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.

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.

Pitched battles in the girls' department

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."

Flipping through red pleather jackets with faux fur collars at an Old Navy, Susan is on a similar quest, trying to satisfy her eight-year-old daughter's craving for chic while keeping her modestly clad. "I don't want her to look like she's 16," she says. Susan has been more indulgent lately, bringing home the rainbow-striped jeans her daughter coveted. "But not high heels," she says. "They're dangerous, and she can't run around." Fashion debates are considerably more intense in the summer, when hot weather conspires with her daughter's demands for tank tops and tiny skirts.

So far, Maria Oneil hasn't had to field many raiment requests from her three-year-old, but she anticipates escalating demands in coming years. She says she'll let Carolina wear what she wants if that helps her express herself. "If all the world is wearing tank tops, she's going to look funny in a turtleneck," she says.

It's a leniency that has grown more common in recent generations. Jenna Weissman-Joselit, author of "A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America," suggests that as the parental dynamic has become more buddylike, parents often indulge their youngsters' early notions of chic.

And, in fact, some fashionistas point out, these same parents are the ones who first battled for the right to wear denim. "It comes up every single generation - with miniskirts, with cutoff jeans. Each generation pushes the envelope," says Cylin Busby, senior editor at Teen magazine in Los Angeles. However, she agrees that fashion consciousness is hitting American girls at earlier ages, and media saturation may well be driving younger children's quest for sexy clothes.

Celebrating femininity?

If the focus on curve-hugging clothes for girls too young to have curves is depressingly stereotypical to some, it's a sign of independence to others. Current teen style glorifies femininity, they say. "There were years when girls were trying to look like boys and wear baggy pants," says Jacqueline Azria-Palombo, fashion director at CosmoGIRL, a junior version of Cosmopolitan Magazine. "Now they're much more comfortable with themselves."

It's a perspective that defies the age-old inclination to link morality and style. Only recently, say some observers, has the length of your skirt not been used as a measure of your character. "In 1918, people believed that clothing revealed a whole set of moral assumptions about you," says Dr. Weissman-Joselit. She describes advice for teens that would never fly on MTV: "Free yourselves from the yolk of fashion," one contemporary booklet intoned. "Make modesty your bosom friend."

But as the 20th century progressed, adolescence increasingly became "a world unto itself," she says, "with a special set of needs - and those needs included clothing."

Whether it's an urge for the cloth of rebellion or a wish to thread one's way to social success, the search for chic can seem pernicious to those who have watched it spread from high school to middle and even elementary grades.

"The truth is that they're little girls," says Ms. Rodriguez-Poulton. The preteen crew may talk big and beg for edgy styles, she says. But in the end, "a lot of them are just not comfortable wearing those clothes."

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