Spice Girls, sexualisation and pre teen girls

"I NEED some love like I never needed love before, wanna make love to you, baby

"I NEED some love like I never needed love before, wanna make love to you, baby." These are the words in the mouths of many a girl aged nine and upwards these days. Along with lines like these: "Are you as good as I remember, baby?" and "Tonight is the night when two become one".

My daughter (nine) is able to inject these words with just the right note of plaintive yearning. She's also an expert at accompanying hip swivels and suggestive wiggles. As indeed are all her friends. For little girls these days can throw shapes that were once - not so long ago - the preserve of strippers and "exotic" dancers.

The words, for those of you who manage to evade the tentacles of popular culture, are the lyrics of When 2 Become 1, the latest hit from the Spice Girls, an all girl band whose singles have sold seven million copies worldwide and reached No 1 in 30 countries, making them the most popular and influential force in pop music at the moment.

Vivienne Westwood - who declared in the 1960s that "fashion is about sex" - recently lambasted the group on the BBC chat show Smillie's People. "What they are marketing is disgusting behaviour as a lifestyle," Westwood remonstrated, saying she was appalled at the way the group were being targeted at young girls. "People should be outraged by it," she continued. "I'm morally outraged by it. I call it child molestation. It's corruption. I really want to attack what I think is corrupting the youth."

Many think Vivienne Westwood being outraged by the excesses of popular culture is like Margaret Thatcher bemoaning the inequality of the free market. This is, after all, the woman who dressed the Sex Pistols in bondage gear and went knickerless to receive her OBE from the queen. Certainly, the Spice Girls' promoters, Virgin Records, weren't taking it seriously, dismissing it as the arguments of "a foolish old woman". But Westwood's unease with the Spice Girls has touched a chord with many parents. Not because they are dinosaurs with a Mary Whitehouse mentality, interpreting all depictions of sex as dangerous or disgusting, but because parents have real concerns about the increasing sexualisation of pre teen girls.

Of course the Spice Girls are not singlehandedly responsible for this. All of popular culture - magazines, books, films, videos and fashion as well as pop music - sends out the message that sex is the most important thing in life and that being sexy and sexually available is the only way for a girl to be successful in youth terms, to be "cool". And the girls getting the message - from the bra tops and lurex mini dresses in the shops to the thrusting groins in the latest video release - are now two, three or four years short of adolescence.

Which raises many questions. Why is this happening now, for example, when the public are more aware and anxious about child sexual abuse than ever before? What happens to the dynamics of child abuse when children have the warped ideas about sex that popular culture now gives them? Where do such trends originate? And the burning question for parents: what effect is this trend likely to have on girls? Will their self definition and self esteem be affected? What about their psychosexual development as they move into their teens and beyond?

The short answer is, we don't know. This is a new trend which has not been researched but it seems likely that it is connected to the upsurge in poor body image and eating disorders now being experienced by girls as young as eight. For the first time in history, children's earliest sexual imprinting is coming not from a living human being, or their own fantasies, but from a mass produced, technologised and dehumanised version of sexuality.

In the US, attention has been drawn to the sexualisation of very young children by the sexual assault and murder of a six year old "beauty queen". Children's beauty pageants, where girls as young as two strike the provocative poses of the beauty contest are a thriving subculture in the US. JonBenet Ramsey, America's Little Royal Miss 1996, was considered a "natural" - though the way in which she wiggled her hips, winked her eyelashes, tossed her highlighted hair and pouted her painted tips, was obviously anything but.

Of course, little girls do not have to be beauty queens with a bag of sexually enticing tricks to be abused, or raped or murdered. But the case is drawing unprecedented attention in the US, where the links between the sexualisation of children in this way and JonBenet's untimely death have provoked much comment.

That children's beauty pageants are Just an extreme manifestation of a wider trend can be seen in high street fashions. Among the pre teen fashion staples such as tracksuits and trainers are short, tight, mini skirts, cropped tops showing lots of midriff, lurex: mini dresses, little fur jackets. Barbara Mullen, children's buyer at Dunnes Stores, considers such clothes to be "high risk merchandise", saying Dunnes just would not carry such a range. "The young girls ho want to wear clothes like that don't want to shop in kids' outlets anyway," she says. "they go to the teen shops, whose sizes 8 and 6 are tiny enough to fit them."

Nina O'Connor, of Miss Selfridge, says that its clothes are marketed to a clientele which begins at age 10, but agrees that younger girls might buy them.

"Spice Girls wear our clothes sometimes, which makes them very popular with young girls," she says.

Though our culture is saturated with sexual imagery, that does not mean that anything goes. On the contrary, the range of that imagery is depressingly narrow and repetitive. Anybody who criticises popular culture risks being dismissed as reactionary and out of touch but it is the culture itself which is reactionary. Music videos for example, do not push any limits many of them just bring the cliched imagery of pornography into the mainstream. And feeding such imagery to young girls does not break any boundaries - rather, it helps to maintain a mainstream social order.

When both sexes sit in a room together watching such videos, says Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, they are "watching the culture's facial fantasy line about what they are supposed to do together - or, more often what: she is supposed to look like while he does what he does, watching her . .. girls take note of how to move, strip, grimace, pout, breathe and cry out during a sexual encounter". Wolf contends that it is no accident that such images have proliferated in the era when women have made legal and political advancements.

WHICH brings us back to the Spice Girls, whose defining slogan is "girl power", and who are marketed as self confident young women who have succeeded in beating the system to become the world's first mega all girl band. Their packaging as sex objects, however, belies any such interpretation.

It's all made clear in their first hit, which you may have heard your daughters sing:

"I'll tell you want I want, what

I really really want/

So tell me what you want, what you really really want/

I wanna, I wanna, I wanna, I

wanna, I wanna, really really really wanna/

A zigah, zigahhh/"

And if you're wondering what a "zigah, zigahhh" might be, the Girls' video leaves you in no doubt.

But where does it leave those of us who want our own little girls to wanna lot more than that?