Behavior & Development • Mar 18, 2013

Why do girls wear thong underwear?

There is something absurd about a pre-pubertal girl wearing thong underwear—but I see it all the time.  After almost ten years of practice as a pediatrician, I’ve witnessed a decade of kids’ underwear trends and styles.  Sexy underwear are appearing on younger and younger girls, from Victoria’s secret satin, to thong, to fluorescent string bikinis.   Their child-like, curve-less hips aren’t made for sexy underwear.  So why do moms let their daughters wear adult-styled underwear?

I’ve heard all the arguments:

“Thong underwear are for preventing panty lines—they are functional, not meant to be sexy.”

“Pretty underwear help girls feel good about themselves.  They’re important for self-esteem.”

“She has to change for PE, and everyone sees her underwear.  She doesn’t want to wear regular cotton underwear anymore.”

“Shopping at Victoria’s secret with my kids is a great time to talk about why sex is a normal, healthy thing.”

Cherish Childhood

Here’s what I think: childhood is getting shorter—our daughters are growing up too soon.  Our daughters are trying to look like grown-ups before they have grown-up bodies.  Tweens wearing sexy underwear is just another example of all the other adult trends that have worked their way into childhood.  According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, More than 326,000 18-and-unders had plastic surgery procedures in 2004 to correct something that made them self-conscious.  Kids as young as 10 and 12 go to tanning salons, in many states without parental permission.  One woman in New Jersey was arrested for bringing her six year old into a tanning device with her.  And clothing styles for girls over seven look more like ladies clothes than kid’s clothes.  Most moms I know struggle to find summer clothes for their daughters that cover their thighs.

Eventually, moms just want their daughters to fit in and feel attractive.  A girlish appearance just doesn’t seem right for a ten-year-old anymore.

Tweens and teens not only want to look like adults, they want to act like adults, too.  They are spending more time on the uncensored internet, and a growing number have their own smart phones and tablets.  According to the Pew Research Center, 37% of American youth ages 12-17 now have a smartphone, up from 23% in 2011. Close to one in four teens has a tablet device.  Tweens who aren’t allowed to watch “R” rated movies or play “Mature” or “Teen” rated video games feel left out and start begging their parents for these privileges.  What’s the difference between the uncensored internet and mature movies and video games, anyway?

Our kids’ bodies and brains aren’t keeping up with our culture.  Just as child-like hips are not ready for sexy underwear, tween brains aren’t ready for uncensored media.  The adolescent brain continues to physically change and mature until the early 20’s.  Tweens don’t have adult decision making skills, social skills, and self-control.  We can talk to our kids about sex early and open their eyes to the world while they still live under our roof, but we can’t make their bodies mature faster.

For me, the worst part is the distraught look on the dads’ faces when they see their tween’s sexy underwear peaking out from the back of their hospital gown.  Dads know—their daughters are still too young for this.


  1. As a mother of pre-teen girls, I of course agree with you that overtly sexy underwear/clothing is disturbing and completely unnecessary. But to say that “childhood is getting shorter” is kind of absurd. A mere century ago, there’s a good chance I would have been married by age 16. In 1950, my mother, unmarried at age 20, was considered almost an old maid. My mother in law married in 1966, at the age of 19, and was right in line with her contemporaries. Childhood got extended while I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, when more and more people began attending four-year colleges. By the 90s, it was pretty much expected that one would move home after college rather than began a financially independent life. Childhood used to be VERY short when life expectancies were shorter, and higher education was only for the upper classes. People were done being kids the minute they threw their high school graduation cap in the air. So while I understand this does not directly relate to sexy underwear, just a few generations ago, girls were married and becoming parents at 15 or 17 years old. They were helping their own mothers with younger siblings from age 5 or 6. Their childhoods weren’t idyllic afternoons full of innocent play. They were being prepared for marriage and motherhood from the cradle.

  2. Norma, stay on topic. No one cares about when childhood started or ended 100 years ago. We know what it should be for our kids today.

    Kathleen (post author), I originally felt my skin bristle when you singled out moms for letting their daughters wear sexy clothing. Dad has just as much common sense about this too. They should be voicing their input on their sons’ and daughters’ clothing just as much as mothers. And then your last line got me. Now I’m thinking, maybe they have more common sense about this issue.

  3. Norma, you actually bring the point Dr. Kathleen makes home, as you pointed out that yes, ages ago people were married young out of necessity, but then you also point out that nowadays due to longevity, higher education etc. that age moved up to the mid twenties.
    By this standard child hood was extended, So yes! Dr. Kathleen is right, childhood again is shortened in today’s culture not out of the need for survival but unfounded vanity.

  4. Well written commentary and I agree. My daughter is 13 years old. At her age, I was wearing lingerie, full make up, and had a boyfriend I was sexual with. My mother had an ‘anything goes’ attitude towards me. I raised my daughter completely opposite to that approach, with rules, discipline and a sense of self-respect. So, when she was turning 13, I asked her what she wanted to do for her birthday, wondering if she would want to wear make up and go to the spa with her friends. Not even close. She wanted to do a volunteer project for the community with her friends and then go to a movie with her friends but “not a rated R movie” as she put it. I’m glad she’s making her own choices to be sensible and she knows what she’s comfortable with.

    Kids fulfill the expectations their parents set for them when a consistent message is given. If the expectation set is to be sexual, then parents shouldn’t be surprised when their little girls are sexual. If the expectation set is to be sensible and self-respecting, then girls will choose to be that way when they aren’t around their parents, too.

    Maybe dads in other families are more involved. In our culture, dads don’t see the girls in underwear and certainly not at the doctor’s office but I get that different cultures approach this differently. My point in saying this is that sometimes, it is only the mother’s domain and that mothers should take more responsibility in being responsible and decent and put less emphasis on what’s popular.

  5. Way to be RUDE, VoR. The doctor’s statement that childhood is being shortened is NOT FACTUAL. Emotional childhood seems INFINITE in today’s society. Our concept of “childhood” is a very recent one; as I said, it’s only within the last 30 years or so that the average age of marriage and leaving our parents’ homes has gone up to the mid-20s. Girls were EXPECTED to get married right out of high school, right through the late 1960s. Boys were expected to have a full time, self-supporting JOB at the same age. The 13- and 14 year old “kids” in the 1920s, 40’s, 60’s were not playing with toys and lounging around as you presume. They were babysitting, cooking, helping to run their households; boys were apprenticed or going to work alongside their fathers. It wasn’t some idyllic dollhouse and pickup baseball game world. Childhood today has been EXTENDED and personal responsibility can be postponed INDEFINITELY in today’s American society. People sponge off their parents for college, then grad school, then move back home til they’re 35 or older. “Sexy” underwear aside, there was nothing odd whatsoever about a pair of 18 year old newlyweds a mere 40 years ago…and they’d have jobs and their own housing, I’m not talking about today’s teen mom norm where she’s living in her parents’ home while they raise the kid and she’s out dating some dude who’s not the baby’s father. People matured faster in the past because it was expected of them. I know people in their mid 40s now who’ve still never left the nest or supported themselves (perpetual grad students) because it is OKAY not to.

  6. Dear Dr. Berchelmann,
    Please don’t forget the boys underwear ! Recently I went shopping for my boys (10, 5 & 3 y.o.) and I didn’t like what I saw ! The Calvin Klein’s sparkling gray and citric colors briefs were no way to children. Also the pants I saw at a shop weren’t something boy-like or men-like , but very “smart-gay” thing ! The trend is far beyond “only” shortening childhood , but pushing children too early through an dubious behavior .
    And yes , children have to be children in their childhood . They have the entire life to be adults .

  7. Sent from my iPad

    Begin forwarded message:

    From: Christie
    Date: March 27, 2013, 9:36:21 EDT
    To: Matt Calhoun
    Subject: Thoughts

    First of all, dads should and need to be involved in not only what their children wear but, the teaching of their daughter’s and son’s physical and emotional beauty. Dads are huge in this area and typically, we get into weird therapy issues with girls searching for their dad’s love and what not in the teen year with boys. It is not something that falls only on the mothers and if it is, then you don’t really have the right to complain. I have a 9 year old daughter and she does not dress inappropriately for her age, no sexy anything. I always ask her dad what he thinks because its important that she knows that she is beautiful for who she is and that he believes that too and that he has an input because her safety is important to him.

    With that being said, I am really commenting in response to Norma and Adarc’s convo. I find it slightly amusing that you guys are arguing different sides of the same coin and seem to not be seeing it. Norma made very good points when she said kids don’t have to grow up as fast or ever really in our society and then Adarc stated that society had made it that way with tuition and what not. That was the point. We have raised our kids to be children for forever. We rush them into adulthood as Tweens but then a lot of the time people are done parenting then. You can’t be done patenting then because that is when your kids need you the most. They may look like little adults but they are not. I remember my best friend in high school, his mom was pretty much in a drunken haze from the time he was 9 on, because she believed he was old enough to take care of himself. He never stopped functioning at that corrupted age of nine. A lot of the people I went to high school with are nine-11 year olds trapped inside late 20 something year old bodies. Let them be kids when they are kids but teach them how to be adults so when that time comes they can do it. Also, college is not an excuse to live with your parents when you are 30. I know lots of people who have and are going to college and they don’t live with their parents. If that is happening then it is a failure to launch sort of thing and the excuses will always be there. My generation has a very freeloader attitude towards life and as long as people keep giving them excuses they are going to keep manipulating the crap out of everyone. I was moved out at 18 and with the exception of ankle surgery recovery, never moved back home. I have paid my own way since I was 17. We need to teach our kids how to deal with money and how to be adults because for some reason that was completely missed with most of my generation. This in no way means we should rush them into adulthood as a tween. We need to get the two extremes together and use those 14-18 years of childhood to get them ready for adulthood, not thrust them into it at nine because we want a friend or a mini us and then stop teaching so they are a twisted and nonfunctioning child in an adult body. Lastly, adult undies should not be on little children, but to say that sexy undies is about pleasing men is not accurate either. Girls/woman should be pleasing themselves with pretty and age appropriate items and not pleasing men. That gets people into trouble, we should focus inwards and not out wards. Girls should not think that their job with undies or anything else is to please men or that they need to wear them to be pleasurable.

  8. Thank you Dr. Berchelmann. This is an issue, and your perspective and insight is particularly relevant.

  9. I agree completely, and can add that when my daughter was younger, she thought it was creepy to have things written on her underwear. And she was right, it IS creepy. I also find it oddly creepy that a parent would defend her child’s right to wear something someone else will be reading…anywhere near her private parts. We have a 14-year-old and it is nearly impossible to keep her dressed in clothes that don’t make her look like she’s 23. Do you know what happens to 14-year-olds who look like they’re 23? You catch them with college boys, who have no idea how old the girl is, because “she looks of age.” 14-year-olds should LOOK like they are 14. Luckily, our young one likes vintage clothes, so we can keep her covered most of the time. But defending her “right” to look older than she is, is just gross. If you could see the way men look at these little girls…I have many times yelled “she’s 11!!!” to disgusting older men–and she LOOKS young–and they are usually appropriately embarrassed. I remember what it was like to be that age. You could not imagine how many grown men (many with children!!) were trying to get with me. Many men are disgusting little creatures with one thing on their minds. Dress up your child for them, but don’t be surprised when she is hurt–and that will partly be your fault, if you teach your little one that beauty is defined by someone loving her underwear.

  10. Awesome article. I grieve over the sexualization of our children. I look at Facebook with young girls posting very provocative pictures of themselves and it wounds my heart. They are headed in the wrong direction. I agree with one of the comments that the Father needs to take the lead on this. It is so important for the Father to affirm his daughter’s worth even as he sets limits on her attire. My wife and I enjoyed our children’s journeys and the kids enjoyed it as well. Parents don’t be in a hurry to grow your kids up. They will be gone far too soon as it is.

  11. we ARE over sexualizing our children. I agree that small girls under 13 and 14 should be in age appropriate attire. I don’t have a girl (yet, we find out what this little person is in 6 weeks), but I am sure when the time comes we will deal with this particular issue. Side note, to say sexy underwear is uncomfortable is an OPINION, not a fact. To call someone out on that, saying its ONLY for pleasing men, not for comfort or for the woman, is ignorant and false. In some people’s opinion (mine included) thongs are very comfortable, almost like wearing no underwear at all, yet covering the front. Some days I prefer regular granny panties or cotton briefs (mostly when I am sick or feeling too lazy to look for something I like more) But even around the house I prefer thongs. I have no one to please. I just prefer them. I also prefer supportive bras, not the ones that let my plenty large enough breasts to sag. I do a lot of Pilates so I need a bra that is straight in the back, supportive, upthrusting to a degree and with shoulder straps that are short enough to where when i jump I dont get a black eye. Sports bras are “okay”, just not comfortable to me. To each their own. I get not wanting a child to wear sexy underwear, but do demonize it in general and say that women who wear thongs are only looking for a man’s approval? Come on ladies, lets pull in the claws eh?

  12. Also, I like finding bras and underwear that match. I am in a committed relationship, and my guy couldn’t care less if my thong or briefs or boy shorts match my bra, or if I am wearing underwear at all. The beauty of being comfortable and happy with a man, and not having to “please” him with undies. I just feel “together” when my underwear matches my bra, and even prefer that my shirt match my underwear (OCD I suppose, or just knowing that something in the world fits, having a toddler makes that seem more rare) 🙂 My son is around all day long, so my underwear choices are not for men at all (I have to stay covered up anyway with him around, and again, my guy really doesn’t care). SOOO that means that my choice in undies is for me, not for man fishing. Try not to generalize or point fingers, especially based on personal opinions. When i was in highschool, I chose my underwear for me. no men ever saw my underwear, and if you raise your daughter to be independent and confident, she won’t care what the girls in the locker room think.

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  14. I am a 13 year old girl and reading this article makes me feel really sad and disgusted. This really is happening, there are girls in my middle school that wear overly revealing lacy bras and underwear from victorias secret with words plastered across their butts. I have always worn plain cotton panties and plan to wear them for a very long time. My grandmother is very old fashioned and she says lingerie should be saved for marriage and in the bedroom and when you are old and mature enough for it….

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  18. I’m 13 and I wear things for volleyball, they are just underwear! And for my active lifestyle I need panty line free underwear. Volleyball spandex also bunch up normal underwear and makes it look weird. I’m in private school and nobody in my class or school has ever been sexually active. Heck, my school flips over kissing. Thongs are not for being “sexy”, they are for fit and feel. I don’t mean to be disrespectful but most of you that are commenting are grown ups and don’t understand/take into consideration what we girls think. This is a different generation…..

  19. It’s just a butt (a baby butt in this case so ewww). Let it show. No one cares. I think the more we worry about this, the more we make society think too much of it. Can someone tell me if showing your bloomers was such a big deal back in the 60’s, 70’s? In this society i think we’ve seen it all, hear it all, and if you haven’t you can “find” it all on the internet. If it really means so much for your daughters to have their butts hanging of a piece of string/cotton/whatever, then let it hang. It’s not for showing anyways, hence the name “UNDERwear”. Gym? Ain’t nobody need to be looking at each other. I mean, everything mentioned here is sick when you over think it. Again, it’s underwear on “teens” so I don’t see where the sexual part comes in if NO ONE will look at it other than your daughters, unless they have a tendency of going out in skirts and falling on all fours for the neighbors to see. Right? No. You wear skirts, you wear spandex. You go to the gym, you change quickly and not parade around your butt!!!!! There is no argument here and this is the truth. We try to make everything sexual. Next thing you know, no one can go to a public bathroom because of the risk of showing a vagina or penis!! Let’s stop please.

  20. I have a 15 year old daughter. She started wearing thongs when she was 13 and I was totally fine with it. I shopped with her at Victorias secret and we had a blast picking out cute and sexy underwear. But my daughter has had a serious boyfriend for two years now and I know that they are sexual, she knows to be responsible and I trust her. In my opinion it was her decision to begin wearing sexier underwear. (Also I have a pet peeve about panty lines and she likes wearing leggings )

  21. The fact that I’m a teenage boy and find what most girl’s do is disgusting goes against what many people think. I think that girls under the age of eighteen or older need to respect themselves more. Your ideals are good and I agree with them.

  22. It’s the part that it’s getting to younger girls. If you saw a five year old dressing like a tramp and worse would you freak out or would you stand by? I get it live and let live but you tell me what if it was your daughter?

  23. Are you sure? That is your small group, I go to a public school and it is opposite of what you say. Girls in my school openly talk about who they had sex with the night before. They even tell each other what they wore and how the guy thought it was sexy

  24. And tell me what if you saw her wearing pants that actually showed her butt because it stretched that much? Would you still say that the thong is safe?

  25. I dont have problems if it’s things like sports events but out in school and at stores? That goes too far. I was working and a ninth grade girl that goes to my school came in and had leggings on that were so tight that you could see her butt and I wasn’t even looking at her bum. I could see it just by checking a shelf from about 7 feet away.

  26. But you’re an adult, I know what you think is most of the cases, but it goes too far in a lot of cases with teens. I’ve over heard conversations at school with girls saying who they have had it with and what worked best for them. One day while I was working a girl came in and she was wearing so tight of leggings that you could see her butt cheeks even if you weren’t looking. One of my co-workers even pointed it out

  27. I’m 17 and I agree with you. Even if I am male, I don’t like my girls dressed too showy on a daily basis. Every once in a while is fine but every day? That is a little too much

  28. I think what Aztecaloop said was right. I go to Vs to buy thongs for school so I can show of my butt to boys when I am wearing leggings. Considering that I lost my virginity at the age ok 13 my parents find ok that I wear thongs. Also I play multiple sports which either make me wear spandex or a thong

  29. you let her be sexy when she just started to become a teen… didn’t set any real boundaries…, and now she’s a sexually active 15 year old girl…., maybe that’s all coincidental, but i think all of that is linked to each other…

  30. by his logic, we should all just simply go naked. Then any man that wants to check out the naked teen girl is their fault and their problem. Kind of reminds me of the liberal agenda of “teach men not to rape” rather than teaching a woman how to defend herself and take precautions.

    the whole panty line issue is moot. With today’s technological fabrics You can wear thin comfortable panties without a thong and not show a panty line. If however your “leggings” are so thin and so tight that you can actually see the barely there panty through it then i can assure you that panty lines are not an issue and more so want to show your butt off.

    i say there is nothing wrong with showing your butt off and sexualizing ones self, but let’s not pretend that isn’t the goal.

  31. unless your school forces you to wear super skin tight volley ball shorts for some strange reason, i don’t see an actual “need” for a thong, other than pure choice.

    women can easily wear regular shorts and play volley ball well. The proof is simple. look at any men’s volley ball team and you’ll see 0 of them wearing speedoes or spandex shorts. So the skin tight butt uniform is more out of sex appeal than practicality. I can understand it for college volley ball, the crowds for womens sports tends to be a lot smaller, however if you entice men with some sex appeal, the seats fill up more. I surely hope this is not the case for 13 year old girls playing sports, however schools may just simply follow what the professionals use, but i’ve seen great athletic girls that dont wear boot shorts to play

  32. I’m not sure when my hips became curvy but my twin sister and I began wearing thong underwear when we were twelve years old. We thought it ‘grown-up’ to do so and our mother had no objection – only that she insisted we wore white ones. Twenty years on, I can honestly say we experienced no ill effect from doing so. I still wear thongs (like my mother) while my sister now wears bikini knickers (or g-strings under skinny jeans and summer dresses). My father, meanwhile, wears small briefs while my brothers both wear boxer shorts. In short, I think too much can be made of underwear styles, who wears what and at what age. I see no harm in individuals making their selection for reasons in addition to functional.

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