Two major media stories last summer offer small windows into how mainstream culture views children, particularly little girls. Alarming stories about sexy summer fashion choices and alarming stories about innocent girls being abducted by sadistic strangers suggest strange ideas about how adults relate to children: first and foremost, it seems, we are simply alarmed — shocked by the harm that may come to them from out there. Our innocents are not safe. Malevolent forces such as Abercrombie & Fitch use glamorized teen nudity to sell low-slung jeans to 10-year-olds and stalkers steal vulnerable children from their bedroom communities.
In a recent ZNet commentary (http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2002-09/04peters.cfm), I wrote about the media’s exaggerated reporting on child abductions and the consequences of nonsensical parental advice that essentially keeps children under lock and key, renders parents confused and helpless, undermines community, and never addresses many of the real dangers children face.
Here, I will explore what it is that corporations are trying to sell when they promote clothes that make our little girls look like trussed up sex objects, and how the media characterizes parental responses. That is, we are either accomplices or helpless ninnies standing on the sidelines wringing our hands in outrage and despair.
As with the summer’s abduction stories, the message to parents seems to be: you have brought your child into a world full of out-of-control forces with no particular origin. We are sorry about the maelstrom, but by way of comfort we offer slivers of advice to which you may privately cling.
When it comes to exaggeratedly sexy clothes for kids, however, there isn’t even much advice. Instead, the media reports on parents who are either gleefully jumping into the fray or turning their heads and holding their noses in disgust.
Summer fashions for little girls this year included G-strings and padded bras. “So many boys. So little time,” was the slogan on one fitted T-shirt sold by Next to 6-year-olds. Girls’ underwear features cherries, “wink-wink,” and “eye candy.” My daughter’s 10-year old friend wears gym shorts with two hand prints on the back — one on each cheek — helping us zero in on the spot supposedly waiting to be grabbed, patted, or pinched.
Even the more “sensible” fashions for girls insist on splashing “Princess” or “Angel” in pink glitter across every top. Glitter is on everything — from jeans to eyeshadow. Pedicure sets for 7-year-olds are “flying off the shelves.”
On July 29, 2002, the New York Times Magazine dedicated 6 pages to full-length portraits of “Babes in Coutureland” — little girls who look to be between 6 and 10, striking sexy poses, dressed in adult fashions, and sporting big hair and “come hither” looks that create a jarring disconnect with their baby-fat cheeks and missing front teeth.
“Among the junior set,” the article says, “the I-wanna-look-like-Mom trend continues unabated.”
But fashion for girls has very little to do with what they want. The girls in this particular fashion spread are dressed up, made-up, and manipulated by professionals who have something they want to sell and who want to project rigid ideas of femininity and sexuality onto a group that has no way of having their own say.
The same is true for boys, though they get a much different look. The three-page spread on the inside front cover of the same issue of the New York Times Magazine is an ad for Ralph Lauren Polo brand clothes for boys. Tough, unsmiling, mudstained, and on the move, these boys look serious, disheveled in a cute sort of a way, and full of purpose that goes beyond what they are wearing.
“A lot of parents see their children as somewhat of an accessory to themselves,” says Erin Clack, market editor at Children’s Business, a New York City-based apparel trade publication. (The Houston Chronicle, August 04, 2002)
So is it parents who are guilty of using their offspring to create miniature versions of themselves, little vehicles for working out our own notions of feminine adornment and masculine agency? There is something about the NYT pictures of little girls in grown-up high-heels that seems to be trying to sell us some idea of ourselves. Let’s have the kids imitate us so we feel better about ourselves. The boys, too, in their almost comically sophisticated tweeds, betray how little these clothes are actually about the boys who are wearing them.
“Honey, I Shrunk Our Clothes,” reads the headline in the New York Times back to school fashion spread (August 25, 2002). Featuring everything from kid-size filofaxes to kid knock-offs of grown-up loafers, the article exclaims, “Now children can follow in their parents’ footsteps without missing a sartorial beat.”
And we wouldn’t want them to miss an ideological beat either. In case they don’t pick up on the proper cultural cues, we’ll just *tell* them how to interact with members of the opposite sex:
Light blue toddler-size “onesies” for sale at Macy’s department store feature a juvenile version of an adult personal ad: “Handsome future doctor seeks attractive female with wealthy father. Must enjoy peanut butter, toy trucks, and frogs.”
Oh, my, but isn’t patriarchy adorable? See how the little boys will have important careers and seek trophy wives who act as conduits for male wealth and share their husbands’ interests no matter how icky? (Frogs?! Yuck!)
What’s going on here? Aren’t there any grown-ups in charge? Who’s making this stuff? Who’s buying it? And how come the only people raising a ruckus are representatives of Christian non-profits, such as the American Decency Association?
Well, we know what the corporate grown-ups are after. They want to colonize the farthest reaches of our souls in order to better make money off of us. Sexuality is a potentially dangerous independent island nation — a rogue state that must be brought into service of the marketplace from a very early age. Teach 7-year-olds that sexual expression is a matter of accessorizing and you’ve secured a lifetime of purchases in the lingerie department. Disassociate sex from non-market feelings (pleasure, desire, intimacy) and associate it instead with consumable superficialities, and you’ll not only keep the rabble in line, you’ll have them lined up at the mall.
But what about parents? We’re the ones buying this stuff or allowing our kids to buy it. Some of us, apparently are quite enamored of the fashions. “Make this in my size?” moms apparently ask as they shop for prom dresses and lace-up hip-huggers for their teens (WSJ, 9/30/02).
At the other end of the spectrum, parents are simply outraged or out of control. “Mom is about out of money, honey,” says one oppressed parent, loaded down with clothes, trailing after her 9-year old during a recent shopping trip at Nordstroms (LA Times, 6/27/02). “I think it’s appalling, sexualizing these girls at 9 and 10,” says another. “It’s disgusting,” adds yet another. (Sunday Mail, 5/26/02)
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for a Christian non-profit warns that corporate marketing ploys have “little regard for the innocence of young girls.”
“They’re robbing the children of their childhood for a dollar,” adds the executive director of the American Family Association (LA Times, 6/27/02).
As with the hyped-up stories of child abductions and the subsequent barrage of ridiculous advice to parents, we are encouraged to see ourselves and our children as vulnerable souls in a world full of predators. But there is little mention of what we can control — or at least sustain, support, and nurture in our children.
For one thing, we can be mature, responsible sexual beings, and we can express this part of ourselves in diverse ways. Our children are always watching and learning. They should have plenty of evidence (from us) that corporations and brand names do not define femininity/masculinity/sexuality, but that those things are shaped by us — from within, in dialog with others, in community, joyfully, actively, responsibly. Etc.
Additionally, we can seek ways to affirm our children’s sexuality. Adults do not have a monopoly on it, after all. Maybe our teens or even pre-teens are starting to think about touching and being touched in more sexual ways. Maybe hand prints on the rear end of gym shorts suggest something about this. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe not. But it’s not disugusting. Corporate colonization of powerful feelings may be abhorrent, but let’s be careful not to let the abhorrence leak over towards the feelings themselves.
Once again, it falls to parents to chart a sensible course with no help from the media or the advice moguls. Rather than standing around being outraged and afraid, let’s build towards a society that supports diverse, affirming, responsible sexual expression; undermines corporate power to determine how we express ourselves; and finds ways to support our children to embrace the world, themselves, and their own sexuality.