• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


When an Academic Goes Shopping

Lessons in style and messages.

September 14, 2016

Recently, I was shopping with my daughters for clothing. One is squarely within the “tween” market, and the other is on the cusp of it. I find shopping for them to be frustrating at times because of the lack of clothing choices. At times, the clothes seem too sexualized, or perhaps it’s the gender/media scholar in me reading too much into the messages. Does a shirt with a fox on it (which seems to be a popular theme across brands) imply foxy (sexy), or have I taught too many semiotics classes?

It seems that, if you are a lover of animals (they must assume that most young girls are), they have a whole selection which I have labeled the “animal option.” You can find most common animals, and some more rare ones, on a shirt these days. My daughter today is wearing a shirt with a bunny on it, and she has a llama shirt ready for later in the week. These seem fine, although she sometimes rule a shirt out when it has a message like “be as awesome as your dog thinks you are” because it seems inauthentic to wear that when we don’t have a dog.

Some shirts I categorize as the “Trend Setter.” They have messages like “My Future is Bright” or “Top of the Class.” These shirts seem to combat against the stereotype that women are taught to be modest and men are taught to brag, as studies have shown. Am I discouraging my daughters from future success if I tell them that wearing a shirt like that seems to much like bragging?

Other shirts fall into the category of “positive message” (yes, some of them actually have that label). At the tween clothing store Justice, girls can choose to “Be Amazing,” “Love Your Selfie,” “Let Your Imagination Run Wild,” or “Be Creative.”  At Old Navy, girls can “Be Bold” or “Stay Fierce.”  Some shirts even seem to be a warning of some sort, such as “Try and Stop Me.” Others encourage some sort of moral lesson, like “Good Vibes Make Great Karma.” One shirt has the word “Follower” crossed out and “Leader” written over it. Some seem to fight the patriarchy: “Girls Make the Rules” and “I Run This Show.” A few seem to be confidence boosters, like “Shine So Bright” and “I’m Kind of a Big Deal.”

I already have discouraged (not all that successfully) my daughters from buying clothing festooned with brand names by explaining how they are just paying to wear advertising.

They ask me what’s wrong with these “nice,” positive-message shirts, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I find them troubling. After all, the brands seem to be responding to earlier criticism of promoting over-sexualized clothing. At first look, I feel that I should be giving a shout-out to the clothing lines for emphasizing positive messages. Yet, I’m wondering if now maybe they are trying too hard to be empowering, when I do not find the style of clothing itself to be so. I don’t want my daughters walking around wearing shirts that say “Leader;” I’d rather them just lead.

I don’t see “Girls Make the Rules” as promoting feminist empowerment. First of all, it’s just wrong: they don’t. We still live within a patriarchal society, where women and men are not treated equally. Messages that say “I Run This Show” and “I’m Kind of a Big Deal” take away from the real work needed to empower girls and women. Buying a shirt won’t solve these problems. Teaching girls to lead and demand equality will.


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