The Washington Post published an interactive set of articles about teenage girls’ shopping habits yesterday. It includes a number of articles, an interactive look at the mall where they went shopping, and pictures and video of the shopping experience. Throughout these articles and pictures, the authors and camera-pointers theoretically focused on the girls’ styles. But they seemed oblivious to the fact that they were really focusing on sex.
This collection of articles is focused in the extreme on the very consumerist, very body- and fashion-oriented society that encourages girls to think about their body and their sex appeal at all times and in all ways. The journalists claimed to be surprised by the attention the girls paid to the price and stylistic details of the items they purchased and the items they passed up. They also appeared to be surprised that the girls passed by the very shortest shorts and the very smallest tanks. But of course these very hip, very wealthy girls are extremely image conscious. They know what makes them look good, and they know what might make them look like a slut. They walk the balance of showing just as much skin as possible to attract boys while not showing too much to attract the wrong kind of boy (or, more frighteningly, the wrong kind of man).
Girls bodies are commodities in our culture. Boys and men stare at them and whistle at them and grope them. Sometimes girls like the attention, sometimes they don’t. And the clothes they wear are critical to getting as much of the right kind of attention and as little of the wrong kind as possible. (What kind of clothes this calls for, of course, differs between cultures and subgroups.) This Washington Post article tapped directly into girls’ core need/fear to be dressed on a very narrow tightrope of sexy-but-not-slutty. The Post reporters came very close to talking about the issue in this article, but stopped just short. I wish they had gone further – that would have been a truly interesting and newsworthy piece of journalism.