When blogger Stephanie Giese went to Target to shop for her two-and-a-half year old daughter, she was disturbed at what she found.
A Target brand’s size 5T shorts — a size meant for toddlers — were shorter than Fisher-Price’s 2T pair, she wrote on her blog. And in a follow-up post, she compared the length of extra-small girls’ and boys’ shorts. The boys’ shorts were twice as long as the girls’ jean shorts, which had a 1-inch inseam.
“Why are you offering my kindergartener clothes that are sized for children less than half her age?” Ms. Giese asked in the first post, which she published on her blog on Sept. 20.
For Sarah Murnen, a psychology professor at Kenyon College, the answer is clear. The sexualization of children’s clothes, she says, can be traced to the increased availability of sexualized images online. This trend leads to the prevalence of images and ideas of pornography in everyday culture, like clothing.
In 2011, Dr. Murnen examined tween online clothing outlets and found that about 30 percent of offerings for 10- to 12-year-old girls had sexualizing characteristics — short shorts, a curved shirt, a pinched waist.
Murnen’s 2011 study surveyed 702 clothing items at Target. About 79 percent were categorized by participants as “childlike” while about 19 percent received the label “ambiguously sexualizing.” Two percent of the surveyed clothes were “definitely sexualizing.” In contrast, researchers tagged 72 percent of Abercrombie Kids clothing as “definitely sexualizing” or “ambiguously sexualizing.”
When women and girls are taught to pay attention to how they look, Murnen says, they may begin to objectify themselves.
“It does affect their mental health,” she says.
Stores continue to sell these styles to align with what buyers see in the media — young girls who watch teen female stars on the Disney Channel want to mirror celebrities' styles, wrote Kerri McBee-Black, an instructor in the University of Missouri's department of textile and apparel management, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.
When apparel manufacturers research their markets, she says, they realize that without this trendy clothing, families will shop elsewhere.
While Giese wrote that sexualizing children too early concerns her, she said her main qualm is a practical one.
“Can my daughter sit ‘criss cross applesauce’ on the reading rug? Does it meet the finger tip length dress code rule? Are those too tight for her to button herself after using the bathroom?” she wrote.
Murnen notes that this practical concern is real — it’s hard to play outside in tight, short jeans. But her research shows that sexualized clothing can harm its wearers more deeply. In 2012, Murnen studied the affect of sexualized clothing on pre-teen girls, finding that people perceive girls in sexualized clothing to be low in competence, less moral, and less self-respecting.
“This could affect her opportunities,” she says.
Parents expressed support in the comments of Giese’s blog post and on social media. Commenters said that they had similar experiences, at Target and elsewhere.
“As far as tween daughters go, the children’s clothes are too small and the juniors clothes are way [too] revealing and tight,” commented one user on a republished version of Giese’s story. “I wouldn’t even let my teenager wear them.”
“Boys clothing is for providing coverage, girls clothing is for displaying their bodies for others to look at,” commented another on Giese’s blog.
Since her initial post, Giese has tried to keep the conversation going by collecting images of “cute clothing options that offer better coverage” on Pinterest and starting the hashtag #ModestMavens on Twitter.
Target’s corporate headquarters responded to Giese by asking her for specific feedback about children’s clothes, which prompted her second blog post on the topic. She said she has formed a behind-the-scenes partnership with the company and will provide feedback on its children’s products.