Sexualizing Children Through Fashion: Who’s To Blame?
According to the world of children’s fashion, Elizabeth Hurley might as well be the devil she portrayed in the 2000 film Bedazzled.
Between filming episodes of Gossip Girl, Hurley has been working on several clothing collections, the latest being a line of swimwear for children 13 and under.
From halter one-pieces covered with red hearts, to pink bikinis with cupcakes and desserts, the suits are expensive (most are around $80) and lean heavily on the pink and frilly side of femininity, but don’t look very different from the swimsuits I remember wearing as a child of the 90s.
But mommies of Millennial children are raging on the Internet about these “sexualizing” suits, citing a 2011 Live Science study that found girls as young as 6 want to be seen as sexy.
And what parent, feminist or not, wouldn’t find that appalling? Children are arguably the world’s most impressionable “consumers.” Do we REALLY need to impose the same beauty ideals adult women struggle with onto kids who don’t even have a full set of permanent teeth?
Feminspire Editor Kaya Green doesn’t see the suits as sexualizing, but the argument is “drenched in slut-shaming.” In response to “People I Want To Punch In The Throat” blogger Jen M.L., who said “There were several dresses that looked like they should come with a complimentary pole and hooker heels,” Kaya says “Really? Young kids frequently run around topless, so it’s not like they’re showing off any MORE skin in a bikini than they usually would.”
And Hurley isn’t the only offender: Kate Gosselin of Kate Plus 8 Tweeted what she thought was an innocent picture of her 11-year-old wearing a pair of mom’s heels. The photo didn’t show a whole shot of Mady striking a pose or pretending to catwalk, as I remember doing as a child in my Dollar Store costume heels and feather boa, but just her bare legs and the sparkly pumps. Twitter users went so far as to call the picture “pedophile fodder.”
“If you’re sexualizing a child, you’re the problem, not what the children are wearing,” said Feminspire Editor Jess Mary Aloe.
Herein lies the dilemma of the sexualization of children’s clothing: Who is doing the sexualizing? By law, children are not supposed to be thought of as sexual creatures. Any “sexually explicit conduct,” which usually involves intercourse, actual or simulated, or the exposure of the genitals of pubic area for the purpose of manufacturing and publishing, is constitutionally defined as child pornography and child abuse. Children posing in swimsuits for magazines may be considered mature, but it is not pornography.
As Feminspire writer Jessica Knox summarizes, “Basically, if you find anything disturbingly or inappropriately sexual about little girls wearing bikinis, then you need help.”
This leads to a larger discussion of children’s clothing as a whole. Children’s fashion seems to exist more for parents than their offspring, hopefully because the kids are, you know, playing outside or hosting dinner parties for their stuffed animals or driving race cars made out of cardboard boxes. Parents are paying for the clothing their children quickly outgrow, so the amount of money they spend and what they spend on is their prerogative.
Before I had a say in what I would wear, my mother’s clothing discretion leaned heavily toward the pink and frilly. With one male and one female child, she had full access to the gender binary, but the lines didn’t usually blur. Baby Lauren wore girlish pink one-piece swimsuits with ruffles and matching bonnets and sunglasses, and looking back at pictures, I was as precious as can be. But Baby Lauren wasn’t concerned about feminist principles so much as not getting sand on her feet and walking toward the waves, then running away screaming when the tide came in.
I spoke with my mother over the phone while she was at work about the idea of this sexualizing swimwear, and she bounced ideas off of her female co-workers who had female children. One woman argued that bikinis on children may not be appropriate because they are not designed to properly fit a child’s body, and expose too much skin.
“These children are dressing up as adults far too early,” said my mom. “If you make them wear fashion trends when they’re little, they’ll want to follow fashion trends their entire life. Why cant they be kids for a while?”
Feminspire writer Sully Moreno, who remembers wearing bikinis as a child, disagrees. “It seems weird for people to think that children need to cover up more than adults,” she said.
My mother and I agreed on the reason I wore one-pieces, which didn’t have a thing to do with fashion: my “outie” bellybutton. My mother feared other children might make fun of me for having an outie, and she was right. Playmates told me it looked like I had a little penis, which made me feel gross and ugly. But children will find ways to be cruel regardless of fashion choices.
Another clothes-related story from my childhood involves a closet full of dresses I was more than happy to wear, until one day I wasn’t. “I don’t want to wear dresses anymore,” Pre-Grade School Lauren said.
“Children at some point have a mind of their own and start arguing with parents about what they want to wear, and it happens a lot earlier than you might think,” my mom said.
From then on, I was wearing everything from light-up sneakers and sweatshirts to my Pocahontas Halloween costume to school. I was being a kid, not following fashion trends, and most definitely not worrying about being “sexy.” I was already carrying the weight of concepts such as “What do I want to be when I grow up?” and “If I evolve my Evee now, will my Pokemon team be strong enough to beat the Elite Four?” I had no time for pattern mixing.
That line of reasoning may be where my views on fashion as a young adult are rooted. I buy and wear clothing that makes me feel good, whether that means professional, flirty, snuggly or sexy. I feel like a baby giraffe when walking in heels, so I stick to ballet flats. I sometimes feel uncomfortable about being large-chested, so I research types of tops that will downplay my breasts. I’m spending my hard-earned money on my wardrobe, so I try to buy reasonably priced items I can wear over and over.
Before following trends I follow my heart, and I think that’s the kind of woman Baby Lauren would have been happy to grown-up to become.
What do you think of Elizabeth Hurley’s swimwear line? Do you think fashion is sexualizing children too young, or is something else to blame? Share your thoughts in our comments below.
Written by Lauren Slavin
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