Interview with Celia Rivenbark
The columnist and author of Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like A Skank, talks.
KENNETH WHYTE, Macleans, Jan 1, 2007
I understand Stop Dressing Your Six-Year-Old Like a Skank began as a newspaper column. What led you to write it in the first place?
Well, I went shopping with my daughter, and I saw all these tween skank clothes, and one thing led to another. I just went off on the notion that these clothes are inappropriate, these hoochie-mama Las Vegas showgirl clothes marketed to kids who are as young as seven. There were all these sequined, sparkling midriff tops, lots of fishnet, shirts saying things like Jailbait, Made Ya Look or Juicy on the bottoms of the pants. Pretty disgusting.
The salesperson seemed to agree with you that these clothes were inappropriate for the age group, but said everyone was buying them anyway.
Well, yeah, I think that’s what’s in style. Obviously the stuff sells because the stores are full of it. Parents buy it. They feel a lot of pressure — particularly parents who work all the time — to appease the kids by giving them what they want, so I think that’s why so many parents just finally give in. They feel like this is a battle they don’t want to fight.
Who do you think is driving this trend? Is it the kids and their taste, or is it what’s coming out of the fashion houses or from merchandisers? Or do some parents want to dress their kids this way?
Well, I think that the kids see these sorts of clothes on TV. I’ll give you an example. There’s a real popular movie that my daughter and her friends watched, The Cheetah Girls. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen The Cheetah Girls, but that’s the sort of clothes they wear. You know, they’re spilling out of the top, they’re spilling out the bottom, torn stockings and garish colours, but it’s all very Disney at the same time, it’s all very cute and hip, and so you sort of are almost led to believe, “Well, this must be normal. It’s in a cute Disney movie with not-so-little girls that are dressed like this.” Your kids say, “Well, that’s the way they dress on TV,” and it’s not a scummy, scuzzy show, and they’re not skanky people, but they still end up looking like little hookers.
But do the kids have a point? Is it harmless if it’s just fashion?
In their minds it’s just fashion, in my mind as a parent it is not harmless. I don’t think it’s harmless to wear a glittery shirt hanging off the shoulder when you’re seven years old. I think that’s just ridiculous, and borders on obscene. I’m a humour columnist by trade and this is probably the most strident thing I’ve ever written. I don’t normally get so agitated over things, but this one, I’m just shocked about it.
What kind of response did you get to the column when you wrote it?
Oh, a lot. I had more mail on that subject than I’d had in 12 years of column writing.
And did the mail all go in one direction?
Pretty much, yeah. There’s a lot of moms and dads out there who obviously agree. I think sometimes, as parents, we get so conditioned to what we see in the stores it’s almost like you get numb to it, and so this was for some parents, they said, a bit of a wake-up call, you know? If you’re used to seeing ripped jeans and some questionable phrases on kid clothes, you roll with it. Especially when you see it in really nice department stores. You think, this is what they’re selling and you almost get used to it and conditioned to accept it. I’m not a prude, by any means, but I just don’t think there’s any way you could possibly say that these kinds of clothes are suitable for anybody under, I’d say, 24.
Do you think the kids are conscious of the meaning of what they’re wearing? Does the fashion come with attitudes and behaviours?
That’s a real good question. I haven’t seen a correlation there. I think they just think it all looks cute. I don’t see that it particularly changes their personalities. They think, “This is hip, I saw it on TV, this is kind of cool.” It doesn’t turn them into monsters. I’m more concerned about the perv who sees them at the mall. A little girl, if her parent is idiot enough to buy something that says Jailbait on it, goes to the mall — it’s the perv who sees that that bothers me.
Right, so some guy who sees it as an invitation …
Oh, yeah, because they’re out there. But again, I don’t blame the kid, I blame the parent for buying.
Are the clothes an anomaly or are they part and parcel of youth culture these days? I mean, we’ve got Sex and the City on TV in prime time where I live. The lyrics in popular music get more crude and explicit all the time, and demeaning to, well, just about every sector of society aside from rap stars.
Yeah, that’s it. My daughter loved Justin Timberlake when he was in ‘N Sync, and when he started out on his own I thought Justin Timberlake was pretty talented, but now she wants to listen to his song — I think it’s called Sexy Back — and he all but has sex right there spilling out of the CD player, all the sounds and whatever, and I’m like, “You can’t listen to that. It’s completely inappropriate.”
How old are you?
Well, you and I were out and around during the disco era, and we had Donna Summer, Love to Love You Baby, and stuff like that …
Yes, but I was 21! I wasn’t a six-year-old.
I was 16 or 17 and it was all over the radio and everyone was listening to it. You think it’s aimed at a younger and younger audience?
I certainly do. The stuff that my daughter says and hears at school — I listen to her and my jaw drops because it’s stuff that we didn’t get into until we were in junior high, and she’s in fourth grade.
So you’ve mentioned that parents seem to be reluctant to pick fights on the skank wear. Are parents reluctant to pick fights along a whole range of issues and behaviors?
Yeah, generally speaking, for whatever reason, kids tend to run over their parents a lot more than they used to. The whole child-centred thing is really big now. I see it over and over again just among the friends I have: the child makes the decisions on, for example, what kind of entertainment they watch, what they do on Friday night. Sometimes they need to realize that. But I think that when the kids are running the show it’s not really a good thing. These are little kids, and if you give them that much power they’re not ready for it.
You’ve talked about levels of sexual awareness among kids. I was out at Halloween last year and heard a 13-year-old girl say, when somebody asked her about her costume, “I’m dressed as a slut.” I read a story last week where some toy company was marketing a stripper’s pole for the kids’ Christmas market.
I think I read something about that. Wouldn’t it be great exercise, or something?
Yeah, that’s right.
It’s pretty sad.
Does this genie get put back in the bottle?
It goes back to the child-centred household. We’ve lost the notion, as parents, that it’s really okay to be the grown-up and say no. My daughter hears no all the time — occasionally she hears yes, but a lot of no. There was a dress she wanted a couple of months ago, and she had a real meltdown wanting it, and I thought the dress was inappropriate, and we all survived it. Parents almost think that it’s in their contract that they have to negotiate. Well, no, they really don’t. Some things, maybe, but not everything. If your kid is trying to go out of the house looking like a mattress-back, then you just send the kid right back in there and try again.
You live in North Carolina. I still have images in my head of the South — probably hopelessly outdated — as being a little bit more formal in manners and dress than the rest of the country. Is that idea of the good Southern boy or girl completely gone?
It depends. I live in Wilmington, a beach community, so there’s not a whole lot of formal, but generally speaking you’re right — the South is the last bastion of junior cotillions and that sort of thing, and etiquette classes for little girls and little boys. The joke is that by the time a little Southern girl is nine years old, she’s already picked out her silver pattern, you know? So we do believe in a certain amount of formality. I guess maybe that’s why it’s been kind of a shock to the system to me, because there are very few alternatives to the skanky clothes even in the South, which has been traditionally conservative in matters. I go to the very nice Southern department store where I dressed as a child — the place your parents took you and held your hand and you picked out your Easter dresses — and now you go to that very same department story and it’s slut city.
How much responsibility does Paris Hilton bear for all this?
The überskank! I don’t know. In all fairness, I don’t think kids really notice Paris so much, not the kids that are the age group I’m talking about, the tweens. They notice more Avril Lavigne and the folks who have music careers
Avril Lavigne is one of ours, a Canadian …
I did know that!
… and Nelly Furtado too. What’s Nelly’s song, Promiscuous, I think?
Yeah, isn’t that lovely?
I guess we’re a leading exporter of skank music.
Who’d have thought. Yeah, that song will come on my daughter’s favourite radio station and I’m like, “No,” and I turn it off.
You turn off the radio?
Oh yeah, when that comes on? I do. I don’t think it’s appropriate for a nine-year-old kid to be singing along to how promiscuous she is. I mean, I don’t even know if she knows what that word means, but it’s just a little early for that, you know? Of course, I’m a realist. I know when she hits 13, 14, 15 and she lives with an iPod glued to her ears, I understand that’s inevitable, but she’s nine, barely nine — she doesn’t need to be singing about how promiscuous she is.
As a newspaper writer, you must notice that it’s rather unusual when a piece like your skank piece gets written. I noticed a similar column a week or two ago in the New York Times, I think it was Bob Hebert ranting about a T-shirt he’d seen in Abercrombie & Fitch bearing a slogan, something like, “Who needs a brain when you’ve got these?” Opinion like this tends to stand out because we don’t hear a lot of it expressed in mainstream media these days. Why is that?
Maybe that’s because they’re scared of offending advertisers. I hate to think it, because I’ve been in newspapers since I was 19 years old and I love newspaper work, but to be honest with you, the department stores I’m talking about are the ones that advertise in nine, 10 papers. So how angry do we want to get?