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Wearing a medium with a message

Even little girls are slipping on T-shirts with sexy messages these days. Is it all in good fun, or a really, really bad idea?

Published October 14, 2006

[Times photo: Mike Pease]
Gallery of T-shirts

TAMPA — As 17-year-old Bianca Hernandez  hung up jeans recently at International Plaza’s Forever XXI store, her tight T-shirt was doing a lot of talking:

“No Money, No Car, No Chance.”

“But that’s not how I feel or anything,” Hernandez said about her taste in guys.

Call it rude, call it crude, call it the latest sign of civilization’s decline —  there is no escaping message Ts.
Some are harmless. JCPenney  sells T-shirts that say “Be happy” and “Looking for my prince.” Some are ironic: “You couldn’t afford my expensive taste” is the message on a $12.99 shirt at Charlotte Russe.

Then there are the baddies of the T-shirt world — the sexy girls smokin’ in the bathroom. “Stop staring, they don’t talk.” “Yes, but not with you.”  “Are you a good boy?’’

In a society soaked with sexual imagery, such messages are being worn by girls barely old enough to drive, or in some cases, stay home without a sitter.

But when does playful cross the line to trashy? And how should educators deal with sexual messages in the classroom?

At International Plaza’s Abercrombie store, 16-year-old Rebekah Stellick of Clearwater purchased a shirt that read:

“I may not be perfect, but parts of me are pretty awesome.”

“I guess you could read something nasty into it if you wanted,” said Rebekah’s mother, Vicki Stellick. Rebekah said she thought the shirt was playful and fun.

But “fun” is relative when you’re an educator trying to maintain a school dress code.

School districts in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties ban sexual or vulgar garments and items related to drugs, gangs, weapons or alcohol.

The problem: It’s not always that simple. School administrators have a tough time staying on top of a lexicon rooted in today’s raunchy culture.

“It’s either something from a song or something from a rap and in looking at the phrase, it may mean nothing to an adult but may mean something to a kid because it’s out of context,” said Ken Otero , deputy superintendent of Hillsborough County Schools.

Students sometimes cover the shirts with jackets or avoid principals all day, said Michael Bessette , an area superintendent with Pinellas schools.

“I think a part of their job is to test the limits of the dress code, but it’s also our job to continually enforce it,” Bessette said.

Alyssa  Johnson, 15, who shopped at Westfield Countryside’s Hollister store recently, wasn’t interested in a shirt that said, “My eyes are up here.”

“I like plain clothes,” said Alyssa, who said she has no desire to test the dress code at her school, J.W. Mitchell High in Pasco County. If you get caught, she said, you might have to wear a school-issued shirt, a humiliation no teenager wants to bear.

Her mother, Kris  Johnson, draws a clear line for her daughter.

“The impression you give other people is what they’re thinking you are,” she said. “It’s a child. Children are pushed to grow up too fast as it is.”

According to the NPD Group Inc., a consumer and retail information company, T-shirts are a more than $23-billion industry in the United States. It’s hard to gauge how much of that comes from message Ts, but retailers say suggestive slogans bring in dollars.

“Anything that has anything semiprovocative on it, those sell first,” said Erica Mackey, 22, assistant manager of Wet Seal in the Tyrone Square Mall. Girls as young as 9 buy them, she said, but so do older women.

“We have one that says 'I’m definitely up to something,’” Mackey said. “My mom has that one, and she’s, like, 40.”

Last year, a group of teenage girls in Pittsburgh led a “girlcott” against racy shirts sold at Abercrombie & Fitch. They went on the Today show to denounce shirts that said, among other things, “Who needs brains when you have these?”

Months later, the company pulled some of its questionable shirts out of stores and introduced some with milder messages, such as “Brunettes have brains” and “Cute and classy.”

Ariel Levy , author of the book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture, says provocative shirts are a symptom of a culture obsessed with sexual showmanship.

“Even if you have a dress code that says you can’t wear that to school, it doesn’t change the fact that the entire culture is set up in a way where that is appropriate,” Levy said. She said it trickles down to youngsters from women who confuse sexual explicitness with feminist liberation.

Holly Gaw-Kirkley , an art teacher at Mulrennan Middle School in Valrico, said she sends students to the office about once a week for violating the dress code.

Gaw-Kirkley also sees pants and shorts with words across the rear  — “PINK,” a Victoria’s Secret brand, or “Juicy” from design house Juicy Couture.

“I remember telling a group of girls one day, 'There are a lot of sexual predators that live in our area, and you don’t want older men looking at your rear-ends,’” she said. “As an older woman who is sort of a mother type to them, you become very protective.”

Krysten  Hurman, 16, wore “PINK” sweatpants recently at Westfield Citrus Park Mall. Message T-shirts look “desperate,” said the Gaither High School student, but the sweatpants are cute.

Jamie Harrison, 15, defended Hurman’s pants as a fact of retail and not a plea for attention.

“They sell them that way, so you buy them that way,” she said.

“Why do you think they sell them like that?” countered her friend, 18-year-old Austin Cabral.

Boys’ shirts can be equally bawdy. Abercrombie offers several shirts that allude to sex, partying and drinking. Gaw-Kirkley said she once sent a middle school boy to the office for wearing a shirt that said, “Thank your girlfriend for me.”

“It just was really despicable,” she said. “I don’t think the kids realize how it’s just kind of embarrassing.”

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (813) 269-5303.

[Last modified October 14, 2006, 19:25:50]

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