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Casey Christie / The Californian

Staci Earl plays with Etta, the family dog, before heading off to school. She wears a mandatory school uniform each day that her mother, Mariah, likes in part because it allows her to sidestep wardrobe battles with her teenager.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Mariah Earl, far right, prepares her three daughters for the day ahead early Thursday morning. Anabelle, left, Staci, and Katelyn, right. Staci wears a mandatory school uniform and her other daughters always dress age appropriately.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Mariah Earl, right, helps her children get ready for school each morning with homemade lunches and a hot breakfast. She makes sure they all dress age-appropriately. Katelyn, left, helps prepare her lunch and Anabelle has fun each morning because she doesn't attend school yet.

Mother of three Mariah Earl is grateful that her oldest child attends a private school with mandatory uniforms. That allows her to sidestep wardrobe battles with her teenager.

"Now my 10-year-old, that's a little trickier," said Earl, 34, of northwest Bakersfield. "Her school does have a rule that shorts and skirts can't be higher than your fingertips, but I happen to think even the fingertip rule is on the short side."

It's getting harder and harder for parents to impose modesty on their young daughters. It's routine these days to see low-rise jeans, miniskirts and short shorts on girls in elementary school.

And then there are the more extreme examples -- baby booties made to resemble high heels and beauty pageant circuits in which toddlers strut across stages in evening gowns, teased hair and full makeup. Competitors even have their own reality show, TLC's "Toddlers and Tiaras."

Schools are pushing back with stricter dress codes. Private school Garces Memorial High School this year imposed a minimum length for shorts (6 inches above the knee) and skirts (5 inches above the knee).

"The foundation of our school is Catholicism, of course, so we very much believe in morality," said John Fanucchi, Garces' president and dean of students. "It's important not just for girls but for every student to dress modestly and uniformly so the emphasis isn't on social or financial status but on learning."

The Fruitvale School District assembled a parent committee a few years ago to draw up guidelines that "reflect the conservative nature of the community we serve," said Superintendent Mary Westendorf.

There's that fingertip rule (no shorter than a girl's fingertips when her arms are at her side), and no spaghetti straps, tube tops, midriffs or low-cut necklines.

Panama-Buena Vista Union School District also bans short shorts, tops that are too revealing, T-shirts with inappropriate slogans and other garments that "create a distraction and interfere with learning," said Assistant Superintendent Gerrie Kincaid.

Some are amazed by the need to state explicitly what educators previously could take for granted.

"School is a special place," said Norris School District Superintendent Steve Shelton. "It's not hanging out at the park. Most of our parents recognize that."


But even parents who agree school's a place for modesty sometimes have a tough time complying because retailers are firmly in the less-is-more camp.

Neither the National Retail Federation nor the American Apparel & Footwear Association responded to requests for an interview, but parents have plenty to say. Searching for bermuda shorts or a below-the-knee skirt in a youth size, they lament, is an exercise in frustration.

"There's not much out there," said mother of five Esther Schlanger, an orthodox Jew who avoids revealing clothes for religious reasons.

"It's a constant challenge. Sometimes a shopping trip will take a week, or I have to resort to the Internet," she said. "I can't ever just dash into the mall and be done in a day."

Schlanger loves spring and winter, when stores roll out holiday skirts and dresses that tend to have lower hemlines.

"I stock up when I see them," she said.

Emily Gunn, 35, of southwest Bakersfield, is "petrified" by her 5-year-old daughter's imminent transition out of the toddler section of clothing stores.

Clothes in the next age tier are "short, tight and way too grown up," she said.

The popularity of sweatpants and shorts with messages printed or embroidered across the backside are particularly irksome to Earl.

"I don't want to see anything written across my daughter's bum," she said. "Whether it's 'princess' or 'juicy' or whatever, that's not anyplace I want anyone looking."

Earl covers spaghetti-strapped Easter dresses with shrugs and buys camisoles to cover skin exposed by low-rise jeans.

"Before we buy shirts and pants, we practically do calisthenics in the dressing room, reaching and bending to make sure nothing shows," she joked.

Dana Bezdek, 42, has three daughters ranging in age from 7 to 14, and also finds choices limited.

"It's very, very difficult to find anything that doesn't make them look like little prostitutes in training," she said. "I went into a shoe store and found a 3-inch heal that fit my 7-year-old. That's outrageous. Where's the simple little ballet flat?"

Even though Bezdek is horrified, she's not surprised.

"My mother was a majorette in high school in the late 1960s, and the uniform was knee-high go-go boots, a vest shirt and hot pants, so this is nothing new," she said. "I think what's new is our sensitivity.

"There are a lot more child predators today, so we're more outraged by it. My mom was still putting me in baby doll dresses with the little bloomers showing when I was 5 or 6 years old. You wouldn't dream of that today."


Every generation pushes fashion boundaries, but even a culture that doesn't blink at Lady Gaga in a minidress made from raw meat bristles when it comes to children.

Singer Jessica Simpson was widely criticized two weeks ago after showing a television audience a photo of her 4-month-old daughter in a bikini.

Dressing young girls in mature clothing is a symptom of consumerism, said Cal State Bakersfield sociologist Rhonda Dugan. Parents who are under pressure to keep up with the latest fashions may think such clothes are funny or adorable, but the styles could have unwanted consequences, she said.

"We've already seen how the pressure to look a certain way manifests itself in self-esteem issues and anorexia and bulimia in adolescents," Dugan said. "I just wonder if now that pressure is going to trickle down to even younger girls and we'll start to see those outcomes at an even younger age."

Mother of three Bezdek is aware of the difficulties of not conforming. She said she tries to be reasonable because she doesn't want her girls to be teased for dressing differently from their friends, many of whom are emulating the trendy clothes they see on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon.

"We try to reach a compromise," Bezdek said. "As long as there's no cleavage and they can bend over with nothing showing, I'm OK."