Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Sexualisation of young girls' underwear

Sexualisation of young girls' underwear was not a problem when I was young .  As I progressed into my teens it was really difficult to get a bra for a young girl in the small rural town I grew up in.  (It probably still is!)  A while back I watched a programme on the sexualisation of young children Too Much Too Young, on the whole a well-balanced discussion with interesting insights from the young people themselves.  Inevitably it didn't go too deeply into the way in which a misogynistic pornographic ethos rife in our culture might be at the back of training young girls early on how to be sexy. 
The selling of sexualised commodities for young girls really has become a problem.  Not only have there been several cases of padded bra and unsuitable knicker sets for pre-teens in respectable High Street shops (Next, M&S), there have also been the cases where Tescos had to withdraw a toy pole-dancing kit and Woolworths their 'Lolita' chain of girls' bedroom furniture.  
Sociologist Rachel Russell suggested the issue of sexualisation of young girls is a moral panic.  I don't think she meant by this that there isn't a real problem around children and sexualisation, rather that it is one of those popular issues which politicians seize on to distract us from other more serious problems which would take longer-term and more expensive resolution. 
Attempting to legislate against sexy underwear for teenies and tweenies would be like attempting to legislate against metaphors of guns in North American political language.  It's tempting to identify an obvious instigator of violence in Senator Palin's or Alice Cooper's discourse.  Much easier than tackling the individualist, libertarian and gun-worshipping culture of the United States.  It is also a lot easier to outlaw padded bras for children than to tackle cultural attitudes towards women as naturally passive yet sexy (men therefore not to blame for their response to) recipients of violence.  Cultural attitudes influence our lives from lingerie adverts on bus shelters to lack of support for victims of rape and domestic violence. 
Trawling through the shops, the programme's presenter Sophie Rayworth could only find occasional items which she felt were a bit much for the young girls they were designed for.  How clearly can any of us see what has been sexualised and what hasn't? 
Boxers and knickers for 6 year old from UK on left,
pants for 3 year old from Japan on right.
When my mum brought back some Hello Kitty knickers for the Piglet from Japan as a silly present, I was astonished to realise that while the Japanese knickers were serviceable thick cotton pants, I couldn't buy anything in the UK except skimpy briefs for teenies.  Big cotton pants are much better for a three year old not long out of potty training, yet knickers for kids in the UK continue to be modelled on grown-up women's underwear instead of being designed appropriately for young girls. The Piglet, by the way, had no preference for briefs or pants, as long as they had a Kitty or Princess on them. 
In spite (because?) of young girls having sensible non-sexy underwear in Japan, there is a specialist market in the country for used schoolgirl knickers, burusera, and the Japanese government has had to make efforts to legislate against the commercial feeding of this sexual activity.  None of this tackles the root problem:  that large enough numbers of adult men get excited about sexualising children to make it commercially viable to abuse children. 
What is interesting is the way in which the competitive free market has failed mothers and small girls.  Rather than providing choice across a range of panties for small children, the providers of children's underwear have all rushed to invest in what is perceived to be the most profitable product:  skimpy underwear using as little cloth as possible and the same designs as for grown-up women.  Up-market bourgeois children's clothes providers, who might be expected to offer a more sensible option, tend not to do underwear at all. 
It is a bit reminiscent of the banking crisis.  All the banks rushed to be in on what was perceived to be the most profitable product, pushing its value higher and higher until the bubble burst, and now we are wondering if we should legislate to make some banks ordinary if less profitable so that when the banking wizards reveal that there is nothing in their hats we are not caught having to pay for them to laugh all the way home.  
So how are we women and girls to survive the sexual objectification of us which goes on all around us?  Perhaps we should stay at home, relying on our menfolk to protect us from marauding predators out in the world?  At least, unlike in France, it isn't illegal for us to cover our alluring bodies completely in a burka in order to go out in public without being harrassed.  
While on holiday in Turkey I read that Turkish women learn from early on to treat constant comments towards them with an aloof air of indifference.  I remember how as a sixteen-year-old, on holiday in Rome, I was terrified by the catcalls of 'Bella, Bella!' and men cruising near me on scooters.  Far from being flattering attention, this was incomprehensible to a young girl from rural England who had grown up believing that women are second rate beings and with no idea that she was beautiful.  
What I would like for the Piglet, who unfortunately looks likely to grow up with distractingly attractive looks (as W.B. Yeats puts it in his Prayer for My Daughter"May she be granted beauty and yet not/ Beauty to make a stranger's eye distraught"), is for her to know how lovely she is, to understand that being sexually attractive is a double-edged sword for women, that being able to sexually attract someone is not the same as getting someone to hold you in affection and love, and to have confidence about putting down those who annoy her with inappropriate admiration.  I don't think she will get any of those from wearing padded bras and skimpy knickers, nor unfortunately from the tentative and amateur advice she is likely to be offered in sex and relationships education at school.  
I might buy her a copy of a lovely Islamic feminist text which made me feel liberated, Scheherazade Goes West.  Its author, Fatima Mernissi, talks about how in the Ottoman empire the sexiest women were those who could do algebraic equations and write poetry, engaging with their lovers' minds instead of causing their brains to go blank with lust.  
I hope too that times and expectations for women have changed a bit since I was sixteen, when my friends' and my own dreams centred around getting married;  all my mother and I imagined for my future was my wedding.  I was thinking the other day that if the Piglet comes home to say she has met a nice person I will be very happy for her, but the day she comes and tells me she got a good job I will be truly ecstatic.  

1 comment:

  1. Suzanne Moore wrote in The Guardian on Saturday that overly sexual accoutrements for children are to do with capitalism: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/jun/11/capitalism-sexualisation-children