In April this year, the British supermarket giant Tesco was criticised for selling padded plunge-bras to girls as young as seven. This is not the first time Tesco has been berated for sourcing, marketing and retailing what is deemed as undesirable clothing and accessories to children. In 2006, the retail chain was forced to remove a children’s pole-dancing kit.

Pressure on children to grow up

A spokesperson for the British National Union of Teachers said, “There is already too much pressure on children to appear grown-up, and [selling] inappropriate, sexually provocative clothing is irresponsible.” A spokesperson for Tesco said that the bra was designed to “not to flatter, but to protect and cover a girls’ modesty at the sensitive time when they are developing.” Disturbingly, the spokesperson said the bra was developed after “speaking to parents.”

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?”

Prostitots?

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

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Is the wearing of jeans by young children to expose panties and g-strings 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?

Parents are buying without thinking

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 childrenâ??s clothing. Peer pressure both within adult and childrenâ??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 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.

Is SA following this fashion trend?

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

Sociologists argue that pop-culture and the desire in children to emulate what they see in films, TV and the plethora of childrenâ??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” to have a detrimental effect on how children see themselves and causing behavioural and image problems in their teens.

Role models like Miley Cyrus and Beyonce are creating concern in the US

In April, Vanity Fair announced that it would feature 15 year-old Miley Cyrus – daughter and â??the prideâ? 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.”

UK study shows provocative children’s fashion is a stimulus for paedophiles

The American Psychological Association claimed in a 2007 report that parents “think it’s clever or cute when their little girls wear T-shirts with the slogans such as â??so many boys, so little timeâ??.” 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. 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. 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.

If we accept these fashion statements, we cannot condemn children’s resultant behaviour

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 â??belongingâ?.

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

Extracts (by kind permission) from an article written and researched by Renato Palmi, The ReDress Consultancy-South Africa. For more articles by this author, go to www.redressconsultancy.com