow an eight-year-old to dress in a flirty, sexy way that might possibly attract the wrong kind of attention from a deranged or disturbed person? Bare tummies and hip-hugger pants send a message and that message is NOT "I am an innocent little child." There are other ways of turning a child into prey than setting her loose in a cage full of tigers at feeding time.

The second of the compelling reasons is that in our society, we are judged by our appearance. How we look strongly influences how people think and feel about us. This seems unfair, but it is reality and reality can be very harsh.

There are some things about a person's appearance that either cannot be changed or would at least require the aid of a skilled plastic surgeon: our skin color is immutable, noses are more or less so. But fashion opens up a whole different realm, beyond race, beyond age -- the way we dress mainly tells other people what we think about ourselves.

People in business "dress for success." Athletes wear clothing that allows them to move unhindered; this same standard also applies itself to the mothers of toddlers. Some people dress to be comfy, while others would rather look smartly turned out, even if their waistbands pinch them. College students wear what has practically become a uniform over the years: blue jeans, sweatshirts and comfortable shoes, accessorized with a backpack.

Prostitutes dress to display the merchandise, cash down plus a cheap motel room.

When people look at our daughters, American parents, what do we want them to see? What message will our girls project to others around them?

It bears thinking about, because we all know what the truth is, even if McCall's didn't have the courage to say it, even if millions of parents don't have the courage to heed it.

Shelley McKinney is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right. Readers can reach her at

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