Three years ago, the retailer Asda, in response to consumer activism, withdrew pink and black lace lingerie targeted for nine-year-olds. The range “Little Miss Naughty” was also boycotted for selling padded bras. The Lingerie chain La Senza was forced to remove its range of underwear that was targeted to five-year old girls with the slogan “Why should grown-ups have all the fun?”

The cartoon character Marge Simpson, (mother of Bart) in one episode called kids that dress proactively “Prostitots”. This is a profoundly powerful indication that the negative impact sexy clothing for kids has broken through buffers of apologist marketing-speak.

Is the wearing of jeans by young children to expose panties and g-strings[2] nothing more than a harmless fashion trend that cutely emulates adult style? Or are both adults and children being socially engineered by profit-driven marketers into the desire to have and be seen in branded labels, no matter how such drives might be commodifying women and children as sexual objects?

Personally, I find it disturbing that there is a market for such ‘fashion’ and a plethora of designers creating these products for both chain-store retailers and niche boutiques for children’s clothing. Peer pressure both within adult and children’s social environment propagates a market of consumers wishing to conform with received notions of “cool”, such that many parents happily purchase these products for their kids without interrogating the harmful psycho-social drivers and effects of this consumption.

The media industry and their customers – the retailers of such products – routinely respond to critics along the lines that they are merely reflecting prevailing community values and standards of popular culture, and so cannot be blamed for various undesirable social effects. However, sociologists and researchers in related fields claim that such advertising is a “distorted mirror” of society that reinforces harmful values and symbols.[3]

The sexualisation of girls in fashion advertising is not a recent phenomenon. Twenty years ago, jeans adverts showed a young girl discarding her doll with a caption saying ” 13 going on 18″, and Calvin Klein – known for his controversial advertising – had 15-year-old Brooke Shields saying in one of his adverts “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”

In July 2008, the British tabloid The Sun surveyed contemporary children’s clothing. Tiny shorts for girls aged seven and eight, see-through thong panties with imprints of moo-cows, cropped tops with adjustable straps, and frilly pants with imprints of love-hearts were some of the items they found retailing in London.

In 2007, it was reported in South Africa that Woolworths was selling padded bras for girls under the age of ten. [4]

One of the most important ingredients of fashion is to stimulate sexual consciousness. Known as the SOR Model where S represents stimuli (the style of clothing) that have a direct influence on both the organism (O) –the body that in turn evokes behaviour patterns and responses (R). The history of clothing provides evidence that the cut and style of clothing has shaped itself around social changes of the human erogenous zones when one part of the body is either emphasised or exposed.

Sociologists argue that pop-culture and the desire in children to emulate what they see in films, TV and the plethora of children’s fashion magazines is the push-factor behind the manufacture of such clothing. This is combined with marketing messages to children that urge: “You’re already an adult / it’s okay to dress and act sexy right now”[5] to have a detrimental effect on how children see themselves and causing behavioural and image problems in their teens.[6]

In April, Vanity Fair announced that it would feature 15 year-old Miley Cyrus – daughter and “the pride” of singer Billy-Ray Cyrus – in a topless photo-shoot. The advert for the clothing range launched by singer Beyonce and her mother created concern in the US, being termed by concerned parents as “where the playground and the prostitute meet.”

The American Psychological Association claimed in a 2007 report[7] that parents “think it’s clever or cute when their little girls wear T-shirts with the slogans such as ‘so many boys, so little time’.” Research shows that “sexualised behaviour and appearance are approved and rewarded by society and peers whose opinions matter most” to both parents and their children.[8] Such interpersonal influences place social and parental pressure on parents who feel such apparel is inappropriate for their children and seek to find alternative clothing that is still fashionable, but not exploitative. Family dynamics are bizarrely affected: children themselves manipulate these parents by promising good behaviour as a means of acquiring sexy clothing.[9] A UK research study showed that the depiction of children in provocative fashion adverts is a stimulus for paedophiles; participants admitted that they get “their kicks” from looking at these adverts.[10]

Marketing strategies using female models to advertise and promote fashion and luxury items use both the trickle-down and trickle-up approach, where adult women are “youth-ified” and young girls are “adulti-fied”, intentionally blurring any distinction between intergenerational gaps. It is a vital marketing objective for purveyors of fashion and luxury products to create brand awareness among the very young, as it has been documented that such brand loyalty endures from their tweens into their adult life.

Indoctrination of stereotyped images of identity through this advertising has resulted in both desired effects (from the marketers’ point of view) and some highly undesirable consequences (for broader social interests and concerns). There is a solid body of research from South Africa indicating that young women are selling their bodies as a means of acquiring branded clothing and accessories. Nearly a third of female University students rely on “sugar daddies” – older, monied men – to provide funds for these purchases through what has come to be termed “transactional sex”, as their male student peers do not have the money to buy authentic or even imitation luxury items.[11] “It’s not need, but greed,” said a principal investigator engaged in these studies. “With many of these encounters involving unprotected sex, the risk of infection with HIV and other STIs is high. We attribute these risky sexual practices to a rampantly materialistic ethos in which being ‘cool’ could cost you your life.” Young women interviewed in a TV documentary on this subject, screened on SABC3 during August this year, claimed: “We deserve these things now, not in five years’ time after we’ve graduated and earned salaries to buy them.”

In the face of such evidence, the question is: can we accept that such children’s apparel, and the advertising machine that promotes the desire to have it, is socially desirable, or at least harmless? Do these images provide a health-enabling avenue for our children to claim their social identity and status? Should, and how could, the adults who have the ability to change these norms not be standing up against self-serving retailers and advertisers, even if it means being branded as “old” and “out of touch”?

At the very least, if we choose to be daunted by the might of the market, we will also have to accept that we have no right to condemn the behaviour of children and young adults who will live out the brand propositions of the labels they are wearing. Nor can we be horrified at the lengths and means they will deploy to wear the uniform of “belonging”.

The sad truth is, our young women and girls are being duped into self-violation, with corporate rapists sniggering behind the mirror.

Written and researched by Renato Palmi
The ReDress Consultancy-South Africa
August 2008-08-11

[1] “Tesco accused over padded bra for 7-year-olds” The Telegraph, April 2008
[2] In the USA $1.6 million was spent on thongs for tweens – the market segment of children between 7 to 12 – in 2003. In Australia, the tween market is worth more than $10 billion, of which $250 million to $1 billion is spent on clothing. Source: “Corporate Paedophilia- Sexualisation of children in Australia.” 2006. The Australia Institute
[3] “Corporate Paedophilia- Sexualisation of children in Australia.” 2006 The Australia Institute
[4] The Mail & Guardian, 2007.
[5] “Goodbye to Girlhood.” Weiner, S, The Washington Post. February 20, 2007
[6] Corporate Paedophilia- Sexualisation of children in Australia.” 2006 The Australia Institute
[7] “The Sexualization of Girls” APA Report, 2007.
[8] “The Sexualization of Girls” APA Report, 2007.
[9] “Branding: a generation gap?” Harradine, R. 2007 Journal of Fashion Marketing and
Management, Vol.11 No2.
[11] Research study undertaken by Prof. Suzanne Leclerc-Madlala of the HSRC’s Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS Programme.children older than their age, age appropriate


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