A Father's Role in Overcoming the Sexualization of His Daughters

Teen Girls at a Party
Getty Images / Photographer's Choice RF

The trend is alarming in the minds of many. The media and popular culture seem to be pushing our daughters into sexualized dress and behavior at younger and younger ages. Consider:

  • Abercrombie and Fitch introduced "push up bras" for 12-year-olds in 2011
  • A recent study of girls 6 to 9 years old, when shown two paper dolls - one dressed modestly and one more sexualized - demonstrated that 2/3 of the girls wanted to dress like the sexualized paper doll
  • One of the most popular YouTube videos of the year shows 8 and 9-year-old girls at a dance competition "bumping and grinding" to Beyonce's "Single Ladies"

The trend is alarming to many. While portraying girls in a sexualized manner probably sells a lot of clothing, fathers particularly have a right to be concerned. It is hard enough to protect our daughters from too-early sexual activity, but when they start to dress or behave provocatively before they even hit puberty, a lot of us feel like we are facing a losing battle.

The study mentioned above suggests a couple of correlations that predicted the responses of the girls.

  • Mothers who encouraged their daughters to wear sexy clothes were more likely to find them desirable
  • Girls with greater exposure to popular media without parents involved were more likely to choose the doll with the skimpy clothing

So, what can fathers do to counteract these messages that seem to bombard our daughters about their body image and encourage them to dress and act in a sexualized way at young ages?

Help them interpret media messages. Probably one of the best things we can do is to not let the media messages about immodest dress and behavior go unchallenged. If your daughter sits down to watch a television program or play a video game with sexualized young characters, sit down with her and point out the bad assumptions and inappropriate dress and behavior. Ask questions like "Why do you think that girl wants to dress like that?" or "Did you see how that boy reacted to her?"

Teach correct principles about a person's worth. Popular culture always seems to focus attention on the girls that dress in sexualized ways. Even older girls who dress immodestly seem to get all the attention and are popular. But popularity is not the end all of a child's existence. Help your daughter understand that she is worthy as a person because she is smart, polite, engaging and fun, not just because she dresses in a certain way.

Compliment her on other aspects than looks. Many dads, with absolutely understandable motivation, start telling their daughters at a very young age how beautiful they are. While that is all well and good, it is also important to find other admirable traits about which to offer compliments. When she interacts well with siblings or friends, compliment her on her social skills. When she talks about a book she has been reading, let her know that it is important to you that she reads and develops her mind. The more we emphasize beauty and looks, the more likely she will be swayed by the culture of body image.

Beware the princess mentality. The marketers have done an excellent job of helping little girls want to be princesses. The Disney Princesses are extraordinarily popular among little girls, and if we aren't careful we will let them focus on Jasmine's bare midriff and sparkling smile more than her strength and determination when faced with obstacles. Take the opportunity to help them see the positive character traits in these characters and not just encourage them to model their costumes.

Emphasize modesty. While we men tend to fantasize about women in less than modest attire, we can all agree that a well-dressed woman can be pretty attractive. Help your daughters understand that dressing immodestly can send the wrong message about her as a young woman. When we teach them to dress and act modestly, we are giving them a great gift about their own self-worth, which should not be driven by how men, or other girls, might look at them.

Start early with dress standards. I worry when I see little girls in small bikinis at the local pool. It may seem harmless at their age, but at what point do you suggest that they change their wardrobe choices to something more modest. If your daughter dresses modestly all the while she is growing up, she will be more likely to feel comfortable in modest clothing and uncomfortable at showing more skin later. For example, encourage wearing something under a dress.

Take a critical look at her current wardrobe. If she has some Bratz short shorts that say "JUICY" across her backside, you may want to make some changes. One family member of ours, a mom who believes in helping her daughter act modestly, simply takes any immodest clothing from her daughters' closets or dressers and cuts them into several pieces and leaves them on the girl's bed. It didn't take too many times for the girls to get the message.

It takes some parenting strength to say "no" when needed. It is up to us as fathers to send important messages about the current popularity of sexualized clothing for our daughters. Take the time to talk with them, teach them and to help them think clearly and critically about fashion trends. Taking a stand in their early years will help them learn to take a stand of their own later.