The Thing About Thongs

  • All in all, I had thought I was doing pretty well in bridging the "generation gap"--though my kids would say even this outmoded phrase betrays a certain cluelessness. In any case, my teenagers and I can readily agree on playing Radiohead and Coldplay during car trips. We laugh together at Queer Eye and Jon Stewart. Then there's Johnny Depp. My 14-year-old daughter and I are totally eye to eye on that one (as long as I don't remind her that he's closer to my age than hers). Luckily, we've been able to skirt such deal breakers as tattooing and body piercing. So far. But my self-image as a relatively cool mom unraveled like a cheap slip last month in the lingerie department of Lord & Taylor, where we were doing some back-to-school shopping. The bottom-line point of contention: underwear.

    My daughter made it very clear that I just didn't get it. Why did I not grasp that one couldn't be seen in the girls' locker room sporting those packaged bikini underpants from Jockey or Hanes? Granny pants is what some kids call them. "Mom," my daughter wearily explained, "basically, every girl at school is wearing a thong." The only viable alternative, one that my daughter favored, was an item called boyshorts, a low-riding pair of short shorts loosely, or should I say tightly, based on Britney's stagewear. Either way, it was going to be 8 to 20 bucks apiece, not three for $9. "But who sees them?" I sputtered. My daughter explained that besides the locker-room scene, girls liked to wear their overpriced thongs with a silky strap showing — not unlike the way they wear their bras.

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    She was right about my not getting it. How did a risque item popularized as a tool of seduction by Monica Lewinsky become the de rigueur fashion for eighth-and ninth-graders? Yet the trend is undeniable. Sales of thongs to tweens (a market now defined ridiculously broadly as ages 7 to 12) have quadrupled since 2000, from a modest $400,000 to $1.6 million, according to NPD Fashionworld, a market-tracking firm. And there's nothing skimpy about what girls ages 13 to 17 spent on thongs last year: $152 million, or 40% of their overall spending on underpants. Do their mothers know?

    Where this thing for thongs comes from is obvious: Britney, Beyonce, The Real World, even PG movies like Freaky Friday. When a 12-year-old wears a thong, "it's not about rebellion against adults," says child therapist Ron Taffel, author of The Second Family: How Adolescent Power Is Challenging the American Family (St. Martin's Press; 2001). In Taffel's view, the adult establishment has become too weak and weary to inspire rebellion. Getting thongs or tattoos or body piercings, he argues, is actually a "statement to other kids that they are part of this very, very intense, powerful second family of peer group and pop culture that is shaping kids' wants, needs and feelings." This phenomenon is gripping kids at ever earlier ages. Peer pressure is at its most intense between fifth and eighth grade, says Taffel, "but it can begin in first and second grade."

    Adult forces — parents, schools, churches — find it hard to compete with pop culture. Some schools have dress codes that outlaw visible underwear, but enforcing a ban on something as subtle as a thong isn't easy, as a vice principal at a San Diego high school learned to the detriment of her career last year. Her methodology left something to be desired: she was demoted after she lifted skirts for an undies inspection before allowing girls into a school dance.

    Is the underwear battle worth picking? Those who think so are worried that the thong is a blatant sexual advertisement or, at least, a tempting tease for the opposite sex. This may not be so, according to developmental psychologist Deborah Tolman, author of Dilemmas of Desire: Teenage Girls Talk About Sexuality (Harvard University Press; 2002). "Kids are engaged with their sexuality at younger ages, but they're not necessarily sexually active," she says. The tween thong is, in a sense, the perfect symbol for the schizoid way that girls' sexual role has evolved. On the one hand, Tolman observes, girls are expected, as always, to be the "gatekeepers" to sex. (God forbid that boys should be held responsible.) And, yet, she says, nowadays even young tweens feel social pressure to look sexy — without crossing over the murky line into seeming slutty. In short, says Tolman, "the good-girl, bad-girl thing has grown much more complicated."

    Which is exactly what troubled me in the lingerie department. It wasn't until we got to the parking lot that I did what psychologists say a perplexed parent should do: I asked why the underwear mattered and listened hard to the answer. Tolman calls this the "authentic ask." My daughter's answer reflected her sense of style. But for many girls who want thongs, it may be pragmatism: What else works under tight low-rider jeans? I gave the O.K. to boyshorts at $8.50 a pair. She's delighted. "Mom," she said the other day, "you really ought to try them."