I am not a mother, so far be it from me to judge the appropriateness of outfits mothers choose for their children, but having just read Melinda Tankard Reist's Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls, in addition to Germaine Greer's piece on heel fetishism in The Australian Women's Weekly and M G Durham's piece, Lost youth: turning young girls into sex symbols, c/o The Guardian this week, this image of Suri Cruise in Who magazine, as well as the glossy celebratory omnipresence of 13-year-old blogger Tavi (as seen in Grazia this week), has given me pause for thought.
"Suri Cruise wasn't about to allow a little thing like her age – 3 – stop her from cutting a perfectly accessorised figure in a ra-ra skirt and peep-toes (teamed with shell-shaped bag) for a stroll with mother Katie Holmes in Boston on Sept. 21," reports Who. "The city clearly appeals to Suri's inner fashionista. A day earlier, she wore pink lipgloss (applied toddler-style) to match her shoes and top. Suri's eye for colour has been on display before. On July 2, soon after the family descended on Melbourne, Suri and her dad picked up for lipglosss ay Myer's Becca and Bloom counters."
When did wearing heels (and sheer stockings, in the case of Tavi) become less of a symbolic teenage right of passage into full-blown womanhood and more of a birth right? When did playing dress-ups in mum's clompy shoes turn into having a wardrobe of Carrie Bradshaw heels to call your own?
"You can shop online for high-heeled shoes for baby girls aged naught to six months, which seems rather early to be introducing someone to a fetish, unless it's meant to work as aversion therapy," writes Greer in The Weekly.
According to Emma Rush, who writes 'What are the risks of premature sexualisation for children' in Reist's Getting Real, "sexualisation of children occurs when 'the slowly developing sexuality of children' is 'moulded into stereotypical forms of adult sexuality' (Rush and La Nauze, 2006, p.1.)."
"This results from two quite different cultural processes, both driven by commercial interests," continues Rush. "As advertising and popular culture have become more heavily sexualised (to the point where some scholars speak of the 'pornification' of culture more generally), the impact upon children has increased. The other cultural process that sexualises children is relatively new. It involves sexualising products being sold specifically for children, and children themselves being presented in images or directed to act in advertisements in ways modelled on adult sexual behaviour... Sexualising products are products linked to cultural norms of sexual attractiveness. Such products were previously reserved for teenagers and adults but are now sold directly to girls of primary school age, for example, bras, platform shoes, lip gloss, fake nails, and so on."
As the writers in Getting Real suggest (it's a confronting read, by the way, but I think a necessary one to counter-balance the prevalent powers of commercialism), the premature sexualisation of girls can lead to all sorts of trouble, including retarded cognitive and emotional development, mental health problems and damaged sexual development.
"With girls spending more and more time in their bedrooms worrying about how they look and what to wear, they are missing out on the invaluable life experiences needed to develop, and to draw on in difficult situations," writes Maggie Hamilton in Getting Real. "Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield is now seeing 11-year-olds two to three years behind in cognitive development than 11-year-olds were fifteen years ago. Girls need human interaction, nourishing food and play, and to be directly engaged in life, for their brains to develop. Without these factors, Susan Greenfield believes, their ability to make sense of the world and express themselves creatively will continue to decline."
Does this put precocious fashionistas Suri and Tavi at risk? And what does the fawning media attention that they garner tell other young women? Are we creating too narrow a view of what it means to be a girl in 2009? And of what it means to be a popular girl, celebrated for her ensembles rather than her kindness or academic achievements?
"Girls should be rewarded for thinking for themselves, exploring meaning and values and making a mark in the world that goes beyond the airhead cult of celebrity and fashion," writes Tankard Reist. "Girls need to be able to discern what is good and valuable and dismiss the rubbish... The world needs girls who desire to be whole, well rounded citizens of the world."
Girl With a Satchel
Posted by Erica Bartle (nee Holburn) at Friday, September 25, 2009