Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Young Granddaughter Dresses Sexy

young girl dressed inappropriately
Photo By lunamarina/shutterstock

I am bothered by the way my 12-year-old granddaughter, Barbara, and her friends dress. They wear skimpy, low-cut tight tops, often exposing their cleavage and tummy area, with equally skimpy, tight shorts. I asked my daughter-in-law what she thought of Barbara’s style of dress, and she said, “What are you going to do? This is how girls dress these days.” I didn’t push it, but both my husband and I are upset about it. So upset, in fact, when Barbara asked us to take her and her two girlfriends out for a pizza, we said we were busy. We would be embarrassed to sit with them in a restaurant with them being dressed like that.

We’re not sure we have any options in this situation. What do you think?

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When your daughter-in-law (DIL) says, “What are you going to do? This is how girls dress these days,” she makes it sound like her daughter dressing the ways she does is all just part of some benign evolution. Far from it! Your granddaughter and her friends are victims of our sexualized culture, meaning the deliberate targeting by corporate marketing to 6- to 11-year-old girls to instill in them a desire to be “sexy,” and to buy products to make them sexy. This is not benign.

Sample advertising:

The text in the middle ad says: “Love’s Baby Soft, because innocence is sexier than you think.” The obvious message behind the products being sold is about sexual availability and readiness, purposefully aimed at young girls.

As if this isn’t disturbing enough, there is glamorized sexual violence.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), your granddaughter and her friends are bombarded with 14,000 ads a year, many of them about “how to be sexy.” APA also explains the many emotional and mental consequences that result from this sexualization and objectification, including shame, anxiety, and depression.

You asked about your options. I have some suggestions.

Educate Yourself

I recommend you read one or both of the following: (1) So Sexy So Soon – The New Sexualized Childhood and What Parents Can Do to Protect Their Kids, by Diane E. Levin, Ph.D. and Jean Kilbourne, Ed.D. (2) “Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls,” 2010.

Both resources contain numerous suggestions for counteracting the insidious onslaught of messages aimed at young girls with actions that can be taken in the home, as well as at the community, statewide and national levels, and through legislation.

Some videos:

Empathize with Your Daughter-in-Law

Let you daughter-in-law know you’ve been learning about our sexualized culture and that you have a new appreciation for the challenges she and other parents face in raising their daughters – challenges that you did not have to deal with when raising your kids.

Offer to Be a Working Partner to Your Daughter-in-Law

Tell your daughter-in-law that you have been giving this issue of sexualization a lot of thought and you want to make yourself available to help her help Barbara counteract the forces that are sexualizing young girls, by focusing on such topics as: (1) How to assess positive and negative messages in advertising; (2) The differences between being attractive and sexy; (3) The emotional and psychological prices young girls pay for being sexualized.

Help Plan a Moms and Daughters Get Together

One of the most immediate and effective thing moms can do for their daughters is to bring the daughters’ friends and their moms together on a regular basis, starting, ideally, when the girls start grade school. The friends will change through the years, so there will be different groupings, but the concept of getting together for play dates, luncheons, etc., can be a regular event. Barbara and her friends are older, but nevertheless, it is not too late to bring the girls and their moms together.

The coming together makes it harder for Barbara and her friends to use a divide-and-conquer strategy – “Well, all the other girls can . . . wear whatever they want . . . use make-up . . . go to un-chaperoned parties . . .” Once moms and daughters are together, there can be, at the very least, some discussion and compromises about important issues. Do not be surprised if the girls resist this idea, as they will immediately understand that everyone talking together could dilute or eliminate their standard strategy of “all the other girls can . . . ”

Granted, everyone is busy and it’s hard to organize this kind of get together. This is something you and other grandmothers might take the lead in scheduling. Talk with your DIL about the benefits and assure her you’ll do the heavy lifting for scheduling and organizing the event. (I am not suggesting you actually attend.)

Either you and/or your DIL explain to Barbara’s friends’ moms the purpose of the get-togethers – initially, they might be strictly social, but a more important purpose would be for group discussions. For example, you might show the group one or more of the videos listed above, followed by a discussion either facilitated by you or one of the moms; or you can bring in an outside facilitator such as a school counselor or a family therapist.

Don’t Wait! Start in Your Living Room

The advantage of this kind of local “living room” approach is that it can be undertaken immediately, and it can be done in parallel with other school, community, or legislative efforts you and/or your DIL chose to participate in.

I contacted sexuality educator Judith Steinhart, Ed.D. and TED presenter and asked her opinion on the idea of you and/or your DIL bringing your granddaughter’s friends and their moms together. Her response: “Dr. Gramma Karen’s suggestion is right on point. One of the biggest challenges and also meaningful contributions you can provide is a safe space to open the conversation. These conversations can help girls and emerging women develop self respect and strategies to manage the conflicting messages girls and young women get about beauty and sexuality – messages which can negatively impact their adult lives, such as look sexy, dress sexy, but don’t feel sexy, don’t have sex or if you do, don’t enjoy sex, are hard messages to navigate. A group like this can help.”

My closing comment: although I have focused on moms and daughters and grandmothers in this column, this is not intended as a free pass for dads and sons, as they, too, are part of our sexualized culture – but this is a topic in its own right for another time.

 Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Helping Young Parents and Grandparents Deal with Thorny Issues

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