So when will we stop pimping our kids?

// 15 April 2011

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For the last few years I’ve been a co-parent to my partner’s two children. Her daughter is 12 years old and being part of her world has given me a greater awareness of the pressures put upon young girls and the increasing sexualisation of children, driven by the media and other sources.

Last year, puberty hit and it was time to go bra shopping. Things have certainly changed since I was a girl. Take Marks and Spencer as an example (a respectable, family-friendly brand). They have a bra section which is aimed specifically at girls looking for their first bra (a range named Angel) and it’s row upon row of padded bras. In our local store I counted 22 rows of padded bras, next to six non-padded.

It’s not just M&S that are at it of course – last month Matalan came under fire for pushing padded bras to pre-teens, while last year Primark, ASDA and Tesco were all under the spotlight for the same reason. But despite the negative publicity and outcry from the newspapers, things seem to stay much the same.

To me this is a choice issue as much as anything. As human beings we are inherently lazy and heavily influenced by the actions of others. If you have to hunt high and low to find a non-padded bra for your daughter, if your daughter’s friends are all wearing them anyway, at what point do you simply conform? How much are people being pushed, unwittingly, towards a new social norm, which says that as soon as you begin to grow breasts you must lift them up, push them out and wait for the comments?

But bras are not the only issue. The depiction of young women (all women?) in the media is clearly another major factor.

My partner also has a son, aged 15. He’s recently started watching ‘Misfits’ a British comedy-drama about a group of young offenders who acquire super powers. I watched the first episode with him the other day to see what all the fuss was about. As it turns out, most of the super powers are pretty standard with the exception of the young woman whose ‘super power’ is to cause anyone who touches her go into a sexual frenzy towards her, describing in graphic detail what they want to do to her.

Or in other words, she makes anyone who touches her want to rape her.

I’m quite late to the party with this one (it was blogged about on the F Word back in 2009) but I found this pretty disturbing to say the least. Or maybe this is simply a modern take on the traditional fairytale notion of acquiring the power to make any man fall in love with you?

I’m obviously not the only one with concerns. The Mother’s Union is currently conducting a review into the sexualisation of children and is due to publish its findings in May. Earlier this week they submitted a petition to David Cameron, calling on the Government to prohibit sexualised media, marketing and products being easily accessed by minors. Next week, a new series of the Sex Education shows starts on Channel 4 with the theme ‘stop pimping our kids’.

I take heart from the fact that our own 12-year old flatly refuses to wear a padded bra and groans loudly when yet another scantily-clad woman dances around in a pop video. Maybe the next generation will be the ones to sort all this out?

But then that relies on the next generation of women making it to the top of their professions in politics, the media and in retail. In my mind, that’s the only way that real change will ever happen.

Comments From You

Jennifer Drew // Posted 15 April 2011 at 9:39 pm

Actually our male-centric media and popular culture are ‘pimping out girl children not boy children.’ I do not see clothing for boys which is tight fitting and designed to be as skimpy as possible. Instead the male body is hidden because they are wearing over large size clothing. I wonder why? Is it because the male body must not be shown but instead must remain covered up and even though many young males are deliberately showing the waistband of their knickers they are not routinely walking around with just a tiny piece of clothing hiding their sexual organs.

As usual it is females who are being reduced to men’s disposable sexualised commodities – but of course that fact must remain hidden because boys too are supposedly being reduced to ‘dehumanised sexualised commodities are they not?? I think not.

Nor should we fall into the trap of blaming mothers because it is not mothers but our male supremacist society which is promoting and claiming the deliberate sexualisation/exploitation of girls and young women is supposedly ’empowering.’

We should and must be challenging male-centric popular culture and the media because they are the ones financially profiting by exploiting women and girls. But then no criticism of the male-centric media is allowed because it is essential such propaganda must be hidden under the claim ‘this is empowering to girls and young women.’

Jane // Posted 16 April 2011 at 12:41 am

As a note on the character on Misfits – before she gets her power she is highly sexualised and like many young women in our culture she equates sex with sex, respect, power, etc. – the powers the characters get are tied into something they wanted thus why she gets this power. The moral of the story is that in fact this isn’t something she wants (again, many characters gain this realisation as the program goes on).

She does nearly get raped on several occasions, she also finds she is unable to have sex with her boyfriend because he doesn’t want to have sex with her if he isn’t consenting all the way, one show her powers are reversed and she gets a club full of people calling her a slut which plays to her insecurities about how she used to be before realising being sexually appealing like this isn’t all it’s cracked-up to be. She finally finds love with the loner character Simon, long story short he becomes immune to her power so they can make love with him being totally consensual and her being happy that he’s making love to her out of choice. The story is a bit deeper than ‘Lets make this young pretty female character up for it all the time and make everyone want her…what girl wouldn’t want that!’

Xx // Posted 16 April 2011 at 1:34 pm

“As a note on the character on Misfits – before she gets her power she is highly sexualised and like many young women in our culture she equates sex with sex, respect, power, etc. – the powers the characters get are tied into something they wanted thus why she gets this power. The moral of the story is that in fact this isn’t something she wants (again, many characters gain this realisation as the program goes on).”

@Jane, I cant find any other way to that other than as a moral tale: woman is highly sexual, then gets given a ‘superpower’ meaning men can’t resist raping her, so if women act in a sexual way, then rape is a fair punishment. I still think that storyline is seriously problematic

Mary Tracy // Posted 16 April 2011 at 3:44 pm

“Maybe the next generation will be the ones to sort all this out?”

I believe that has been people’s hope for quite some time now.

anchoredwunderlust // Posted 16 April 2011 at 8:25 pm

hmm there is a double reason for padded bras i think. in my school, any signs of your puberty like knowing youve started your period, were shameful, and any show of boob was sexual, even before you have them. with the way that school blouses are you can pretty much see through the shirt, so wearing a flimsy bra may still give away nipple shape and things like that, but it will show the shape of your breasts either way. with padded they all have a protection from view packaged away. obviously this isnt hiding cleavage and is creating the predominantly favoured shape, which is still a problem, but i think all my bras could be considered padded and it has never crossed my mind that it increases the size, only that i have better support. unless you mean extra padded rather than just thick?

Sarah Fogg // Posted 17 April 2011 at 10:56 am

I agree with anchoredwunderlust that padded bras aren’t necessarily something to worry about. I remember when I was in school they weren’t really available in my size, and I always wore a jumper, even in summer, so nobody could see the shape of my nipples through my shirt. As long as it’s not a push-up padded bra it’s probably to save the embarrassment of having ‘nipple erection!’ yelled at you from halfway across the sports field.

Dasha // Posted 17 April 2011 at 11:20 am

What worries me is the belief that women should wear bras to support their breast or in order to hide their nipple from sticking out. I’ve read a lot of material online and it says that women don’t need bras at all to support their breasts. In fact wearing one might even increase the likelihood of breast cancer. Nipples being visible through closing are absolutely natural. I’ve actually decide to go bra free permanentely and it feels for comortable for me. It is the fact that all women are supposed to wear any kind of bra that should feel quite wrong. Weather to wear one or not, should be a matter of personal choice rather than society telling women to do so.

anchoredwunderlust // Posted 17 April 2011 at 1:05 pm

of course it shouldnt matter about showing your body shape, but the thing is that when your body is going through changes, especially at puberty, its normal for a child to become more private, or a little embarassed, especially if their body shows them as being more sexually mature than before when inside they still feel like a child. its not until this point where children necessarily have to think of themselves as girls and boys.

phoebe // Posted 17 April 2011 at 1:33 pm

im 14 and strongly hate the pressure im under to look perfect i hate being surrounded by sex from adverts celebraties and fashion i want to live in a world where we on judged on who we are and not what we look like. only today was my nine year old brother on a childrens game website where a women was dressed in only a bra and thong while pole dancing advertising some sick website. is that the only future women are going to have if it is i would preferred to live in the 1800’s we might not of had rights but at least women had respect. why do all our clothes have to be thigh high and showing our whole chest and if you dont follow this ridiculous fashion you are branded a freak. I know there is nothing one can do but surely if we work together we can live in a world free from constant pressure sex we are under as children because thats all we are children no matter how much make we cape ourselves in or the clothes we wear to look older.Thanks to the world we are in every teen acts as old as they can well i say why cant we act our age and enjoy being kids and live in a respecable moral world.

cycleboy // Posted 17 April 2011 at 3:39 pm

” ‘super power’ is to cause anyone who touches her go into a sexual frenzy towards her, … Or in other words, she makes anyone who touches her want to rape her.”

Now, I’ve never watched Misfits, so can’t comment on the storyline or characters. However, the above conjunction disturbs me greatly. I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘frenzy’ but if I were to lust after a woman it wouldn’t automatically mean I wanted to rape her. I could be frantic with lust and STILL respect the usual boundaries of decent behaviour. Why automatically equate this with rape?

Mel J // Posted 17 April 2011 at 8:16 pm

I see your point cycleboy but I have to say that’s certainly the way it came across in the programme. It was a violent reaction and not consensual – it did feel like rape was on the cards. However, others have indicated that maybe there’s a moral story that plays out later on in the series so I’m going to stick with it and see.

Phoebe, thanks so much for commenting on this. I think maybe your comment puts things across much better than my original post. It’s not really about bras or the behaviour of one character on a tv show. It’s about the combined effect of all of this – pressure from all angles. And it’s all around us most of the time, so much so that I think most of us don’t even see it anymore. Which makes it especially dangerous.

Jennifer Drew – yes, it’s the girls that are being ‘pimped out’ but that means that the boys are being conditioned to be the pimps and that’s no better really is it?

sianushka // Posted 18 April 2011 at 9:08 am

Phoebe, thank you for your thoughtful comment. i can’t imagine how difficult it is for teens these days, i’m only 26 but it seems so much has changed in that short time – when i was your age we didn’t have padded bras, just your standard ‘training bras’! There is so much pressure on young girls nowadays to be only and always sexual, and only sexual according to a very narrow definition of media representation of ‘sexy’. it shuts out any variety of what it means to be a sexual being.

I was always struck in Living Dolls with Natasha Walter’s interview with a young woman who said she felt there wasn’t any choice for young women, you were only allowed to be a narrow version of “sexy” in order to conform to teen society. As we are always fed the rhetoric of choice, i found it very interesting how this woman felt her choices to have been taken away. For many young women today, padded bras, sexualised imagery of women and narrow defintions of sexy are all there is. Where is their choice?

Hope that makes sense.

Lynsey // Posted 18 April 2011 at 1:09 pm

It’s not quite right to lump Misfits in with these other valid points: Misfits is entertaining, funny and intelligent. No one ever says Alisha deserves to be raped and it’s interesting how the story unfolds.

Leonore // Posted 18 April 2011 at 3:04 pm

Re: padded bras. I’m in my early thirties and I have to say my own experience is that they were as commonly worn at my school back in the 90’s as they are now. On reflection, I would say a key difference is in, as you say, the number of padded ranges available in comparison to the more basic and flimsy non-wired “training bra” styles.

However, I also think there’s more to padded bra wearing than simply trying to meet a narrow definition of media represented ‘sexiness’. I have to admit I have worn a padded bra pretty much every day since adolescence and can honestly say this hasn’t been to get a cleavage or look busty (both impossibilities for my tiny mam-glands anyway, even in a so-called push-up and several extra “cookies”!).

I’m not saying I would dismiss anyone for wearing a padded bra for sexy reasons but, personally, I’m merely doing it so the line of my clothes over my chest appears “normal”, according to cissexist, traditional ideas about the shape a woman’s body is supposed to have. Not great, I realise, and I appreciate it would be more liberated to cast off my padded bra and go titless but there it is.

I think this is an issue many women have to deal with so we shouldn’t be too quick to categorise padded bra wearing as just a symptom of the pressure to be perceived as “sexy”. Some of us do it because we don’t have any boobs and we want to go about our daily business without personal comments. In the highly pressured environment teenagers continue to inhabit, I suspect the same could be said for many teenage girls.

Holly Combe // Posted 18 April 2011 at 4:42 pm

While I agree that we do seem to be living in a time where there is a persistent pressure on both sexes to meet some particularly narrow standards, there are also plenty of other problems that I think are probably exactly the same as those I saw at my own school. The “virginity” myth was as strong as it seems to be now and labels like “slag” and “frigid” were commonplace insults levelled at girls. Still, I do sometimes find myself looking back at some of the styles of dress we adopted and the women on TV at the time and wondering if they would be shunned now for basically not being conventionally “sexy” enough.

That said, I do personally find some of the rhetoric surrounding the issue of sexualisation rather problematic (tending to agree with what Laurie Penny says here) and am wary of upholding any notions of respectability. I’d also be reluctant to get on board with a campaign from the Mothers Union, due to their allignment with certain Conservative concerns. I may be missing some details here but, from what I can gather, their Chief Executive Reg Bailey does not strike me as someone who I would want to align my views with as a feminist.

maggie // Posted 18 April 2011 at 10:05 pm

a padded bra for those who actually had something to fill it was the norm in my day. Aiming padded bras at prepubescent children is not on. What does this marketing say about our society?

Joanne // Posted 19 April 2011 at 2:37 pm

Leonore, I’m in my thirties as well, and I wear a padded bra for the same reasons you do. I feel vulnerable in public without one, and I just don’t want comments/hassle. It makes me feel more protected.

Sofie // Posted 19 April 2011 at 8:56 pm

M&S bra range for ‘older girls’ is available to scrutinise online – see: http://www.marksandspencer.com/Angel-First-Lingerie-Bras-Lingerie-Underwear-Womens/b/65954031

Seeing as the items in question are ‘molded’ rather than padded, it looks like other commenters are right – these are marketed for the purpose of supporting breasts without revealing nipples. Wish they’d been around when I was a kid!

They’re not push-up bras, they’re not ‘sexy’ (no lace, black or red designs, quite sweet actually) and they’re not padded, so it’s hard to see how they’re evidence of sexualisation.

I’d be interested to see how other retailers coming under fire for this stuff have actually marketed sexy lingerie at kids. I’m not doubting it’s happened, but I think we need to be careful how we draw distinctions.

Lucie // Posted 20 April 2011 at 1:28 pm

I’m 14 and I have to agree with some things you’ve said. Shops target young people like teens because they have pocket money to spend and they like to buy things which will make them feel grown up. School life is all about labels and the kind of things you wear has a huge impact of the kind of person take you to be. If you wear your skirt long your a freak but if it’s too short your a slut. Retailers just want to make money, the important thing is getting kids less obsessed with growing up so fast. Having those kind of clothes out there doesn’t help, but people are buyin them and that’s why they’re still there.

No girl is entirely happy with the way she looks but it is sad for young girls to be wearing padded bras. But really, kids just need to slow down and think a little more about what they’re doing/wearing because whatever they choose to be, they’re going to have to live with that. Kids need rules about what they can and can’t wear. Sure, there are going to be times when they test the boundaries, but that’s always going to happen. There is a problem with young girls but there’s enough people who want it to change to make sure that it can.

Samuel // Posted 30 April 2011 at 1:16 pm

I am a guy, but im concerned about my daughter, she is 15 and keeps asking me for padded bra’s little tops and mini skirts, everytime i see her friends in clothes like that it makes me feel sick inside, i know some women develop early and i upderstand even at 15 girls can need D-F bra’s but with all the teenage prenancy problems in society at the moment you would think that people would want to keep theyre children from provoking sexuality for aslong as possible.

The biggest problem i seem to have is the other girls parents ask me and my wife why we are so strict with our daughter, not buying her mini skirts and frilly underwear, they think that its perfectly acceptable for theyre children to wear this sort of clothing, its all well and good for people to want to band together but aslong as there is 1 parent willing to let their child wear revealing clothes and padded bra’s it will always be a fashion, and even if retailers moved the more sexual bra’s from their childrens ranges, the parents would simply get them adult bra’s.

I cant follow my daughter around everywhere or stop her going out, she is human after all but im worried with all the sexual influences and lack of law enforcement on underage sex kids dont think theyre doing anything wrong, neither do their parents, sorry for the very long post i just wanted to give my two cents.

Kez // Posted 30 April 2011 at 2:05 pm

Sorry it’s a bit off topic, but I have to quibble with Dasha’s comment above that women “don’t need bras at all to support their breasts”. This may well be the case for smaller-breasted women, but I can assure you that if you have larger breasts and want to engage in any form of exercise, you certainly do need some form of firm support, or you have a very uncomfortable/painful experience in store!

Louise // Posted 1 May 2011 at 12:03 am

@Samuel

I am currently 23. If my Dad had told me what to wear when I was 15, I would never have spoken to him again.

Feminism isn’t about your father protecting you from sexual attention from other men. That’s the oldest patriarchal trope in the book. What matters is choice. I have always looked and dressed how I wanted to, I wanted to grow up early (and yes that meant in line some of the symbols of that), not because I wanted to be attractive/ have sex early (I certainly didn’t do the latter) but because I wanted autonomy and a free choice. I wanted that choice whether it would make me happy or not, because that is what creating a life for yourself is about.

As an adult while I regret some of my younger choices (I have a bunion or two from wearing high shoes to school at 12), I don’t regret being allowed to have the choice.

josie // Posted 6 May 2011 at 5:41 pm

I am 20 and i just watched the programme on 4od about pimping out our kids.

I find the comments about padded bras to be slightly missing the point, they seemed to be saying they were the devils work! I found when started growing breasts at around the age of 11 i felt really uncomfortable wearing any kind of top as they show the shape of your breasts and nipples, i only started to feel more comfortable when i got my first lightly padded bra. The fact is, none of these bras were shaped in a way that enhances or pushes up the breast, they were all softly padded, more square shaped without underwiring and i didnt see any lace or sexualised styles. I do think that young girls who have yet to start growing shouldnt be buying bras unless they have reached perhaps the age of 12-13 when they feel they want one to fit in in secondary school, but some girls start growing much earlier and i think when your are 9-10 and not understanding changes in your body it can help you feel more comfortable!

Some comments which made me quite angry were those about the underwear, i think the “hotpants” they described were really not that bad, pink hearts and diamante only become sexual when they are on an older girl and young girls underwear has been pink and pretty for decades, the word “angel” is only sexual if you try and make it that way. Thongs i understand but i thought some of their comments about the underwear were a bit inflammatory.

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