Researchers Say There Is A Link Between “Inappropriate” Girls’ Clothing And Body Image

Empowerment is not guaranteed by a short skirt, a long skirt, or pants—as long as everyone is policing what girls and women wear.

March 1, 2017
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Sexuality is complicated. So is gender identity. Let’s just get that out of the way. The scope of it is too big for one article, but let’s go smaller: girls, clothing, and body image.

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Getty Images Entertainment / Stephen Lovekin

We get a little queasy when we hear the word “inappropriate” applied to girls’ and women’s clothing. We break out in small hives when we hear the word “should” applied to it.

We get palpitations, our mouths go dry, and we feel rage rise like bile at the back of our throats when we observe people—specifically male people in male bodies— criticize women who are probably intellectually and morally superior to them all because of some arrangement of fabric the women have chosen to drape around their human forms. We want to plug our ears and close our eyes and hum loudly while remembering this Danish couple from Into the Wild.

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AFP / PATRICK HERTZOG

There exists a long and convoluted history of women being ridiculed for what they wear—in whether it covers too much or too little, and in how it relates to their sexuality. No woman is safe from this. It happens to female celebrities, high school students, politicians, journalists, athletes, and, basically, regular women everywhere JUST TRYING TO LIVE THEIR GODFORSAKEN LIVES.

Whew. Sorry, blacked out for a moment. Where were we? Oh yes: girls, clothing, and body image. It’s complicated because, on the one hand, we want girls to be free to wear what they want. On the other hand, we have to take into consideration that girls, like all young humans, are sponges, susceptible to the messages they receive from the world around them.

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Getty Images Entertainment / Matt Winkelmeyer

One of those messages, for example, is that a female human’s value is inextricable from her sexuality—whether she is sexy enough, pure enough, “sexy without being sexual” enough. (Yes, that’s a real thing, we’ll get there.) All of her other attributes? Beside the point.

So it’s not surprising when some researchers say there is a link between hypersexualized girls’ clothing and poor body image. When people are programmed to express themselves in ways that don’t feel authentic, autonomy takes a hit and some parts of themselves are erased.

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Getty Images Sport / Buda Mendes

Equally damaging is the message that being sexual makes a girl bad or gross—or that her worth and integrity are directly proportionate to her “purity,” an entirely subjective concept. We would recommend taking on this topic in your private studies. But for starters, here are eight probably damaging views of girls and women and the clothes they wear.

Girls Are Like This

If you haven’t watched this video of an 8-year-old girl slamming the gender stereotypes perpetuated by the messaging she finds in gendered clothing while shopping with her mom (boys get “Hero!,” “Think outside the box,” and “A desert adventure awaits,” while girls get “Hey,” “Beautiful,” and “I feel fabulous!”), you’ve probably at least seen it circulating on social media.

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Getty Images News / Sean Gallup

Surely this messaging acts in some ways as a social cue, but the problem lies mostly in that it’s a symptom of a larger sickness—a world culture that grooms women as girls to be collapsible objects with limited autonomy and domain. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with girls who like “girly” things. The problem is when girls are explicitly or implicitly told that the only appropriate way to be is “girly,” and that their interests should naturally lie only in specific areas. And then there’s the related issue of treating “girly” things and behaviors contemptuously.

Those who like to roll their eyes at this point and harken back to the good old days when people weren’t always making such a fuss about political correctness should take note that, while these signals are subtle, they are important. We still live in a world where, for example, it may take 170 years for the economic gender gap to close.

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Getty Images Sport / Julian Finney

On top of all that, just as women’s clothing is often inferior in quality to men’s clothing, apparently the same holds true for girls’ clothes versus boys’. We just can’t with these clothing companies.

The Paris Paradox

Here’s a fun torture chamber of ideas: Girls should be sexy without being sexual. If this piece of advice sounds confusing, it’s because it is! It’s one of those often repeated, little examined maxims that we hold within our collective consciousness where it can erode our souls slowly and secretly.

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Getty Images Entertainment / Jason Merritt

Women and girls being sexy for someone else is more or less OK, as long as no actual sex occurs, and as long as the version of ‘sexy’ has appropriate markers of being middle- or upper-class, writes Jill Filipovic for The Guardian. “Women who exhibit a degree of sexual agency by acting – rather than only appearing attractive – or women perceived as inappropriately powerful or aggressive inevitably face being branded sluts and whores.”

It’s referred to as the “Paris Paradox” in a 2010 Jezebel article because Paris Hilton, whose ethos resonated with many young women, referred to herself as “sexy, but not sexual.” (The irony of referencing an article written by a “male feminist” notorious for his own abuses of power to get sex from women, often young minority women, not to be confused with that world-famous “ethicist” who reportedly did the same, is not lost on us. But what he writes here resonates so we’ll use it and leave others to argue the rest, which makes us want to leave our earthly form and reside as a spirit in the mountains.)

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Getty Images Entertainment / Brian Ach

The Paris Paradox is often, consciously or unconsciously, pandering to the male gaze at its finest—presenting as a sort of “virginal s***” who is sexually palatable to hetero dudes but also untouched by them. (A read-through of the mostly hostile, clearly male-authored Urban Dictionary definitions of the term yields no sympathetic explanation, like that it’s a mode of behavior that may have been adopted by a young woman who is trying to navigate a world in which she is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.)

As the Jezebel article reasons:

“Young women with the Paris Paradox were raised in a culture that promised sexual freedom, but what they ended up with looked a lot more like obligation than opportunity. It’s not hard to understand why the pressure to be sexy so often trumps the freedom to discover one’s authentic sexuality. … It only takes a girl a few seconds to realize what someone else may want from her sexually. It often takes her much longer to figure out what she really wants, to discern the pleasure she gets from bringing pleasure to another from the pleasure she wants for herself.”

Girls Who Show A Lot Of Skin Are Sexual/Sexy

The idea that just because a girl dresses in a way that shows a lot of skin means that she either does or should behave sexually can be found in angry, dude-heavy threads all across the internet, as if wearing something that men find sexually arousing is the equivalent of entering into some binding, unspoken contract with them. This thinking is wrong.

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AFP / NICOLAS ASFOURI

Men are not wrong for being sexually attracted to these women; they’re wrong for believing that their perceptions of the world are the only or the most important realities, and that their perceptions of reality should dictate the way that women lead their lives. Men who would like to argue that the same should be true vice versa lest we be unfair would do well to read up on something called History, which shows that their (straight white male) realities have consistently been favored as the Proper And Most Important Perceptions and, as such, institutionalized in laws and social mores.

Consider the history of toplessness, and the ways that bared female breasts, especially in places like the U.S. where their tabooness likely does more to fetishize them than anything, have often only been weaponized as some hostile attack on purity or sexualized as an invitation for leering.

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Getty Images News / Phil Cole

Breasts are not so one-dimensional. Sometimes they are sexual, sometimes they are comforting, sometimes they feed new humans, sometimes they are good for dancing, sometimes they are a good place for storing things like pencils or credit cards or a small package of crackers, and sometimes they are just there doing absolutely nothing.

Sexual/Sexy Girls Are Good

But only the “right” kind of sexual and sexy, which is, of course, defined by hetero dudes. The idea that what hetero dudes find appealing in women is superior to other ways of being as a female person is a persistent one, and it’s basically the conviction that the only girl who is worthwhile is “a cool, chill girl who is Cool and Chill,” aka a figment of the male imagination. She is described thusly by Beth McColl in Dazed:

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Getty Images Entertainment / Stephen Shugerman

The cool and chill girl enjoys stereotypically masculine things like watching ‘Sports’ […] Her favourite movies are Die Hard [and] Fight Club … She doesn’t bother her man with serious conversations. She’s there when he wants, but when he needs space, she’s gone without him even needing to ask. She looks like a supermodel without spending hours getting ready.

Sexual/Sexy Girls Are Bad

It’s interesting to watch this American Psychological Association video interview with six middle-school girls talking about women celebrities, women represented in ads, and the sexualization of girls. How people feel about things is usually a tangling of our natural reactions and how we believe we are supposed to feel (different still are how we feel about things and how we say we feel), and these girls’ responses reflect these unclear boundaries.

All sexually suggestive images of women are deemed “gross,” “not cute,” and “not attractive.” Maybe they actually do feel this way, maybe they simply believe these are the “correct” answers, or maybe they’ve absorbed the message that girls and women who appear or behave sexually are morally bankrupt, and they haven’t been exposed to the language of sexual empowerment for women who do choose to dress in ways deemed provocative.

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Getty Images Entertainment / Michael Buckner

Also apparent are some racialized notions of beauty and purity, as when the picture of Nicki Minaj’s booty is deemed “more big than attractive” (perhaps unsurprisingly, by the white girl) and another girl (of color) seems to dub Michelle Obama’s classiness a rarity among African-American women.

There is indeed a double standard for white and black women, with the former afforded more freedom to explore different identities with comparatively fewer and lower-stakes repercussions. As Lutze B. points out in this Salon article: “The bodies of black women are highly politicized and critiqued no matter who they belong to, from the first lady to ‘the help.’ The physical movements and choices of black women are always viewed through a filter of suspicion.”

Girls Who Cover Up Are Modest/Prudes

A woman who covers more of her body is not, as a rule, automatically less sexual in thought or behavior than a woman who covers up less. She may be, but she may not be. We don’t know her life!

What if she’s naturally shy about showing her body to anyone? What if she finds it more erotic to cover more of her body on some occasions and go completely nude on others? What if she’s tired of getting catcalled and she’s experienced it less while covering more?

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Getty Images News / Rahman Roslan

What if she likes the feeling of an all-silk suit against her skin? What if she prefers the aesthetic? What if she is entirely uninterested in clothing and covering more just seems more practical to her? What if she’s worried about skin cancer or has a skin condition that worsens with exposure to sunlight?

The possibilities are as endless as your imagination. We shouldn’t assume that we understand her motivations for being covered up.

Modest Girls Are Good

The narrative that women are sinful seductresses who “cause” men to “stumble” is literally as old as the Bible. (See Genesis.) When you take that deeply cherished conviction and pair it with the reactionary social climate of the 1990s, you get the purity movement, an evangelical Christian philosophy that promoted abstinence as the key to progress and—surprise—placed the onus of responsibility for men’s sexual behavior primarily on the shoulders of women.

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AFP / SAM PANTHAKY

As Amanda Barbee writes in “NAKED AND ASHAMED: WOMEN AND EVANGELICAL PURITY CULTURE” for a digital and print journal focused on the intersection of theology and culture:

“While the church has often taught that sexuality can only be properly expressed within marriage, the purity movement takes that premarital prohibition to a deeper level, not only calling for physical abstinence but also for emotional and mental purity. Similar to Jesus’s teaching on adultery in the Beatitudes—that a man who even looks at a woman lustfully has already sinned—the movement teaches that any sexual feelings, desires, or thoughts that occur before marriage are sinful.”

The result? “During a time when sexual curiosity and exploration is a normal and important part of sexual and psychological development,” Barbee writes, “these teenagers and young adults are being indoctrinated by a shame-based culture that trains them in the ways of sexual dissociation.”

Out of this also came the modesty doctrine, promoting hyper vigilance among women of the way they dressed or behaved for fear that they might unsuspectingly arouse male attention. (“My mind reeled when I met one young woman who told me she was once ordered by her father to wear her seatbelt underneath her chest—apparently he felt when it cut across her chest, it accentuated her breasts too much and could cause some men to ‘stumble,'” writes Jennifer Mathieu for Time.)

This way of thinking removes the agency of both men and women, and encourages women to fuse their self-conceptions with a sexualized male gaze. As many have pointed out, it’s also the basis of rape culture, which shifts the blame onto the victim rather than the perpetrator.

Modest Girls Are Bad

Belittling women who do choose to cover up more of their bodies is unhelpful and reductive. Janelle Monáe, for example, has often opted to wear outfits that don’t show very much skin. One man tweeted at her, “girl stop being so soulful and be sexy..tired of those dumba** suits..you fine but u too damn soulful man.”

Her response was perfect: “sit down. I’m not for male consumption.”

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Not every woman who covers herself for religious reasons feels victimized, either. In a BuzzFeed article enumerating all the items of clothing women were told not to wear in 2014, Rossalyn Warren highlights the contradictions of this kind of policing.

“In Australia, it was announced this month that Muslim women wearing niqabs could be forced to sit in glass enclosures instead of regular public galleries in Federal parliament,” writes Warren. She goes on to quote Mariam Veiszadeh, an Australian lawyer and a Muslim, who notes, “There’s a distinct irony in the suggestion that women who are allegedly forced to wear a face covering should be forced not to wear it.'”

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Getty Images Entertainment / Veronique de Viguerie

In summary: Respect girls and women. Listen to their experiences with compassion. Don’t make laws about what they can wear. And when you’re feeling overwhelmed personally by these dissections, because all humans and ideas start to seem problematic when you look at them too deeply and there are no clear answers to anything, step away and breathe.

All we can do is our very best to love one another well. If we’re lucky, soon we’ll leave our earthly forms anyway and reside together as spirits in the mountains. Until then, we’ll continue to dress only for the sea witch that cursed us.

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