Sexualisation of children: start with the adults

Toddlers and tiaras imageInnocence Lost: What Happened to Girlhood? « Clutch Magazine

The above article appears on a website mainly aimed at the African American community and I got the link from a Black American Muslim friend on Facebook. It tells how the author was initially disappointed when she found that the child she was carrying was a boy, not having considered that it might be, but is now glad she has a boy because “raising girls seems to be so much more difficult and complicated than raising boys”:

Raising a confident, respectful, intelligent, happy child is definitely not easy and we all know the challenges young Black boys face in America. Black boys are overwhelming pushed into Special Education classes whenever they show the first signs of hyperactivity, they are not always given the space to be emotional and express themselves, and they are often held to hyper-masculine standards of manhood. While the challenges of raising Black boys are many, raising girls, especially Black girls, requires a different set of skills and the ability to not only guard against racism, but also brace against a society that is working overtime to sexualize little girls.

These days, when I’m shopping for my son, I’m reminded, again, of why I’m thankful my child is a boy. The girl’s clothing section is still filled with frilly pink dresses, but over the years I’ve noticed that most of the clothes have become far more sexual. From pink miniskirts to flowered halter-tops, the girl’s clothing sections looks like most of its outfits are just miniature versions of the junior’s sections.

The complaints include padded bikini tops for girls aged 7 to 14 (that is actually a very wide age range which includes little girls and girls who are almost adult, and does not actually mean that any are being sold for 7-year-olds). I have read reports that the claims about this kind of product in the UK are exaggerated; in one case involving an alleged “padded swimsuit” for girls under ten, according to the Associated Press, “a source familiar with the product said the extra fabric was designed to preserve a girl’s modesty and prevent any signs of a developing breast from showing through”. Still, there is some truth to what this writer is saying, although (at least here in the UK) it is not only Black girls who are affected.

The problem is that nobody seems to consider two key reasons why this process has been able to go unchecked for so long. The first is that current political culture and, in the USA, the law, makes it impossible to pass legislation that would curb the kind of music, videos and printed material that promote sexualisation. The fact that it could not be enforced in the USA would discourage politicians elsewhere from even trying, because we could not stem the flow of junk from the USA, particularly over the Internet. On top of this, there would be the usual flow of complaints about “prudery” and censorship, regardless of whether it was done on conservative or feminist grounds. We would need both politicians and judges willing to accept that there is a problem, and do what is needed to tackle it, and I don’t see that happening.

Another is that, when people bemoan the sexualised clothing of girls, they forget that the girls are only copying adult women, and if adult women dress in an obviously sexualised way then girls will want to as well. If we get disturbed when children “dress like little adults”, we need to consider how adults dress, which in the case of women these days often reveals copious amounts of flesh — much more, it has to be said, than most men reveal in the same situations (such as office work). It’s true that we see a lot of men with their trousers down, revealing their underwear, but there are a lot of very revealing styles of dress for women that are considered respectable and suitable for working with the public or with children. In days gone by, it would have been a compliment for a child to be described as particularly mature for their years, or at worst it meant that they were stuck-up or too serious, but nowadays, said of a girl, it means she simply shows too much of her body. What is needed is the de-sexualisation of the public sphere in general.

Adults often forget that childhood is not the romantic fantasy they often project onto it. The article in Clutch magazine claims that girlhood used to mean “playing with dolls, braiding each other’s hair, and jumping double-dutch”, but for many children it is characterised by boredom, disempowerment, exclusion and bullying by both adults and other children, and this was the case when that author was growing up as well as now. Children look up to adults and do not envisage themselves as being children for the long haul, they look up to adults and copy them, and often want to be adults (as I did), so it is unrealistic to expect children to wear clothes which are distinctive from adults’ and which mark them as children and therefore as less-than. Adults need to set an example, not moan about how nine-year-old girls dress while dressing like the kind of adult one really does not want them to grow into.

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