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Bikinis for girls: a storm in an AA-cup

The row over Primark’s padded bikinis revealed modern parents’ anxieties about behaving like adults.

Jan Macvarish

Topics Politics

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A story that was all over the British media last week had the perfect ingredients: sex, young girls, paedophilia, fashion bête-noire Primark, worried parents, child abuse survivors’ advocacy groups, political leaders on the campaign trail – and Mumsnet.

The object of concern was a bikini top aimed at seven-year-olds, which had more than the usual amount of fabric lining, thus leading to accusations that it was creating fake breasts for pre-pubescents. This particular garment has now been added to the list of objects in the ‘corporate paedophilia’ hall of nastiness, alongside child-sized ‘Little Miss Naughty’ padded bras and thongs and the infamous Tesco pole-dancing kit (actually an adult product, but categorised as a ‘toy’ on the Tesco website).

The bank of outrage has been growing for some time. Discussed alongside the often apocryphal examples of ‘sexualised’ products aimed at children are many other items about which parents of girls have ambivalent feelings: pretend make-up kits and the ubiquitous pink and glittery clothing, party shoes with high-(ish) heels, and T-shirts with slogans such as ‘When I grow up I want to be a WAG’.

The British parents’ networking website Mumsnet had already launched a ‘Let Girls Be Girls’ campaign to let retailers know that parents do not want their children offered products that ‘prematurely sexualise’ them. Prime minister Gordon Brown backed the anti-bikini campaign, saying: ‘all of us as parents can recognise there’s something wrong when companies are pushing our kids into acting like little grown-ups when they should be enjoying being children.’ During his party’s manifesto launch, Conservative leader David Cameron demanded social responsibility ‘instead of businesses and media companies encouraging the premature sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood’.

While these statements seem to suggest a degree of certainty about where the boundaries should be drawn around nascent sexuality and what parents feel about it, they mask a reality that is far more ambiguous and in which there is considerable confusion. This issue gets to the heart of the contemporary mess about the boundaries between childhood and adulthood, and the authority of parents.

The reason that a few items of clothing can be seen as so significant is that parents have become cast as the all-determining risk-factors in their children’s lives. We have been told for the past decade that the accumulated choices parents make, whether on the labour ward, in the supermarket or in the aisles of Primark, are the ultimate determinates of a child’s future life-chances.

At the same time, parents have never felt less in control of their familial decision-making. The feeling that our children move outside our control at an earlier age than in earlier historical periods is articulated in many different ways: parents complain that their children’s technological skills surpass their own, that their child’s peers will inevitably exert a negative, bullying effect, or that their daughters are ‘six going on 16’ and ‘know it all already’. Children’s inevitable movement towards adolescence, sexual maturity and independence is experienced as a profoundly uncomfortable prospect, partly because we anticipate our children becoming vulnerable in new, unfamiliar ways, but also because we feel extremely uncertain of our own capacities to help our children navigate their developing independence.

The idea that parents have little to offer older children in the way of guidance and advice pops up continually in newspaper columns and everyday parental conversations. The notion that negative forces beyond the parent-child relationship become overwhelming once the child approaches secondary-school age is very strong. Books such as Sue Palmer’s Toxic Childhood, highly publicised reports such as the Unicef Innocenti report on child wellbeing in rich countries and government policy frameworks such as Every Parent Matters, assert that children today are growing up in a dramatically different environment to that experienced by their parents, whether as a result of globalisation, commercialisation, technological advances or family breakdown.

In the sexualisation discussion, it is the market that is blamed for prematurely sexualising children with the exploitation of sexual images to sell goods to adults and teenagers leaching into the world of children, or, as in the bikini example, by directly marketing adult products to children. An Australian report went so far as to talk of ‘corporate paedophilia’ and the Phoenix Foundation, vocal commentators in the anti-Primark fuss (actually a two-woman advocacy group set up by misery-memoir author Shy Keenan and the mother of murder victim Sarah Payne), seemed to invent the term >‘paedophile pound’, saying: ‘It never fails to amaze us just how many ordinary High St household names are now prepared to exploit the disgusting “paedophile pound” to feed a dark market that has no place in our society, let alone near our children.’

Although ‘corporate paedophilia’ and the ‘paedophile pound’ seem somewhat wacky and perverted concepts, the fact that there is a mainstream willingness to believe that there is a big problem of ‘sexualisation’ on the high street suggests that although we have apparently parcelled up sexual interest in children in the highly stigmatised form of the ‘the paedophile’, we have also created the idea that a predatory sexual interest in children is actually very common, catered to by high street stores and, given that parents are presumably the ones buying padded bikinis with their ‘paedo pounds’, that pimping children has become part of everyday life.

The idea that a ‘paedophile’ lurks around every corner is often ridiculed as tabloid-fed parental paranoia. But the notion that a significant number of parents are happy to inculcate their children into sex at a young age by dressing their little girls in sexually provocative clothing is assumed to be a dangerous and growing trend that is a sign of ‘Broken Britain’ or the rotten state of the ‘chav classes’.

In fact, a report by the Scottish parliament found very little evidence of sexualised clothing or products aimed at children. In the researchers’ survey of products on sale to children, they had to stretch the definition of ‘sexual’ to include leopard-print, pink and glitter (because these are apparently associated with porn star attire) in the absence of evidence of anything worse. The report found: ‘While there are undoubtedly some “sexualised” goods aimed at children, there are relatively few of them, and their availability is limited. Children might purchase goods in contexts surrounded by sexual imagery and products, but such products are not necessarily aimed at them… Despite the apparent public concern about this issue, our research data does not allow us to state with certainty that “sexualised goods” in fact represent a major problem for parents, as compared with other matters.’

What is striking about this report, besides its remarkable rigour and restraint, was that there was considerable confusion about what was ‘sexual’, what ‘sexualisation’ means, and to what extent parents could or should regulate their children’s clothing or toys. Of course it is different to judge something that is not evidently occurring – parents reported feeling uncomfortable about the ubiquity of pink and glitter for girls, unsure about the meaning of play make-up, and fairly certain that crude slogans were not appropriate for children’s T-shirts, but beyond that they were also aware that their reaction to these items often boiled down to a question of taste rather than perceived harm.

For example, many mothers disliked Bratz dolls because of their tarty appearance, but still allowed their daughters to have them, especially if they received them as a gift from someone else, because they did not want their daughters to be left out amongst their friends or to deny them something they strongly desired. Their concerns for their child’s happiness and wellbeing outweighed their own concerns about aesthetics and taste.

It could also be argued that at a time when girls quite clearly seem to be doing rather well, with over half of them going to university, there is little evidence to suggest that playing with a doll with pouty lips and eye-shadow will lead them towards a career as a lap-dancer rather than a lawyer. None of the parents wanted to buy ‘sexualised’ clothing for their little girls, and in fact, the girls themselves did not want to own clothes that they perceived to be for adults.

The problem was therefore located somewhere else – both the parents and children surveyed identified ‘inappropriate’ or sexualised clothing as being worn by ‘chavs’ or ‘neds’ (focus groups were run in Scotland). This reveals a further aspect of the ‘sexualisation’ issue, which is really to do with clashes of taste, and appeals to snobbish anti-commercialism and brand resistance.

As parents today, we feel strongly compelled to consult our children, to teach them how to negotiate the choices on offer and to help them become rational, choice-making individuals capable of weighing up information and acting accordingly. The model of the new democratic family, in which children have a right not to be smacked or shouted at, and to have their opinions listened to, directly clashes with the other reality: that we spend much of our time manipulating or directly overturning our children’s choice-making, whether that is because they want to eat Easter eggs for breakfast or watch a DVD that we really cannot face sitting through.

Not only that, we are also continually told that to keep children safe, we must be ever-vigilant lest their inability to make sound judgements lands them in physical or emotional hot water. Most parents are sensitive to the fact that children today are denied the responsibility of walking to school with younger siblings or going to the shops by themselves. We are frequently torn between a desire to help our children mature by getting them to do more grown-up things and the observance of new parenting norms that infantilise older children so that they fail to develop any sense of responsibility or the freedom and autonomy that come with it.

That many parents allow their children a high degree of choice in buying clothes from quite a young age suggests that they are more comfortable with allowing experimentation with children’s autonomy and identities as consumers, where the consequences of mistakes are trivial, than in other areas of life that are considered more risky.

Parents are also aware that trying to exert control over their children is increasingly problematic. Many parents express the view that ‘saying no’ just makes a child want to do something more, or that denying them something, like chocolate, will make them want it all the more. Parents are always reluctant to say ‘because I say so’ rather than offer a reasoned response to a child’s demand. This naked assertion of parental authority seems to run so counter to the ideal of the negotiated, democratic parent-child relationship. On one hand we feel that these fairly trivial micro-decisions of daily life, about food or clothing, are often simply not worth the battle – but on the other hand, we worry that if we assert our authority too strongly, we will do more harm than good.

This reaches from toddlerhood right up to teens, where the prevailing ethos is that if we remind teenagers that under-16 sex is illegal, we will just make sex more appealing and our attempt to exert authority will be counterproductive or possibly harmful. In response to the bikini story, Times writer James Delingpole said that as a father, he is ‘terrified’ of his nine-and-a-half year-old daughter growing into the town bike if he misjudges his parental directiveness by either being too permissive or too restrictive in controlling her nascent sexuality. He therefore welcomes Primark’s decision to withdraw the bikini so that he can avoid performing the difficult adult act of telling his daughter she cannot have one.

More than sexualisation, the idea that children have become tyrants in the home is what is often expressed in children’s clothing. Search the online catalogues and you will find boys’ T-shirts with the slogan ‘I don’t need your attitude, I have one of my own’, ‘On Parole From the Naughty Step’ and ‘Blame My Parents’, and girls’ T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Daddy’s Little Princess’, ‘Dad is Easy to Wind Up’ or ‘Daddy’s Little Star’. Alternatively, the reversed parental need for affirmation from our children can be pandered to by garments stating ‘My Daddy is Cool’ or ‘I Have a Yummy Mummy’.

While many of these products are knowing spoofs of new parenting norms such as the naughty step, they also indicate that adult identities are increasingly expressed in the form of our children, whether that is the parental pride of raising children who choose ‘cool’ clothes and have feisty attitudes or in our children rejecting designer clothes and heavily branded products and retaining their ‘innocence’.

James Delingpole is thankful for the existence of Boden, who produce (expensive) ‘traditional-looking’ children’s clothing that can distinguish the children of the middle classes from the pink and glittery trollops of those below. The message from all sides is that what children wear really matters, that children’s clothes reflect their parents’ ability to ‘parent’ and that the wrong sartorial choices can have potentially harmful choices, for example, by exposing young girls to the threat of rape – as the anti-Primark bikini campaigners claim.

For me, the most significant impact of the ‘padded bikini’ lies in its part in the trend for adults continually to admit that they are not in control, that their children are subject to far stronger forces outside the family than within and that they are unable to protect them from the adult world. Because we experience the world and even our families as being beyond our control, we end up interpreting entirely normal childish curiosity about the adult world of sex as ‘premature sexualisation’; rather being intrinsic to the child’s development and socialisation, it becomes pathologised as the product of malevolent external forces.

So for example, ‘sexting’ between teens, which in many respects is merely a more technologically mediated form of ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’, becomes read by adults as evidence of the pornographic corruption of children. Children engaging in their own talk about sex is interpreted as precocious and something for which adults must provide the appropriate vocabulary, meanings and awareness of consequences through sex education, rather than something children should be told to do away from the ears of adults.

We encourage openness in our children but are then shocked by the things they tell us, and interpret as premature adulthood things that adults would not have found out about in the past. In this way, we as adults cast ourselves as the ‘innocents’, continually shocked by our children who embody all those alien forces outside of our control. We all need to stop looking at children through the perverted prism of infantilised adulthood.

Jan Macvarish is a sociologist at the University of Kent and a member of the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild asked Tate Modern visitors if they thought a photograph that had been deemed obscene was art or kiddie porn. Elsewhere, she thought censoring an advertisement featuring someone who looked too young took prudishness to a new low. Frank Furedi explored the phenomenon of children who won’t grow up. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

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To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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