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The Tennis Skirt Industrial Complex: Schoolgirl to MILF Pipeline

The Tennis Skirt Industrial Complex is a term coined by the podcast, Nymphet Alumni, on Spotify. This phenomena is explained by being one of the many displays of the hyper sexualization of little girls, specifically the fetishization of the “schoolgirl.” A good example of this is the “…Baby One More Time” music video. Britney Spears was only 16 in this, and it is extremely apparent what message was trying to be conveyed with this video. This is no fault of Britney Spears; though she was the one who decided to wear the schoolgirl outfit, she is a product of the male gaze just like all of us and can not be blamed for wanting to cater to that audience.

In contrast, something else hyper sexualized is “milfs.”  Milf, quite literally, stands for “Mother I’d Like to F***.” As of late, it has become trendy for young girls to aspire to one day be a milf. Though we are way too young to even think about the mother part of being a milf, girls are already feeling the pressure of needing to age gracefully.

The schoolgirl to milf pipeline is a clear product of the male gaze, and there is no escaping it. The pipeline goes like this: when we are younger, we are forced into a “barely legal” trope, and because of the male gaze, we milk that until we are too grown-looking to do otherwise. As soon as we no longer fit the “barely legal” look, we are placed into the milf archetype, becoming nothing but fertility symbols for the male gaze. 

The coming of age experience is completely different for men and women; for the male sex, there is a very smooth transition from boy to man. In early childhood and up until puberty, there is a very clear “boys will be boys” mentality; they are allowed to engage in academic enrichment, play, sport, and even violence. Once boys are old enough to be considered men, they have full autonomy over decision making. Throughout all of this, though, there is no sexualization of them. For the female sex, however, this is not the case. As children, girls are allowed to engage in the same things as boys (with the exception of violence and stereotypically masculine sports), but they are sexualized while doing it. As we grow into pubescence and eventually adolescence, fetishes are named after us. “Schoolgirl” and ”barely legal” are just two of them. Once we hit our mid 20s/30s we quite obviously start aging a bit, so we no longer fit in the box labeled “I was literally a minor two months ago.” Not only are our 20s and 30s a time when we visibly start aging, it’s a time when fertility is at its peak. As we outgrow one fetish, we get thrown into another: milf. Without even giving women enough time to decide if we want children, we are expected to be sexy while doing it.

This bleeds into a broader conversation on sex. How young can someone be and still be appropriately involved into conversations on sex, sexuality, and what is sexy? I’ve noticed increasing conversations commencing on how to talk to growing kids about sex, when, and how to deal with difficult questions and protecting them. This is good and should continue; however, before girls may be concerned with sex, they already face external sexualization. One out of ten girls gets catcalled before they turn eleven. The only reason why many girls want to get involved in these conversations is to keep up with their peers and fit in, just like any kid. Peer pressure is easy to succumb to, especially for such a young individual. 

I took a quiz a few days ago where I had to guess the ages of a selection of girls and young women. Most of them were dressed the same way my friends and I dress in college: tank tops and jeans, and they mostly were wearing makeup. While others may think they make themselves look much older than they are, they don’t look any different from the girls I went to high school and go to college with. The issue is then why do we confuse younger women with older women? While yes, makeup can be used to make one look very different, surely it can’t be making young girls look a decade older. I wonder whether men want these girls to be older so they can feel less concerned about being attracted to them or whether men simply can’t tell the difference between a 17 and a 20 year-old. Growing up, people were never able to guess my age correctly, regardless of what I was wearing or if I was wearing makeup. Of course, like some have baby faces, others, including men, look much older naturally, but how much older?

Conversations on tiktok about the abolition of the pre-teen phase have circulated and young girls have involved themselves. Some have said “are you mad that I’m 16 or are you mad that I look better than you at 16?” While I am all for girls standing up for themselves and knowing they don’t owe anyone, especially strangers, the kindness that is expected from us, this should not be championed as women’s empowerment. Girls should not be victim-blamed for being groomed but girls should not be making tinder accounts in Middle school either and many of them are. However, the root of the problem isn’t fourteen year olds making tinders, it’s why they feel the need to do so in the first place. 

Girls are often subject to parentification (being forced to grow up too quickly and become emotional supports), fetishization, sexualization, and infantilization (treating someone like a child without respect to their real age.) As you can imagine, this comes with many problems. Girls who are infantilized and sexualized end up wanting to do what they can with what they have access to to be treated more grown up. They will wear more provocative clothing, wear makeup, and behave differently to be viewed as a different age. If they grew up with the normalization of being sexualized, as basically all of us are, it only makes sense that they fall victim to the predators that remind them of figures from their childhood. 

We need to understand that girls are not asking to be victimized, but rather are trying to find a way to exist with minimal criticisms to their mere existence. We don’t allow young girls to enjoy their childhoods. We force them to take responsibility for their peers’ actions, hold them to higher standards without giving them more respect, and tell them to make more allowances for others. Young boys are told that girls develop faster than them but not to look at girls as examples of leadership. That would be proper empowerment and we wouldn’t want that! Can we really be surprised then when girls grow up to blame themselves for the sexual assaults they experience?

Long story short, no matter what age we are, we’re constantly perceived through the male gaze. These fantasies shift with age, but they never shift far enough for us to break free of this gaze and be autonomous.

Bella Stewart

Conn Coll '25

Hello! I'm Bella, and I'm a first year student at Connecticut College!!
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