Clothes Don't Make Young girls Sexy - We Do

Target size-8 girls' shorts.

Target size-8 girls' shorts. Photo: Nigel McNeil

Even though I’m currently gorging myself on Nasi Goreng in Indonesia, I couldn’t help but hear the wails of protest erupting from over yonder as Australian mothers joined forces to collectively waggle their fingers at the naughty sex peddlers running Target’s children’s division.

Over the weekend, primary school teacher Ana Amini took her outrage to Facebook, posting the following on the retailer’s corporate page:

“Dear Target, Could you possibly make a range of clothing for girls 7-14 years that doesn't make them look like tramps … You have lost me as a customer when buying apparel for my daughter as I don't want her thinking shorts up her backside are the norm or fashionable.''

A page from Target's latest catalogue.

A page from Target's latest catalogue.

Judging by the 'likes', almost 60,000 people agreed with her.

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 Now, being neither a mother nor petite enough to wear children’s clothes, I’m not wholly au fait with the fashion line on offer to discerning parents and their wallets. A cursory glance at the online catalogue reveals a number of prettyish pastel sort of tops in the 7 – 14 year old category, with the kinds of frills and bows generally assumed to incite the delight of small girls everywhere. I didn’t spy anything too risqué, but I suppose it’s possible that they keep their assortment of studded leather hotpants and g-string bikinis in a suitably discrete room so as to shield it from the average customer’s sartorial parochialism.

 I can’t say that my casual walks through the department store have yielded much in the way of eye burning horror or outrage. Other than an excessively high proportion of pink, the children’s section appears to be about as sexy as an accountant’s quarterly reports. I have in the past been disgusted by the inclusion of a tween fashion line that channelled the looks of The Veronicas, but to be fair this had less to do with the clothes themselves and more to do with disdain for their horrendous music.

 So in regards to Target’s children’s line, I’m not really sure what the problem is. I gather there was some concern over some very short shorts in a leopard print (apparently the universal shorthand for UP FOR IT). Clothes can’t make children look ‘sexy’. They’re inanimate objects. As a child, I was shaped more or less like a steel tub; by necessity less than design, all my clothes ended up a little tight. Fortunately, the 80s had no shortage of lycra, so my days were spent waddling around in elasticated cycling shorts and shirts that rode up to expose my fat tumtum. In the evenings, I would shove oranges down my top and admire my lopsided figure. And frankly, the less said about my bathing suits, the better. I certainly enjoyed the idea of dressing like an adult, but in the end I looked exactly like what I was – a tubby child in tight clothing whose primary goal in life still remained the pursuit of childish pleasures.

 In such tight, lurid clothing, was I not a sexy 8 year old because I was fat….or because the idea of a sexy child is anathema to most people? Ergo, can clothes ever succeed in sexualising a child? Or is it an external society thrusting that sexualisation onto them, either through fearmongering or exploitation?

 It’s reasonable and natural for parents to be worried about their children, particularly given as we live in a society overwhelmed by the notion that children are being ritually sexualised as a matter of course. But the fact is, children aren’t inherently drawn towards a knowing kind of sexuality. A little girl in a pair of short shorts will only perceive those things to be sexual if we repeatedly hammer her with the message that a) they are and b) that’s not the kind of good girl you want to be.

 Because the problem here is twofold. First is the idea that clothes maketh the woman, and that she needs to be constantly vigilant in regards to the message she’s sending. It should come as no surprise that I find this kind of ‘lesson’ to be pretty repugnant. Presuming that a child in short shorts is anything other than a child in short shorts is bad enough – after all, in keeping them ‘innocent’, shouldn’t we also be shielding them from the scrutiny over their appearance that inevitably awaits them as they grow into adults?

 But further, in iterating our desire to keep children ‘innocent’ for as long as possible, are we not acknowledging that women also are exploited by an industry of sexualisation – one that expects them to be passive adherents to fashion and social expectations? If the goal is to protect little girls from this as long as possible, perhaps our beef shouldn’t be with retailers whose only concern is making as much money as they can. Perhaps we should be making more of a concerted effort to change a culture that assumes ownership over women’s bodies as soon as they turn 15.

 Which leads to the second problem, and it’s one often enforced unconsciously. Can we take a moment to consider the manifestly revolting use of the words ‘tramp’ and ‘hooker’ that seem to permeate all conversations like this? What does a ‘tramp’ look like? Why, in the pursuit of supposedly protecting our girl children from being exploited, do we find it okay to project tired old moral putdowns on other women, perpetuating the idea that it’s okay to treat THEM with disdain but that we want better for our girls?

 Teaching girls from an early age that their clothes are intrinsically linked to the kind of respect they deserve as human beings is a very dangerous path to walk down, and only further reinforces the idea that her clothing acts as some kind of statement or invitation. And as far as social trends go, I’d venture it’s far more dangerous than a corporate retailer trying to make money by knocking together a few pairs of skimpy shorts.