Sexy 'Lolita' style for kids raising concerns
Atlanta • It was a short run.
A $25 bikini top targeting preteens crashed and burned a few weeks after public outcry sent executives at Abercrombie Kids slinking back to the boardroom to revisit their marketing strategy.
The "Ashley," a padded "push-up" triangle bikini top peddled to girls ages 7 to 14, was first "recategorized," according to a company statement released on Facebook last week.
"We agree with those who say it is best 'suited' for girls age 12 and older," said the statement from Abercrombie Kids, a division of Abercrombie & Fitch. The "Ashley" disappeared from the website.
An online firestorm saw parents and kids criticizing the company for promoting the sexualization of young girls, which, of course, is nothing new. Princesses of pop culture are the frequent targets of concerned parents as stars such as Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan pass the baton to the likes of Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato.
"It has been going on for the last 10 years," said Meenakshi Gigi Durham, assistant professor at the University of Iowa and author of "The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It" (Overlook, $24.95). "Abercrombie & Fitch has been nailed before for this sort of thing. They have always been pushing the sexualization of little girls, so I can't say I was surprised."
It was surprising to see the product disappear presumably in response to public pressure.
"I do know that in many places, there are conversations about this sort of thing and there is a lot more public discourse about it and that is encouraging that there is some push back," Durham said.
Public opinion on the topic is pretty clear. Two recent polls on an opinion website, SodaHead.com, show 51 percent of respondents agreeing that "young girls dress too sexy."
Eighty-five percent of respondents in a separate poll said Abercrombie Kids' padded bikini top is not OK for little girls.
What parents consider inappropriate garments extends beyond outfits at Abercrombie Kids.
There are kitten heels in sizes small enough for 4-year-olds and T-shirts with sexy sayings sized to fit newborns at Gymboree.
Macy's carries tops for juniors that leave little to the imagination, such as a bandeau with sequins from Material Girl, a line launched last year by Madonna with input from her then-13-year-old daughter, Lourdes.
Further complicating matters of appropriateness is the fact that the target age range of 7 to 14 designated by many retailers crosses three very different phases in the life of girls: tweens, preteens and teens.
Parents concerned about the negative impact that supersexy dressing might have on their daughters, from eating disorders to sexually transmitted infections have fought back in their own way.
In 2005, Brenda Sharman co-founded Pure Fashion, a faith-based organization that encourages young girls to live, dress and behave with modesty, in the metro Atlanta area.
Each year the organization, which totals 600 participants nationwide, holds a Pure Fashion show featuring age- and style-appropriate hair, makeup and clothing.
Sharman was introduced to Abercrombie & Fitch several years ago. A friend showed her a company catalog with "XXX" on the cover and naked models on the pages. Later, for an appearance on the "Dr. Phil" show, Sharman went to the store for the first time and purchased a $60, 8-inch skirt as a visual aid.
"When you walk in [the store] and see they have removed the clothing from the models in order to sell clothing, you know they aren't selling clothing. They are selling an attitude. They are selling sex," Sharman said. "Girls and parents need to realize when they support a store that promotes such an obvious message, they encourage [the message]."
Considering parents' reaction, why aren't retailers doing more to end the hyper-sexy trend in little girls' clothing?
"For corporations, it is all about inculcating very young children into a certain ideology of femininity and sexuality that is geared to consumption," Durham said. "They want very young children to be aware of the trappings of sexuality that the marketers insist are necessary to present yourself as an attractive, viable female. All of these sexy garments ... are part of that push."
And it's not just girls who need to be wary of inappropriate messages.
During Christmas 2009, Susan Tucker did her parents' gift shopping. Her 10-year-old son had taken an interest in lacrosse, so she purchased a shirt at Abercrombie with "my disco stick" a reference to a song by Lady Gaga and an image of lacrosse sticks.
"My nieces and nephews (all 20-somethings) said, 'You don't what a disco stick is?' " Tucker said. They directed her to listen to the Gaga CD. Her son never wore the shirt.
"I realized it is not just their ads; it is the content," Tucker said. "Now that he is in middle school, I really have to look at his shirts. I want him projecting the right image."
Mary Ashenfelter, coordinator for Pure Fashion Atlanta, said the organization also helps parents demystify popular culture, Ashenfelter said. They use books and videos to educate parents on the inner workings of the beauty and advertising industries and how certain messages can impact a child's psyche.
It all makes sense for girls ages 14 to 18, the target market of Pure Fashion, but what do you do when retailers are pushing the same messages to girls half that age?
While shopping for her 4-year-old, Joyce Davis, an author of teen novels and a parenting blogger, has spied everything from high heels to skinny jeans, none of which she considers appropriate gear for little girls.
She was very disturbed by the latest Abercrombie Kids debacle.
"At 7, to be thinking about body image in that way ... It is offensive and unacceptable," said Davis. "Why am I having to have a conversation about appropriate clothing when my daughter doesn't even know how to add and subtract?"