This week Home secretary Jacqui Smith announced she is launching a fact finding review of the “sexualisation” of teen and pre-teen girls through clothes, videos and music videos, and a possible link with sexual abuse and violence.
Smith said that “while some might see items such as Playboy T-shirts designed for 11-year-olds on sale in major chain stores as a “bit of a laugh,” many parents were concerned that their daughters were being encouraged to appear sexually available at an inappropriately young age.” She added: “It is time that manufacturers saw the writing on the wall over this and stopped producing these sorts of things for young girls.”
As the mother of a teenage girl this is something that has concerned me since she was old enough to ask me for a one shouldered top, aged 8. Having worked in the fashion industry for 20 years and as a former designer of childrenswear, I also have some insider knowledge on the ethical stance retailers take on this particular subject.
In most cases they are in absolute denial that they have any part to play, if an inappropriate item makes money, so what, its fashion and only a bit of fun. You can be almost certain if you buy children’s clothes from most high street retailers the words responsibility and morally wrong, will not have featured heavily in many of their buying meetings.
When trying to tackle this issue several years ago I had the opportunity to write a feature on what parents would really like their children to wear. I spoke to many parents and they all more or less agreed they did not think it appropriate for their 8 year olds to wear anything that looked vaguely sexual, but felt under pressure from their girls, as they had seen the offending items in the shops.
Armed with this information I spoke to my contacts in the fashion industry and asked if they could comment. What was their take on thongs for 9 year olds, or cropped tops for flat chested pre pubescents? Absolutely every one of them (and a lot of them were friends) hesitated and were reluctant to make an official statement. ‘I’ll have to get back to you on that one, personally I think it’s hideous, but they sell, so you know what it’s like.’ The most horrifying comment was from the head of design of one of Britains largest retailers (and no I’m not telling which one) who said ‘ Oh God, in buying meetings we call that range the paedo range, but don’t tell anyone.’ I was horrified and toyed with the idea of exposing said retailer to the tabloids, but realised it could possibly mean the end of my career in fashion! In the end absolutely all of them declined to comment for my feature.
I firmly believe that 8 year old girls see wearing this kind of clothing as a form of dressing up and they are pretending to be grown up. When I was young I loved to dress up and parade round the house as a ‘lady’ or Victorian maid (I know I know, it was the days of Upstairs Downstairs!) But it was seen as playing and I would simply not have been allowed to wear my dressing up clothes outside of the house. I never cease to be amazed and horrified when parents think it’s ok to let their 10 year olds wear outfits more suited to a 17 year old going on a night out in Hull.
Does this sexualise children at a young age? Yes, indeed I think it does and it also adds to the pressure girls feel when they do become teenagers. Girls of my daughters generation are far more physically aware of themselves than we ever were and there must be a reason for for this.
Does have the fashion industry have a role to play in this,? Well as an insider, I think they probably do and many of them don’t care, as long as it sells. So it will be very interesting to hear the findings of the inquiry.
Maybe I should give Jacqui Smith a call!