Padded bras will never empower young girls
OPINION:Padded bras for very young girls is not about grooming children for paedophiles – it’s about grooming children to be unfulfilled shopaholics, writes DEBBIE GING
THE NEWS that Primark/Penneys were urged to remove padded bras for seven to 10 year-old girls from their shelves has reignited the “sexualisation-of-children” debate, both in Ireland and the UK. Three years ago I wrote a short article in The Irish Times about this phenomenon, and I have been amazed ever since by how much attention it attracted. Most disconcerting of all was the praise I received from political conservatives and moral puritans, people with whom I do not normally share ideological space.
Reading and listening to some of the Irish and British media coverage this week, I am in no doubt that a lot of people are outraged and disgusted by the idea of children wearing bras. However, there are very different sets of concerns being expressed, ranging from fears about vulnerability to paedophiles to teenagers becoming sexually active “too young”.
Many of these concerns are underpinned by certain “commonsense” assumptions, for example that children are devoid of natural sexual curiosity or that there is some universally acceptable age at which they can become exposed to the uglinesss of adult sexuality.
All of these notions require further unpacking if we are to move this debate beyond highly simplistic, moral-panic territory. Moreover, we need to confront more rigorously as a society our own relationship to sex and sexuality, as well as the more subtle and everyday practices of gender discrimination and objectification of children which don’t make the headlines.
My own opposition to the marketing of an adult sexual aesthetic to children is not motivated by sexual conservatism, fears about the corruption of childhood innocence or making children prey to paedophiles. My first concern is that children, particularly female children, are being schooled in the “art” of consumerism, as if shopping were a constructive and fulfilling activity in and of itself. It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out whose interests this serves.
My second – and much greater – concern is that the marketing of sexualised products to children replicates and reinforces the inequalities of the contemporary adult “sexualscape”. Female children are being encouraged, through the consumption of toys, clothes, jewellery, make-up and dolls, to engage in activities which reinforce sexual passivity (as well as normalise heterosexuality) – they are all about performance, self-adornment and being looked at.
In this scheme of things, valorisation and a sense of self-worth are won not through ability, skill or achievement but simply by looking good (for the boys). While boys are not immune to the pressures of grooming, there is still a far greater onus on them to define their identities in terms of what they do, rather than how they look.
These strategies replicate the “you-go-girl” logic of post-feminism, which tells women that sexually objectifying themselves is empowering, that lap-dancing is liberating and that buying lots of shoes is a sassy act of rebellion. We keep being told that pole dancing and, more recently, “vajazzling” (look it up) make women feel good about themselves, but this mantra never addresses why women might feel so bad about themselves in the first place.
Anyone who rejects these arguments is accused of being a hairy, censorious feminist who is “down on fun”. What is crucial here, however, is to ask what power and empowerment really mean, a question that tends to get as lost in the rhetoric of sexual liberation as it does in the puritanical discourse of the moral conservatives.
If we are genuinely interested in empowering girls, we (parents, educators) need to equip them with the necessary skills and confidence to develop a strong and critically-aware sense of self. False nails and padded bras won’t do it: a sense of self-identity dependent on appearance can only engender anxiety, lack of solidarity and, ultimately, a sense of failure.
But censoring their attempts – however flawed or misinformed we might consider them to be – to come to terms with the complex world of sex and sexuality might not be as helpful as we think either. There is little point in banning things unless we can explain to children why they are problematic.
The crucial issues here are power and equality. If girls are to resist their own sexual objectification and passivity, we must stop straitjacketing them (and boys) into rigid codes of feminine and masculine behaviour, respectively. It is crucial to consider our own collusion in constructing girlhood as passive through what are generally perceived as banal, everyday practices such as dressing girls in pink, buying them computer games about make-overs and puppy dogs instead of adventure and problem-solving, complimenting them more on how they look than we do boys, and constantly warbling on about how “boys and girls are so different”. This mantra is something of an obsession among Irish parents these days, and one to which I am regularly exposed while my daughters, covered in mud, beat the tar out of one another with sticks two feet away.
Parents also need to reflect on how they talk about sex and sexuality with their children – if we find it embarrassing then perhaps our energies would be better spent confronting our own hang-ups rather than transferring them on to our children.
Finally, the Irish educational system must take seriously the idea of sex education – not in the context of biology or moral policing but in a way that speaks to the real anxieties, experiences and feelings of children and teenagers. Our response to this issue has to be much more constructive and self-reflexive than mere outrage – otherwise we run the risk of simply contributing to the catalogue of anxieties that young girls already encounter in trying to develop a strong sense of selfhood.
It might take another generation of young women to realise that breast-flaunting and l’Oréal lip-pouting, however fun and sexy they may be, don’t propel you through corporate glass ceilings or that a “career” in lap-dancing might not have been the best way to go, baby.
In the meantime, while Mum is empowering herself by dancing around a pole in some suburban dance studio, mimicking the exploitative practices of a male-controlled sex industry, those with real power are sitting around a table devising strategies to market high heels to her seven-year-old, while others in positions of power in the media are busy distorting and dumbing down the complexities of this debate.
Dr Debbie Ging is a lecturer in the School of Communications at Dublin City University where she specialises in gender and sexuality and ethnicity and interculturalism