Ways That Adults Slut Shame Young Girls and Don't Realize It

February 27th 2016

Laura Donovan

Puberty is difficult for many young women, and when adults confront or shame them about their changing bodies or physical insecurities, this can create feelings of shame. Many people know this experience all too well, including model Emily Ratajkowski, who wrote in a recent Lenny Letter essay that adults shamed her for having a mature body during adolescence.

Ratajkowski ultimately realized that "people’s reactions to [her] sexuality were not [her] problems, they were theirs," but not everyone can bounce back from subtle sexual shaming early in life. Here are some subtle, yet extremely harmful ways adults slut shame young girls.

1. Criticizing their bodies for looking too "mature"


Last summer, "Modern Family" actress Ariel Winter, then 17 years old, told Glamour about her decision to get breast reduction surgery. Due to her natural breast size, Winter had trouble finding "age-appropriate" gowns, prompting others to shame her for dressing "mature." This is a common struggle among young women who develop large breasts early in life.

"Everyone would [say], 'why is she dressing so mature? That’s so inappropriate for her age!'" Winter said. "It’s not like I wanted to pick out those inappropriate dresses, it’s just that I didn’t really have another choice, or I was going to get ridiculed. It’s hard when you’re a teenage girl and you already have a lot of ridicule and then you pile on more, and it’s kind of ... it just gets too much."

2. Saying their clothes are too revealing

Ratajkowski wrote in her Lenny Letter essay that she experienced shaming for her adolescent figure and attire choices as a teen:


A photo posted by Emily Ratajkowski (@emrata) on

When Ratajkowski performed in a school play, a relative said that her clothing would attract the wrong type of attention, holding Ratajkowski responsible for the behavior of grown men:

"Our family member sobbed to my mother and me at dinner after; she was worried for me, worried about the looks I got from men, because I was wearing what I was wearing. I needed to protect myself, she explained."

Many teenage girls face this kind of shaming through sexist high school dress codes, which oftentimes order young women to dress in a way that won't distract their male classmates. Last year, the Charleston County School of the Arts (CCSOA) made news after students used the symbolic "A" from the classic novel, "The Scarlet Letter" to fight dress code standards on campus.

At CCSOA specifically, students complained about the way administrators were permitted to handle the dress code, with some arguing that teachers had shamed girls over dress code violations in harsh and unfair ways. One female student reported that a guidance counselor had said "heavier girls" must wear longer skirts, according to The Charleston Post and Courier.

“You see guys walking around in muscle tank tops with half their sides hanging out and their pants hanging down, and they don’t get called out for that," CCSOA student Reese Fischer told The Post and Courier at the time. "They don’t get called out for wearing a hat, but a girl will get called out for a short skirt in a second."

Social media has provided a platform for young women to fight back against these dress codes through hashtags like #IAmMoreThanADistraction, arguing that wardrobe restrictions unfairly blame girls for the behavior of their male peers.

3. Pressuring them into wearing a bra

Bras can be uncomfortable, suffocating, and hard to get used to, so choosing to wear them is a big step. This is why it's ineffective to force them on a young woman until she wants to embrace them, according to Barb Steinberg, a teen life coach who specializes in working with girls.

"Unfortunately, you can’t force your 16-year-old daughter to abide by your dress code," Steinberg wrote in a YourTeenMag advice column addressed to a mother who wanted her daughter to wear a bra. "It might be hard to live with your daughter’s decision, if you are unable to convince her to wear a bra. Try to find comfort in knowing that this decision, like almost all of her 16-year-old decisions, will change. This stage, like many others, is only temporary."

But a lot of parents push bras on their developing daughters before they're emotionally ready to regularly wear them, and a simple Google search on the subject turns up a lot of online forums for dealing with this very situation:

Moms and bras

In 2012, a 13-year-old old girl wrote in a Circle of Moms forum that she refused to wear a bra for a long time because her mother kept bothering her about it and she wasn't ready to "grow up" yet.

"My mom tried to start making me wear bras [close to age 11] and I kept resisting and got really annoyed," she wrote. "I think the reason I didn't want to wear them was because I didn't want to grow up."

4. Trying to control their underwear habits

Some young women wear thongs and lingerie for the first time during their teen years, and while it's totally reasonable for parents to say they won't buy such undergarments for their daughter, she can still purchase these articles of clothing on her own, so such restrictions become futile at a certain point.

Wanting lingerie and thong underwear also doesn't mean young girls are going to start having sex soon. Developmental psychologist Deborah Tolman told Time in 2003 that "kids are engaged with their sexuality at younger ages, but they're not necessarily sexually active."

Trying to understand why they want to wear certain clothing is the better way to get insight into one's child, according to Dr. Maggee Messing, a psychologist who specializes in working with women, children, and adolescents.

"What matters is that you have set up strong female role models for your tween and adolescent daughters," Dr. Messing told NorthJersey.com in 2013. "Even more essential is making sure your child has someone to talk to about their developing identity as a young woman and to help them figure out how they want to present themselves to the world."

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