Sex sells our children short
Megan Graham reports on an unsavoury trend in women’s fashion.
Hi, I’m Jenny. I’m 12 and I’m going on a shopping trip. First stop, Supre. I’ve got $25 Christmas money and there’s T-shirts there for only $5 or $10! Some of them are really cute. There’s ones that say “Santa’s b****”, “Pussy Power” and “North Pole Dancer”. All the girls at school get their clothes from Supre.
My mother drags me to Best & Less. There are “Tweenage” push-up bras for “tweens”. I’m a “tween” because I’m between 8 and 12 years old. I don’t have anything to push up yet but I want to look sexy. Mum sees what I’m holding and puts it back. “Why do pre-teens need push up bras?” She says. She gives the shop assistant a dirty look.
We go to Roger David so my brother can buy something. In the front window there’s a shirt with two naked women who look like they’re blindfolded. Next to that one is a shirt with a picture of a girl who looks out of it with a gag in her mouth. I wanna look like her. Guys who shop in Roger David are so cute.
These days, there are myriad damaging messages bombarding a young person’s mind all at once. Among the most worrying of these is the trend towards the sexualisation of girls and the objectification of women.
Why are companies in Australia so willing to make a buck off something so harmful to the wellbeing of half our population? And why are women — parents and executives — contributing to such chauvinistic stereotyping of their own gender?
The frightening scenario described above could easily have been the experience of any 12-year-old girl in Australia today. The “Tweenage” push-up bras from Best & Less were available in January this year (as were the examples from Supre and Roger David) but were discontinued following complaints.
It seems that fashion has taken pole position in the sexual objectification of women and girls.
Roger David has been selling two T-shirts in a range aptly called “Blood is the new Black”. One shirt has a Polaroid-style photograph of a dishevelled woman with what appears to be a gag covering her mouth. The second, a photograph of two near-naked women with their eyes covered.
The shirts triggered an outpouring of disgust by concerned Australians who dubbed them “rape chic”.
Melinda Liszewski, an administrator of the recently-launched grassroots campaigning movement Collective Shout: For a World Free of Sexploitation, wondered why anyone would want to wear shirts displaying such disturbing images.
“ It was surprising to see Roger David go down this path as they have typically been one of the more conservative menswear stores but, again, this demonstrates how normalised objectifying and even violent images have become.”
In response to Roger David’s promotion of the T-shirts, the Rev. Sarah Williamson, a Uniting Church deacon, started a group on social networking site Facebook called “Roger David: NOT ok to promote violence against women”. The group had 101 members in 60 minutes, 1,300 in 24 hours, and 3,500 in three days. It caught the media’s attention and was mentioned in The Age and The Daily Telegraph.
Roger David did not respond to the many concerned or offended people who sent emails and letters, or who signed a petition asking for the withdrawal of the shirts. The company merely posted a defensive message on its own Facebook page claiming the photographers’ original intentions were not obscene.
“It doesn’t make a difference,” said Ms Williamson. “Whatever the original intent, the images on the T-shirts were painful and disrespectful to survivors of abuse and all women. For [survivors of sexual abuse] the concept of defending the T-shirts as ‘art’ is totally offensive.”
Ms Williamson said degrading images walking around town on the chests of men, triggering painful memories and associations for survivors of abuse, was not art. “It just contributes to a culture of violence and oppression.”
She was surprised that strangers and friends felt that the T-shirts were acceptable because of the allegedly innocent intent.
“I think that the stores’ ‘intent’ was to sell T-shirts,” she said.
Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator, advocate for women and girls and founder of Collective Shout. Her third and most recent book is Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, $34.95).
Ms Tankard Reist believes fashion has been appropriated, just like the music industry and others, in the worldwide trend to objectify of women, typically employing “the proliferation of sexual imagery”.
She said, “Because of the phenomenon of violence being normalised as sexually stimulating — for example, in video games, music video hits, music lyrics, the influence of pimp culture, the glorification of prostitution and the dominance of pornography — this spills over into clothing design. The abuse of women is considered ‘hot’.”
Due to complaints in 2007, Italian fashion house Dolce & Gabbana withdrew an advertisement that used an image of a man holding a woman to the ground by her wrists while a group of men look on. It appeared, for all intents and purposes, like the prelude to a gang rape scene — but glamorised.
Again, the advertisement was defended in the name of “art”.
In Australia, Supre is still doing its part by selling young girls T-shirts with overt sexualised slogans.
Ms Tankard Reist outed Supre on her website by posting some of the offending designs. This triggered a number of complaints to Supre, to which the company responded it had removed the offending T-shirts from its stores.
Promoting such “fashion” to impressionable girls contributes to the even more worrying trend of girls debasing their own self-image.
Ms Tankard Reist said, “Many girls are self-objectifying because they are acting out the messages they receive at the earliest ages: that they are merely the sum of their body parts, that they must be thin, hot and sexy and do all they can to attract male attention.”
She said young girls and women were being bombarded with messages that girls need to be “publicly sexual” and their bodies “repackaged as sexually available”.
The constant messages pressured girls to “adopt pornified roles and behaviours” and encouraged the objectification (and self-objectification) of females everywhere.
Melinda Liszewski said, “What is most threatening to the wellbeing of girls and women is any message that treats women as sexual service stations for men and therefore denies them their humanity.”
She said that girls and boys alike were learning what it meant to be female in our culture from the mainstreamed pornographic influences in fashion and the music industry — even little girls who didn’t understand the pornographic inference of lacy bralettes and shirts that said “I put out” or “pussy power”.
Ms Tankard Reist said research demonstrated the connections between objectification and maltreatment. “We need to address the attitudes which make violence against women more likely. Objectifying women and girls makes it easier to mistreat them.”
Not only does this trend increase the likelihood of mistreatment of females by males; sexual objectification also does significant damage to the mental wellbeing of girls and women.
Ms Liszewski said, “The American Psychological Association released a paper which discusses possible negative effects on females arising from this sexual objectification, such as the widespread problems of low self-esteem, eating disorders and depression.”
Julie Gale is director and founder of Kids Free to be Kids, a non-profit organisation combining politicians, child development professionals and others concerned about the increasing sexualisation of kids in the media, advertising and clothing industries.
She believes that it is the proliferation of different messages coming from all directions that is hurting our children most. “They are constantly getting the message that their currency or worth or value comes from how hot and sexy they look,” she said.
Ramifications do not just affect girls. The fallout on males is also potent.
“Girls are often presenting themselves at a young age in more of a sexualised manner than ever before; a lot of young boys don’t know how to deal with that,” said Ms Gale. “Boys are exposed to more pornography, which makes a very potent mixture — relating to one another gets really difficult.”
So why don’t those in positions of power and authority seem to care about a problem that has such far-reaching and noxious consequences?
“Sex sells,” said Ms Gale. “Retailers and marketers push boundaries. Fashion designers know kids are aspirational and want to look older. They’ve pushed the boundaries on that.”
Ms Liszewski agreed. “They would not do this unless it was good for their bottom line. To understand why it makes money, we need to look at what else is happening in the culture to cause people to be drawn to these fashions.
“One huge factor is easy access to pornography on the internet. The average age of first exposure is 11 years old.”
What can be done?
Ms Gale believes the issue has gotten out of hand and can’t be addressed in isolation: everyone must play a role.
Ms Tankard Reist said that the issue required a whole-of-community approach. “Parents need to act responsibility by … using spending power wisely, having conversations with their children about possible threats to them [and] educating them in critical media skills.”
She said churches and other community groups could offer young people alternatives to the current cultural scripts which negatively affected them. Importantly, she said, regulatory bodies and the Government also needed to step up.
“It’s an election year in Australia; we all need to ask candidates of whatever stripe what they are going to do to address the objectification of women and sexualisation of girls, which puts them in danger.”
Ms Liszewski said it was vitally important to raise kids who would resist the trend and re-shape the culture into an environment where girls and women could thrive.
“We as a community have not made it easy for parents. As Hillary Clinton says, it takes a village to raise a child.”
She also suggested people write to the repeat offenders, saying they wouldn’t be purchasing their products anymore.
In 2008, there was a state inquiry into the sexualisation of children in the contemporary media environment. It placed the onus for the widespread problem on broadcasters, publishers, advertisers, retailers and manufacturers.
It recommended actions that those industry bodies could take, as well as recommending a review of the recommendations in December 2009 to ensure action was being taken. The review still hasn’t happened.
“One thing the government can do is to follow through on what they promised with the 2008 inquiry into the sexualisation of children,” said Ms Liszewski.
Ms Gale encouraged concerned citizens to write to politicians and ask what was being done.
“Where’s the action on the recommendations from the senate inquiry? Why are music video clips shown in children’s prime viewing hours?”
She advised parents to help their kids develop a critical eye on the media — not just be sponges. “Speak to your girls in particular about the fact that they’ll be read a particular way depending on how they dress.”
She stressed the importance of speaking out because the system was a reactionary one that relied on members of the public making a complaint before something was dealt with.
Ms Williamson echoed that advice. “Expect more! If you’re not happy with a message that is being conveyed, exercise your voice, because it does help.
“Leaders in fashion [need] to have a social conscience as much as anyone but we, as a society, need to require it of them.”
She said that creating a public storm would be helpful. “Write to your papers, television shows, politicians, stores, churches. If people are concerned to the point where they are active enough to write to politicians and media and stores, then movement does happen.
“I learnt through this experience that there are many, many people out there who are active in social justice issues [who are] willing to put in that little bit of effort to have an effect in our society for good.
“The strangest things happen when someone starts to speak out!”
Megan Graham is an Insights intern.
Melinda Tankard Reist’s website and blog can be found at www.melindatankardreist.com .
For more information on Collective Shout, visit www.collectiveshout.org