Dear Dr. Wes & Samantha: I have a question that’s troubled me since my niece was 13. She’s now 16 and will be a senior next year. Her parents care very much about her and seem to use good judgment with her developmental issues, with one exception. I realize fashion trends and peer pressure are strong allies against modesty among teens. She is a well-rounded, active and popular student who has few concerns socially. She has always been eager to wear the low-cut tops and camisoles that are very popular. I’m seeking your opinions on whether young, attractive and well-endowed girls of this age can manage to “handle” the social situations that such exposure might bring. Do parents need to also consider this a potentially risky behavior requiring greater management?
Samantha: While I share your concern, I think you should stay out of this issue or risk alienating both your niece and her mom if you start offering advice on how she “should” dress. MAYBE you could play the role of the nice aunt and take her shopping for more appropriate clothes, perhaps as a birthday gift.
The rest of what I have to say is directed at parents whose daughters choose to dress this way. It’s my experience that, while some girls choose to wear low-cut tops to get what I regard as undesirable attention, many choose to wear low-cut tops because they haven’t found a style yet that makes them feel attractive without showing some skin. These tops are never really “in style” — they’re just the go-to top if you’re a teen girl who wants attention for how you look but don’t know how to achieve it.
It’s the parents’ job to draw the line on how low-cut a top can be and to monitor their daughters’ clothing choices so they aren’t sending the wrong message. Dressing that way attracts a caliber of guy that your niece does not want to attract. In fact, I know great guys who would be less likely to be attracted to a young woman if she regularly dresses that way.
Parents shouldn’t immediately start criticizing a daughter’s outfits, however. The mom in your case should have her daughter try on all of her clothes for her, making a pile to keep and a pile to give away. The low-cut shirts have to go. If there’s a low-cut top your niece cannot part with, she can try wearing it with a bandeau — a cropped tube top that goes under a shirt. You can buy them at Envy and other stores in downtown Lawrence in various colors.
Next, the mom should help the daughter plan a shopping trip with an older friend or adult whose style she would like to emulate. Your niece’s mom should talk to the older friend ahead of time about transitioning out of low-cut tops and into a style that leaves a little more to the imagination. This trip doesn’t have to be expensive — Plato’s Closet and other second-hand stores are great for basics. Only splurge on unique items.
Wes: I appreciate your love and concern for your niece. I’ll offer some hints on where to take it. However, I’m going an entirely different route here, based on a lot of experience talking with teenagers. Except for the most blatant exposures of skin, we’re long past the point where clothing has much impact on how boys view girls or girls view themselves. It’s more like a symptom than a cause. At the risk of being indelicate here, the modern teen boy doesn’t have to spend more than a couple minutes imagining what’s going on beneath a young woman’s comely frock.
Today, boys and girls have the Internet, where they can spend endless hours learning all the secrets of human anatomy in rather unfortunate detail. Sad, in my opinion, but true nonetheless. Beyond that, the real dynamics of teen sexuality don’t spring from sexy clothes. They grow out of the age-old process of dating and mating, and that’s where you need to put all your energies as an aunt or parent.
“Peer pressure” isn’t really the main issue either. Sexual conduct among teens is usually about recreation or competition for dating partners. As young women have gained greater confidence in the expression of their sexuality, many have leaned away from traditional dating relationships. Today, sex between teens is not necessarily the bond of a close relationship, or any relationship at all. When it is, it represents an attempt by girls to use the only currency they feel they have available to connect with their male peer group. So the clothing choices you note are, at worst, a representation of that trend toward greater sexual freedom, but they don’t necessarily contribute to or define it.
That’s why our old clichés don’t make much sense any more. “A guy who really cares about you” often won’t wait, because in the greater dating pool he doesn’t have to. Many “good girls” certainly don’t wait because they see no reason to do so, lest they miss out on teen coupling and the perceived benefits that brings. There’s no evidence that having early sex is “a sign of poor self-esteem” or “not having respect for your body” and so on.
I’ve been in this business long enough to see teens well into adulthood, and I find this trend has about a hundred downsides and perhaps one or two positives. At worst, it socializes teens in a sexual culture that does not develop very well in adulthood as relationships go from practice to the real thing.
Bottom line: I would never make my stand around the issue of clothing. I’d make it around the larger and ongoing discussion of sexuality — how teens see themselves in the context of relationships, how they enjoy their growth in that area and how they can protect themselves from the downsides, both emotional and physical. That’s a great job for an aunt, as long as you stay square with the parents.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.