Too young, too sexy

Four-part Calgary Sun series by Sarah Kennedy


Dressing for excess

Part 1

September 18, 2005

She strutted down the street, hips swaying, hugged by tight jeans - while Tom, a 30-year-old construction worker slowed his truck to get a better look.

But as he approached the blond siren, he realized in horror she was no woman at all but a girl, likely no older than 13.

Tom hit the gas and didn't look back.

"I thought my God I could go to jail for 10 years," he said, laughing nervously.

"I had no idea she was that young."

Welcome to Generation Y: A highly sexualized era packaged in low-cut jeans, bare midriffs and T-shirts emblazoned with cheeky statements.

School hallways have become a catwalk of provocation, forcing administrations to crack down on attire.

Jessie Johnston, 16, said since the school year started several weeks ago, she is shocked at how provocatively some of the kids in her high school are dressing.

"It's mostly the younger girls," said the grade 11 Western Canada high school student.

"I think they want to look older."

As teens and tweens are bombarded with images of gyrating pop stars squeezed into asphyxiating clothing, it's no wonder style judgment can be skewed.

Barb Dovey, mother of a 13-year-old girl, said she is concerned with how teens are dressing and has had to put her foot down a number of times with daughter Meagan.

"My friend and I went shopping with her last spring and she wanted a particularly tight tank top with only one strap and I told her no," she said.

"Girls her age are wearing pants with thongs sticking out the back. A lot of it is what they see on television and what they see the cool people wearing."

Meagan said it's not one pop star in particular that makes her want to dress a certain way, but rather, the styles she sees in magazines.

"I look at the magazines to see what I like," she said.

"I don't think there is one person who everyone wants to look like. All my friends like different celebrities."

Blair Inkster, 17, admits she once fell prey to the powerful pop star persuasion.

"A couple of years ago my friends and I would buy tight T-shirts with provocative sayings on them because we thought they were funny and we wanted to look like the Spice Girls," she said.

"Today when we see the younger girls dressing sexy in the hallways, we tell them to put some clothes on."

The Calgary Board of Education is trying to relay that same message, said spokesman Graham White.

"It's an ongoing concern for principals in high schools and, on a smaller scale, elementary schools as well," he said.

"We do have district-wide standards for appearance and clothing, but there is some flexibility for principals.

"Students who disobey these rules can be sent home and told not to return until they've changed into something more appropriate."

White admits though, that despite the regulations, there are still some problems.

"Ninety-eight per cent of students have no problems conforming to standards but those who don't get a tremendous amount of attention," he said.

Pop culture expert Lee Easton said when we look at girls' clothing trends, it's far more sexualized than it was before.

"Girls are dressing sexually provocatively and there's concern about what they're doing and there's concern about what the media does to impact children," said Easton who teaches at Mount Royal College.

Girls, said Easton, are constantly in the firing line of confusing messages and images at a time when they're still trying to figure out their own identities.

"Some pop stars talk about empowering girls and girl power, but then they dress provocatively," he said.

"So these girls may be seeing that look as an expression of power as opposed to being brain- washed.

"On one hand, we can say they can see beyond the message portrayed or we could go far the other way and say they're getting duped, but I assume it's probably somewhere in the middle."

In a society of two-income families, kids tend to have more unsupervised spare time, often filled with DVDs, music videos and video games.

Advertisers, said Easton, are more than happy to use those media to sell their products to young people.

"Tweens have disposable income," he said.

"They're identified as a valuable market targeted by advertising and today there's a lot more use of sexuality in terms of selling things to everybody.

"You put sexuality and children in the same line and everyone gets nervous."

Over 70% of editorial content in teen magazines focuses on beauty and fashion and only 12% talks about school or careers, according to a report published by the Media Awareness Network.

Teen mags have also been known to carry advertisements for breast enhancement tablets that allege growing bigger breasts will make girls feel more beautiful and sexier than ever, said the report, which focused on media and girls.

A 1998 study by the Canadian Council on Social Development called Focus on Youth says mixed messages portrayed by the media make it difficult for girls to effectively transition to adulthood.

The report shows the number of boys who say they have confidence in themselves remains stable throughout adolescence, while the numbers for girls drop from 72% in Grade 6 to 55% once they reach Grade 10.

Rebecca Sullivan, culture and communications expert at the University of Calgary, said although the media must take some responsibility for the early sexualization of teens, it's not fair to saddle them with all the blame.

Factors, she said, may include biology, hormones in food and genetics.

But the major issue, she claims, is a lack of education.

"Do I feel sad when I see 10-year-old girls wearing T-shirts with provocative sayings they don't understand? Yeah," she said.

"We throw sexuality around but we don't tell a 12-year-old they are an erotic subject and then we complain they are being sexualized too young."

Sullivan said parents have a major role to play in this trend of girls dressing too sexy too soon.

"Three-year-olds generally don't go to the mall to pick out clothes," she said.

"Any parent who picks up sexually provocative clothing for kids that young, all I can say is good luck when they're 12 - and don't go blaming Britney."


Image-altering dangers

Part 2

September 19, 2005

Is it harmless fun or a dangerous game? With pop tarts as role models, tween and teenage girls - boys, too - are mimicking images they barely understand and facing consequences that are even more confusing.

Magazine articles, movies and music videos portray stars as images of perfection, an alluring ideal for young girls. Usually, it's just a phase - but sometimes it has terrible consequences.

In Part 2 of this four-part series, the Sun's Sarah Kennedy looks at the risks of being too young and too sexy.

o o o o o

It's been more than a week since Katherine made herself throw up.

Most people dread the thought of being sick to their stomach, but for Katherine, it felt fantastic.

It was a way for her to purge emotions of inadequacy and low self-esteem from her system.

She had it down to a science.

She could make herself throw up into an empty coffee cup while walking down the street.

At some points during her seven-year battle with bulimia, Katherine said her body would even fit the cookie cutter image portrayed in the magazines.

"But it was those times when I also felt most depressed," said Katherine, now 23.

Her bulimia erupted at a time in her life when everything felt out of control. She was 16 years old and had just been in a horrific car crash with her mother that triggered problems with her entire family.

Katherine was scared, confused and needed something that could numb the pain.

So she binged and literally ate herself sick.

Today, as Katherine continues to struggle with her disorder, she said she can relate to the young girls striving to look like the pop stars and celebrities dominating television and magazines.

"They want to be affirmed and accepted," she said.

"Our generation in particular is desperate for attention and it's hard to get attention for intelligence or positive attributes, but it's not hard to get attention for being pretty."

The compulsion to dress or look a certain way can be dangerous and 23-year-old Breanne is intimately familiar with that risk.

Breanne also suffers from bulimia and said although blame can't entirely lay within the pages of beauty magazines or unrealistic looking celebrities - they sure have some responsibility.

"Everything is a comparison," said the University of Calgary masters student.

"You see a movie and you size everyone up - you're constantly comparing yourself to the unattainable."

The dangers of modelling after celebrities and scantily clad idols goes beyond eating disorders, warns Det. John Fulton, of the Calgary Police Service.

After many years working in the vice unit, Fulton has seen the most threatening effects provocative clothing can have on teens.

"When girls are dressed like that, it's a red flag for pimps," he said. "There was a couple of times I picked up 12 and 13 year olds off the streets.

"From talking to the girls they said that's the way their friends dressed and there's that pressure for them to fit in."

Pimps have been known to recruit girls from shopping malls.

Fulton said they have an innate ability to find girls who are vulnerable or insecure and use a number of tricks to win their trust.

Girls who appear vulnerable, but also dress provocatively, likely face the highest risk.

Leslie Tutty, a prostitution expert at the University of Calgary, said the irony is, often times, these young girls are clueless to the message they're portraying.

"Nowadays what's fashionable is what you'd expect sexually exploited people to wear," she said.

"Pimps do tend to target these girls because if they're dressing like that, they're signalling that they are comfortable with their sexuality, whether they intend to or not."

That's not to say all teens who dress too sexy for their age are at risk or will fall prey to these predators.

In fact, 90 % of girls who dress that way will never be approached and are probably safe as long as they're comfortable saying no, said Tutty.

"But a vulnerable kid could be doubly vulnerable if they're dressing that way."

And they are vulnerable to other risks as well, she said, such as, getting coaxed into becoming sexually active at a younger age.

"It's difficult for some kids to say no to invitations to have sex and research shows that casual sex is more common among young people today.

"Girls may be inadvertently sending the wrong messages to boys their own age.

"Personally I think it's a more dangerous time with the advent of music videos and rap videos where women are portrayed as bitches and whores.

But, Rebecca Sullivan, a professor of culture and communications, said she thinks concern over teen style is being blown out of proportion.

"There's examples in every generation," she said.

"Eventually the shock value wears off and it becomes normalized.

Both Katherine and Breanne have been receiving help from the Calgary Counselling Centre and are on the road to recovery.

Breanne said she now avoids fashion and celebrity magazines.

"I would say they're dangerous.

"And I know I don't feel good when I read them."

o o o o o

Warning signs

Clues your child may be involved in prostitution:

o Sudden drastic change in dress.

o They wear expensive clothes you didn't buy for them - and they can't explain who did.

o They become secretive, extremely moody, abusive or confrontational.

If you suspect your child may be in trouble, there are a number of places to check out on the Alberta Children's Services website at www.child.gov.ab.ca.

- From Alberta Children's Services

o o o o o

Battling against bulimia

There would be days when 23-year-old Katherine would make herself vomit 40 times.

Over a period of seven years she continuously dropped and regained up to 70 lb.

But it wasn't until she was fully absorbed by bulimia that she realized she had a problem.

Katherine said society's views towards skinny people and the compliments she received when she dropped the weight, perpetuated the disorder.

Recovery has been a battle itself, but it's one worth fighting for, she said.
"I've been in recovery with the Calgary Counselling Centre for two years, it's not something that's cured overnight."

If you think you have an eating disorder, or if you are concerned about your child, the Calgary Counselling Centre may be able to provide the help you need.

For more information contact 265-4980.

o o o o o

Esteem issues also hit males

Michael MacKay could be the poster boy for the age of Adonis.

With his shaved and bronzed skin, finely sculpted pecs and abs, his brilliantly white teeth and spiked blond hair, Mac-Kay typifies a new generation of young men for whom the look is everything.

They are turning up everywhere - in classrooms, gymnasiums, on the beach and in the office.

But they are most readily found in the pages of magazines such as Esquire, Vanity Fair and GQ, where their washboard abs, silky skin and sultry looks illustrate ads for everything from underwear to cologne.

MacKay, a 24-year-old financial planner in Fredericton, works out with weights five or six times a week, guzzles protein drinks and tans all year.

"I was skinny in high school and I wanted to be bigger... it's all about looking good for the ladies," he explains.

But it is the effort to maintain a totally hairless body that has presented one of the biggest challenges in Mac-Kay's pursuit of perfection.

"I don't have hair on my body at all - anywhere," he says proudly.

"I've waxed and I've done some electrolysis. But I find shaving better because if I shave every two days, I can stay smooth."

MacKay is preparing to shell out at least $1,000 for laser treatments to remove his body hair, once and for all.

This is a change in body image for men.

For those who can still remember the lush, hairy chests of stars such as Sean Connery and Burt Reynolds - thick pelts a gal could curl up against - these new developments are somewhat chilling.

Psychologists have concerns as well.

New studies suggest media-driven images of what the new man should look like are having potentially harmful side-effects on some people.

Eating disorders, body obsessions and low physical self-esteem are becoming almost as common in men as they are in women - the gender most affected by advertising portrayals of body perfection.

Jamie Farquhar, a fourth-year psychology student at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., recently completed the first stage of a research project looking at the role of the media in male attitudes towards their bodies.

Farquhar, who will be presenting his findings in January, looked at 30 years of advertising in magazines such as Sports Illustrated and discovered a marked change in how the male body is presented.

He says today's male advertising images are more nude, more posed and with more emphasis on body parts and the presentation of the male physique as an object.

"If the media is teaching us to look at the body as an object, then it's no surprise we're being more critical and less satisfied with our bodies," Farquhar says.

MacKay has seen people go too far with the Adonis complex, including friends who use steroids - something he has avoided.

"I have a lot of friends who do steroids," he says. "Some weigh 280 pounds of pure muscle and they still can't take their shirts off at the beach because they don't feel like they're big enough for the girls."

Clinical psychologist Roberto Olivardia, of Harvard's McLean Hospital and co-author of the groundbreaking book, The Adonis Complex, says he has treated boys as young as 12 for steroid abuse.

He says some men are using the drugs to help stake out their territory in the war of the sexes.

Olivardia says it's a doomed effort, since the ravages of time and age eventually will erode any body, no matter how pumped up.


Beauty before age

Part 3

September 20, 2005

Who's to blame, pop stars or puberty? In an age of low-cut pants and cheeky T-shirts, where Barbie dolls are being traded in for thongs, youth is becoming lost in a sea of sexualized images portrayed by the media.

With pop tarts as role models, tween girls are mimicking images they barely understand. But more could be at play.

Girls today are showing signs of puberty as early as 9-years-old - blurring the boundaries between childhood and adulthood.

In part three of this four-part series, Sarah Kennedy looks at whether biology could be the reason girls today are too young and too sexy.

o o o o o

Is it Britney or biology?

That's the question some scientists are asking.

There is no doubt about it, everywhere you turn today, young girls are dressing and looking far beyond their years.

As pop stars continue to push the fashion envelope, tweens are increasingly spotted strutting their stuff in more risque clothing.

But doctors say it could be that nowadays, these tweens just have more to strut.

Calgary pediatrician Dr. Peter Nieman sees it almost every day, girls as young as nine developing breast buds and growing pubic hair. But what really shocks him is how young these girls begin menstruating.

"They are definitely menstruating at an earlier age," he said.

"Some of it has to do with genes and when their mothers began menstruation."
In girls, puberty can begin as early as age seven.

But 20 years ago, that statistic was closer to age 15, said Nieman.

"It could have to do with better nutrition today," he said. "Kids today have better access to a wide variety of good foods but compare that to times of the Depression when people were living off food stamps."

Nobody knows for certain why girls are entering puberty earlier, but there are plenty of theories.

Based on research conducted in 1997 and published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the emergence of puberty could be associated with the prevalence of obesity amongst young girls - especially ages 6 to 11.

Scientists have known for a long time that overweight girls tend to mature earlier while very thin girls mature later.

Overweight girls have more insulin circulating in their blood and higher levels of insulin stimulates the production of sex hormones.

The finger has also been pointed at hormones injected into livestock such as cattle that is eventually eaten by kids.

And increased use of pesticides in the food chain has also been considered a possibility.

But perhaps the most interesting theory comes from a Time article five years ago. It said media images may actually be causing early puberty.

According to the article, there are some scientists who believe the sexualized images bombarding kids in magazines and on television could be jump-starting development just as pictures of food can cause salivation.

Regardless of age, when girls begin to feel like teenagers, they strive to look like them, said Nieman.

"Girls' bodies are changing and they are feeling older so they mimic the older girls they look up to," he said.

"There is definitely a connection between the girls they choose as their role models and them dressing and feeling more sexual at a younger age.

"I question and lament the fact that these girls aren't allowed to be girls anymore."

Nieman blames media - such as music videos and teen magazines - more than biology.

But Laurie Trott, fashion editor for Elle Girl, said she disagrees that teen magazines encourage teenagers to dress or act sexy.

"We don't encourage sexy - we encourage individuality and a sense of self," she said.

"For teenage girls, it's a time in their life when they start to explore who they are and part of their self expression is through what they are wearing."

But it's also a time rife with psychological effects.

And according to studies by the National Research Centre for Women and Children in the U.S., girls who developed early are more likely to be sexually active, have more problems in school and are more likely to smoke, use alcohol and drugs.

Rebecca Sullivan, communications and culture expert at the University of Calgary, said puberty is a baffling time for girls because they're not little kids anymore but they're not sure exactly what they are.

"So they try to find that out," she said.

"We can't deny puberty happens and it's confusing and awkward and it's a highly sexualized time biologically and physically. They don't know how to handle it, so they panic."

Part of that confusion can lead to sexual activity at a younger age, said Lee Easton, pop culture expert at Mount Royal College.

"It's too easy to say idolizing pop stars will make them want to be sexually active but it does play a role," he said.

"It's generally recognized that sexual activity happens at a younger age now."

But there is an upside, said Sullivan.

"I'm not as concerned today because at least now we have the tools to talk to kids about sex.

"I don't think sex is the problem, it's sexual smartness."


Find middle ground in war over fashion

Part 4

September 21, 2005

In an age of low-cut pants and cheeky T-shirts, where Barbie dolls are being traded in for thongs, youth is becoming lost in a sea of sexualized images portrayed by the media.

But perhaps the situation isn't as grim as parents may fear.

In the last of this four-part series, the Sun's Sarah Kennedy looks at how parents should react when they think their kids are too young and too sexy.

o o o o o

Try telling your kid she can't step foot outside of the house wearing a certain outfit and see how well it goes.

It may be effective for some girls, but for others, they'll just stuff a backpack with low-rise jeans and belly tops and change when they get to school.

Adolescent girls are under extreme pressure from their peers and images in the media to look and dress a certain way but that's nothing new, said Laura Wershler, executive director of Planned Parenthood Alberta.

"Little girls will always want to dress like big girls," she said.

"If the big girls dress provocatively, so will the little girls.

"That's the way it's always been."

Right now the "big girls" wielding the most influence are pop stars who serve up messages of girl power and individuality while dressed in revealing clothing.

Wershler said girls may be mimicking sexualized images they don't even fully understand.

Still, it would be naive to think that sexy clothing is just about fashion, said Rebecca Sullivan, culture and communications expert at the University of Calgary.

"Parents tend to tear their hair out over their kids' hair," she said.

"They get all worked up about hair and clothes instead of the messages behind them. There are some girls who are dressed skanky and some who aren't and there are good girls who are wearing tight pop tart tees.

"But there's a whole host of other issues surrounding this such as self-esteem and self-awareness."

With young girls entering puberty as young as age nine, they become a surge of raging hormones and are trapped in a confusing mess of not being "little" anymore but not being grown up either, said Sullivan.

So they strive to model themselves after the women who represent "grown up" to them.

Parents may not influence their daughter's fashion tastes but what they can do is talk about what it means to become a woman, said Wershler.

"It's about hormonal changes that bring us to sexual maturation, the transition from girlhood to womanhood," she said.

But Wershler doesn't play down the fact that appearance is an important aspect of this transition for girls.

The way parents handle this preoccupation is key, she said.

"Go over teen fashion magazines together and ask what they like and then use that information to find age appropriate versions," she said.

"You can't change the trends, but you can influence your children's opinions and fashion is a clear bonding point between moms and daughters."

Sometimes it just comes down to having a good heart-to-heart talk and putting things into a perspective young girls can understand, said Leslie Tutty, a professor with the University of Calgary and social worker.

"Parents need to talk to kids about their concerns and ask them, 'If I dressed like that, what would people think?'

"It's a sensitive subject to approach but if you don't, they'll take the opinion of their peers over yours.

"Kids listen more than parents think."

And sometimes it just comes down to picking your battles.

"Parents need to focus on what they have control over," said Tutty.

"Kids who have open relationships with their parents will likely get into less trouble."

And not all girls have embraced the pop tart trend.

Gerry Burger-Martindale said her teenage daughter has never dressed that way.

"She's always dressed in loose clothing," she said. "Sometimes she wears some crazy things, but that's just her style."

Lee Easton, who works in the English department at Mount Royal College, said he regularly sees the future generation, and he believes the kids are all right.

"I look at students and they all come across as compassionate, intelligent human beings regardless of what they listen to or watch in their spare time," he said.

"Whatever happens, most of us seem to come through that adolescent period relatively well."

o o o o o

Modest comeback

Parents take heart: Less skin is back in.

Daisy Duke shorts and tummy bearing shirts championed by the likes of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton may soon be traded in for more modest frocks.

Although teen fashion magazines have sometimes been criticized for encouraging sexy trends amongst youth, Laurie Trott, fashion editor for Elle Girl, said their publication is fashion forward.

"Right now what's hot is the young Hollywood look - Nicole Richie, Mary Kate - tank tops with jeans and beads, Bohemian and craftily disheveled," she said.

Trott said while the sexy look was fresh when it started it's now overexposed.
"I was hoping this would disappear with Labour Day," she said.

"As far as I'm concerned, this look has reached its apex and is on its way out."

And because the pendulum always swings the other way, what's to come for fall fashion is going to be a lot less sexy, she said.

Trott envisions more rich colours such as browns and blacks and more ladylike fashions.

Think skirt hemlines at the knee, prim tops and large pearl necklaces.

But before you breathe that sigh of relief - it may be some time before the low-rise jean fad is over.

Tracy Laprise, manager of The Garage clothing store in the Chinook Centre, said the fall fashions have arrived and they include a plethora of low-cut jeans.

"The low rise isn't leaving although I wish it would," she said. "Mothers don't like it and I don't blame them."

Demand for the pants won't let them die, Laprise said.