Mixed Signals: What Your Tween’s Clothing Is Saying (Literally)

Mixed Signals is Erin Straza’s weekly musing about marketing miscellany in advertising, branding, and messaging.

When did we first find it fashionable to wear a t-shirt plastered with a clever phrase? It may have been the shirts stating, “I’m with Stupid,” or maybe the ones with the classic smiley face. No matter—for today, shirts with witty, crass, and humorous messaging abound.

But clever is in the eye of the beholder. And some clothing designers are finding out the hard way that what is clever to some is offensive to others. Three companies have recently had to pull their shirts for tween girls due to inappropriate messaging.

The first is J. C. Penney:

The second is Forever 21:

The third is Zazzle (with shirts sporting the now-famous quote by supermodel Kate Moss):

The offended have argued that clothing stores are telling our girls that it is best to be stupid and skinny. Others have said these are cheeky, to be taken lightly.

My question is, if my daughter spoke these things aloud, would I find them clever or witty? Or would I be distressed that she had such a poor assessment of herself?

Messaging like this is not innocuous, especially for tween girls who are typically quite sensitive. Such phrases will become part of how they think about themselves, creating an atmosphere of self-deprecation in which many girls will be stuck through adulthood. The messages certainly don’t uphold the thought test given in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, for dwelling on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable.

If we are to help our kids—and in this case, our girls—think rightly about themselves, we have to be mindful of the messages their clothing sends.

About Erin Straza

Erin Straza (Associate Editor) is a freelance writer, editor, and marketing communications consultant, helping organizations tell their stories in authentic and compelling ways. After a stint in corporate marketing while earning her MBA, Erin taught marketing communications at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State. She is crafting her first book, writing from the Illinois flatlands where she lives with her husband, Mike. Find more from Erin at her blog Filling My Patch of Sky and on Twitter @ErinStraza.
E-mail: erin [at] FillingMyPatchOfSky [dot] com
Blog: Filling My Patch of Sky
Twitter: @ErinStraza

  • EN

    This is right on, and part of the problem is that these messages don’t originate with the shirts; they’re part of the cultural climate, and by the time the girls wear these shirts, they’re already deeply familiar with the ideologies represented. It’s not like they’re suddenly being introduced to these impressions of femaleness at age 12.

    On a side note–I’d love to hear your take on the writing across the backside of girls’ clothing, which starts even earlier.


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