Girl Talk: Tiny Tots, High Heels

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."

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel


Anonymous said...

Aside from the physical implications of cramming developing feet into heels, I don't see a problem. I remember when I was a kid, tramping around in mum's heels was the funnest thing, like, EVER! Whatever happened to kids just having a good time playing dress-ups?!

KF said...

I used to LOVE my plastic high heels with little bows and a plastic badge of Disney's Cinderella on the tow.... they came in a pack with a matching handbag and necklace and I INSISTED on wearing them everywhere as a budding 4-year old fashionista....

Everyone is reading far too much into Suri's shoes

Anonymous said...

Ditto KF, I used to be obsessed with my plastic mini-heels, for no other reason than they were pretty and I had fun wearing them. Did they do me any damage? I would say decidedly, no. I'm a feminist and consider myself an intelligent, well-rounded individual with MANY interests. Just one of them being high heels. ;-)

L said...

well actually podiatrists say that totally flat shoes - thongs - are worse for your feet than a little heel. :)

on the sexualisation note... I've been confronted with that recently because my daughter is tall. She is only 5. Most of the knickers in her size are very provocative. they have words like "sexy" and "pow" on them. since she hangs upside down on monkey bars these knickers are very much on display so I have to WORK to find knickers that aren't sexy. for a 5 year old. I think that's really weird. i picture some creeepy guy approving all this stuff for the store to sell. urrgh.

Anonymous said...

The thing is, when we were little and "playing dress up", that's exactly what it was. We played, then mom made us change to go out in public and we understood that that was something we did for fun. Part of the fun was looking and acting like "mommy" for a little bit. Now, Suri is dressing like this all the time, and in public, which I think is a little strange. Thw Cruises seem to have projected their very own views onto little Suri since she was just months old. I don't know, it may be a Scientology thing, but I remember them always talking about how Suri's "favorite city is NY", and how she was such a wonderful artist. She was six months old at the time!! Come on, let this child be, look like, and act like a child. There is a time and a place for everything. Suri looks ridiculous wearing heels and thousand dollar, designer clothes around town.

Anonymous said...

can we also just talk about the ethics of a grown-up woman's magazine covering a child in the first place? suri is not a child star - not famous in her own right. she is famous because of who her parents are. she has never been able to choose whether or not to court this kind of scrutiny. and the public interest argument is hardly valid - she's a kid for frig's sake! i've seen more and more glossip covers in the past year or so featuring celeb babies and i think it's kinda sick.

Natalie said...

I think the problems with this kind of media is the fact that, and sadly so, the way you look is far more important that what you have done. How much you weigh seems directly correlated to how many covers you get. And this is what young girls are seeing and thinking is "normal".

Anonymous said...

I find the whole Tavi obsession quite disturbing.

Anonymous said...

Seeing little girls in heels makes my blood boil. Parents who take unneccesary risks with the health and development of their children need their heads read. As for the argument 'You're not a parent so you have no right to judge' - a big finger up. As a human being I have every right to stand up and say THIS ISN'T RIGHT. Sheesh - just because a person has the physical ability to become a parent doesn't mean they're any good at it.

Josephine Tale Peddler said...

It makes my blood boil when I see parents dressing their children in adult type clothes. I've seen them with logos like, Groupie and worse on T Shirts. When I see a child in the city mincing along with a handbag and lip gloss (and I have seen many) I think it's a shame that the parents don't realise the ramifications of what they are doing to a child. My daughter loves her dress up clothes and shoes but I like her to look like a child. Young women today are facing enormous pressures and dressing children like young adults is just a form of abuse.

Ondo Lady said...

I am sorry I think that picture is awful. She is three years old and wearing heels out on the street and lip gloss!! Yes we all played dress up with our Mum's clothes and shoes when we were little but that is exactly what it was - dress up. After our fun we put on our own kids clothes and went off to play. This is almost as bad as putting little girls in bikinis. Awful!!

Anonymous said...

I think Tavi is in a different situation. Although she's being feted in the media, she has consciously decided to put herself into the public, by blogging actively (yes, she may or may not be a bit young to really appreciate the consequences). And her blogging is interesting, critical, that's why she has been picked up by designers, then the media. There are other kids with blogs, hers is pretty good.

Of course, the extent to which she's been publicized in the media has a lot to do with high fashion attempting to stay relevant in the recession, and with old/paper-based media coming to terms with blogging/social media.

I've been glad to read her Dad accompanied her (I think) to fashion shows and meetings. I hope her parents are/continue to look out for her. But if the impertus for blogging is really coming from Tavi herself & her interest in fashion, then I guess her parents should support (as well as protect) her.

As a parent, I really hate the sexualisation of young girls, and I try to protect my kids from it. But if my kid were like Tavi, I think I'd have to acknowledge this is her interest, this is what she wants to explore intellectually, even if blogging can be uncomfortably public at times.

BTW, I haven't seen Tavi wear particularly sexy clothes, although yes, she has worn heels (possibly partly for height reasons, too)