- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

They were only 7 and 5 when my daughters learned what it meant to be a tramp. My mother told them.

It was our first “girls’ getaway” — a weekend of intergenerational bonding over nail polish and a trip to the shopping mall. I had packed a few fashion magazines and a copy of People — the annual best- and worst-dressed edition — to peruse during the four-hour drive.

I did the driving, so my mother did the perusing. She perched her bright red reading glasses on the end of her nose and opened the slick pages of People to take in the full-color photos. On page after page, the magazine offered its take on celebrity-style statements — the daring, the delightful, the dazzling and the disastrous dresses that turned heads on red carpets from New York to Los Angeles and beyond.

My mom isn’t one to hold back when she feels strongly about something. Suffice to say, the pages of People generated a visceral response as she expertly licked her fingers and flipped the flimsy paper of the special double issue.

“Look at this woman,” she shrieked, holding up the magazine so I could glance over and see the photo without endangering us or the other folks on the expressway. “What a tramp.”

“What’s a tramp?” my younger daughter asked.

“A tramp is someone who dresses like this,” my mom said in a roundabout explanation, slapping the photo for effect. “She’s practically naked.”

“Icks-nay on the amp-tray,” I said in pig Latin. “We’ve never actually defined that term at home.”

“Well, it’s never too soon to know what a tramp is and how to avoid dressing like one,” my mother declared.

That’s the weekend my girls learned my mother’s definition of “tacky” and what modesty means. At an early age, they understood that their clothing choices can tell the world who they are and what they stand for.

I’ve read modesty is making a fashion comeback, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at what’s on the racks for spring and summer. Paper-thin fabrics, belly-baring halter tops with sayings like “Ready or Not” and “Wild Child,” skirts slit to here, animal prints — all designed to exude hypersexuality.

These are just the choices in the girls’ department. The attire in the juniors’ department is so explicit it belongs in a catalog with a heavy brown paper wrapper.

Apparently the folks on Seventh Avenue haven’t heard about the modesty trend. They are not concerned about maintaining a wholesome, youthful image for today’s young teens through the clothing they produce. In their relentless pursuit of “fashion” (a word that here means “money”), they offer season after season of tacky togs intended to cover little of the human anatomy.

It sometimes seems the skimpier the outfit, the higher the price tag.

In addition to promoting a heightened and inappropriate image of sexuality in young girls, the folks who make these clothes create an added burden for mothers everywhere — enforcing standards of decency for our daughters.

As if parents don’t have enough to haggle over (boys, cars, curfews, homework, the volume on headphones, the importance of breakfast, the capacity of a laundry hamper), now we must explain why it’s inappropriate to expose one’s torso to a waiting world.

And not just the torso, but the panties that can’t help but land slightly above the waistline of the jeans and the bra straps that can’t be concealed because the spaghetti straps on the “cami” are just strings.

So far, I have managed to avoid dressing-room debates about these style trends, thanks to my mother’s long-ago lesson about what it means to be “tacky” and how to avoid it.

But mothers of daughters can only do so much. Our struggle to send our girls into the world appropriately attired would be easier if we had support from mothers of teenage sons, like my girlfriend.

With four strapping boys in her home, she often has admiring girls hanging around. She likes it when the teenagers gather at her house because she can keep tabs on them, but she has rules, and one of those has to do with attire.

Once, when a friend of her high schoolers showed up scantily clad in short shorts and a shirt that barely covered her chest, my friend said to her, “Honey, you’re welcome at my house, but you need to go home and put some clothes on. You may not visit my home dressed like this.”

OK, so her boys didn’t speak to her for two weeks. They got over it, and when they did, they learned that their mother expects them to treat women with dignity and respect even if a woman doesn’t extend dignity or respect to herself.

It’s no wonder teens struggle with decisions about expressing their sexuality when they’re confronted with a daily dose of temptation. After all, what’s a boy supposed to think when a girl comes to school in a T-shirt that reads “Hottie” across the front? Boys can only assume — justifiably — that she’s not a walking thermometer but a girl on a mission.

Our girls can send an even bolder message than those printed on today’s T-shirts — a message about self-esteem, self-respect and sexuality: It’s not what’s outside, but what’s on the inside that matters most.

Our culture needs to rediscover an old but effective fashion trend: Leaving something to the imagination.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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