Parents gird for midriff wars with preteen set
Forget lunchboxes and sticker-covered notebooks: As school kicks in this fall, the junior-high crowd is stocking up on spaghetti-strap tank tops and low-slung jeans.Skip to next paragraph
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A generation ago, parents contended with teenagers desperate for denim and bell-bottom pants. Today, girls barely out of Keds and coveralls are donning miniature versions of the sultry fashions they see on MTV pop stars, whose tunes set the rhythm of their lives.
It's an age-old urge: young people on the cusp of adulthood trying to wear sophistication on their sleeves. But with the sexualization of children's clothes and the rise of suggestive advertising for an ever-younger audience, it's happening at an earlier age than ever before. Today, preteens are wearing outfits that might have gotten their 16-year-old sisters in trouble a few years ago - leaving many parents wondering where to draw the sartorial line.
"At 4 and 5 years old, these girls are worrying about their abs, about having flat bellies so they can wear short tops and pants with a three- inch inseam," says Digna Rodriguez-Poulton, who has been in the fashion industry for 20 years. This fall, she's opening Daisy and Lilly in Westwood, N.J., to sell trendy-but-modest girls' clothes, as an antidote to current offerings for 'tweens. The girls "don't understand the messages they're sending."
That's not the case with messages they receive. Cable television and the Internet continually barrage preteens with the show-stopping styles of Christina Aguilera and Madonna - fueling a teen market that took in $155 billion in 2000, according to a study by Northbrook, Ill.-based Teenage Research Unlimited.
And stores, hungry for those dollars, are aggressively going after pre-teens. A back-to-school ad for JC Penney featured a curly-haired little girl admiring her outfit - low-rise jeans and crop top - in a mirror. Her mother comes in, exclaiming that she can't go to school looking like that. She rushes over to her daughter - and yanks the girl's jeans down another inch or so. "There, that's better," she proclaims. Penney has since pulled the ad.
"The industry has understood that it's profitable to promote hypersexualized fashion as a way to gain and maintain relationships," says Linda Hartling, associate director of the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.
But some parents, who are waging back-to-school battles before their daughters hit kindergarten, find it repugnant that stores and advertisers are trying to sexualize their little girls. At the South Shore Plaza in Braintree, Mass., racks in the girls' section sport plaid miniskirts and bright, clingy tops revealing back, front, and shoulder - offerings that leave Rochelle Bostick unmoved. But that's not the response of her four-year-old daughter, Danielle, who pleads for the midriff-baring shirts that dangle nearby. "When I was 4, I had no clue what I wanted to wear," says Ms. Bostick, staunchly resisting her daughter's entreaties. "But [Danielle] wants to show her belly like Britney Spears."