All Dolled Up

Originally published on InnocenceAtlanta.org on August 18, 2011.

As a toddler, I could play dress-up with the best of them. Almost as soon as I’d learned to walk I made it a practice of donning my grandmother’s high-heels and parading around the back patio, bottle-in-hand, likely with more grace and poise than I could muster now in such footwear. Like many other little girls, I’d watch my mother putting on her make-up and beg for her to share some lipstick or blush. Dressing up was a way to mirror the beauty of the women in my life, and the same is still true for many young girls.

So where does innocent dress up end and dangerous roleplay begin? French Lingerie Designer Sophie Mori recently unveiled her newest line of lingerie – and it’s geared towards girls aged 4-12. The promotional images for the new line have sparked an explosive reaction among fashion bloggers, parents, media outlets, and others – some claim it’s a highly inappropriate imposition of adult sexuality on children; others claim the underwear is harmless.

Almost everyone, however, agrees on one thing: the visual representation of the child models on the designer’s website.The images undeniably blur the line between childlike innocence and adult sexuality, for instance with an older teen model clutching an oversized teddy bear while posing in a bra and panties. Meanwhile, young girls are featured in heavy make-up, teased hair reminiscent of 60’s sex icon Bridgette Bardot, and poses that reflect an aspect of adulthood they’ve yet to mature into.

Some commenters blame a distinctly ‘French’ lack of morality when it comes to exploiting the desires of young girls to be glamorous like adult rolemodels in order to sell them a line of clothing. However, aren’t Americans just as guilty of taking innocent ‘dress up’ too far for marketing purposes? Our moral high ground isn’t quite as sturdy as we like to imagine.

America does maintain a conservative set of sexual standards – prostitution, for instance, is legal in a scant four counties in Nevada, while other countries maintain lax laws about prostitution or even legalize it altogether. French responses to the sexualized depictions of models like 10 year old Thylane Blondeau or those featured in Jours Apres Lunes were comparatively cavalier when juxtaposed with those of Americans. But we’re all familiar with the quip “Sex sells.” And it’s true here in the States as much as it is anywhere else.

Former Kenyon College Student Samantha Goodin, along with a research team led by Dr. Sarah Murnen, a professor of Psychology, examined 15 popular U.S store websites for trends in the clothing available for children. According to the researchers, as much as 30% of the nearly 6,000 articles of clothing geared for “young girls — children, not adolescents” was sexualizing in nature. Sexualization “…occurred most frequently emphasizing the look of breasts, or attention to the buttocks.”

Image Credit: Abercrombie & Fitch

Exhibits A, B, and C: Abercrombie & Fitch recently underwent a firestorm of complaints when they released a line of push-up bikini tops marketed towards girls as young as seven. Afterward, they released a statement via Facebook that they agreed the line was better suited for 12 years old & up. They also design and market jeggings for girls that feature a “Cute Butt” fit, evidently designed to enhance the young wearer’s derrier, much like the jeans marketed toward adult females. Visit HotTopic.com’s School Style guide and you’ll be greeted not only with a bold invitation to “Get in Our Pants”, but also with a song sporting racy lyrics, narrow images of teens’ body parts, and implied sexual behavior.

Gimics such as these are sadly the norm, not the exception, in selling preteens and girls clothing that promise to make them as beautiful, mature, and desirable as the women they admire in the media. The mission statement of Tween store Justice reflects this unspoken but widely acknowledged promise:

“At Justice, we enhance a tween girl’s self-esteem by providing her the hottest fashion and lifestyle products, in a unique, fun, interactive environment… all at a great value for mom.”

What’s the Cost?

According to the authors of the study mentioned above…

“Confused parents might be persuaded to buy the leopard-print miniskirt if it’s bright pink…Clearly, sexiness is still visible beneath the bows or tie-dye colors. We propose that dressing girls in this way could contribute to socializing them into the narrow role of the sexually objectified woman.”

This objectification- what exactly does it mean for girls? According to a 2010 report released by the American Psychological Association Task Force, it creates not only a voyeuristic perspective by society of young girls- but it teaches girls to view themselves in the same way:

“…girls internalize and reproduce… this objectified perspective through ‘self-objectification’…[which] involves adopting a third-person perspective on the physical self and constantly assessing one’s own body in an effort to conform to the culture’s standards of attractiveness. Self-objectification in a culture in which a woman is a “good object” when she meets the salient cultural standard of “sexy” leads girls to evaluate and control their own bodies more in terms of their sexual desirability to others.”[1]

When a young girl is trained to beleive that her beauty and worth in society hinges upon her sexual “attractiveness” to others- even when she has yet to reach puberty- her hackles aren’t raised when a potential predator or pimp approaches her and tells her how sexy she is. She feels redeemed and admired when she should feel uncomfortable and frightened.

If it’s not okay to exploit children for sexual gratification, and it’s not okay to exploit children for the financial gain of pimps, then it’s not okay to sexually exploit children for the purposes of promoting a line of clothing.

Kids emulate those they look up to. The commercial exploitation of girls isn’t only about forced prostitution; their desires to mimic the women they admire are manipulated, also . It’s up to the parents and other guardians in their lives to protect them from such exploitation – and it’s up to society to say we won’t tolerate it.

While playing dress up is an innocent part of experimentation and identification for many young children, when we as a society allow kids to be dressed up as sexual beings, we embed within their identities a dangerous label. As one commenter on an article posted on SFGate.com noted, “Playing dress-up involves wearing Mommy’s pearls, heels, and makeup, not your own.”

[1] American Psychological Association Task Force; “Report of the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls”

Author’s Note: This blog was editted on August 25, 2011 because, quite frankly, it is a formatting nightmare. Thanks for your patience!

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