In the media yesterday, a story broke about an inappropriate greeting card, aimed at teenage girls, which was found for sale in the United Kingdom. I don’t want to re-hash the card, or its ‘message’ on my blog, but there’s a news article here which will give the details, if you want to check them out for yourself. The first I heard of it was on Twitter, where the person who had found the card for sale (a prominent US-based children’s and YA author) posted a photograph of it, to the widespread disgust of everyone who saw it, including me. For a long time, I felt sure that the card had to be a hoax, such was the level of my disgust at what I saw; I honestly couldn’t believe that such a thing could ever have been produced, let alone permitted to be sold. The makers of the disgusting greeting card defended themselves by saying that the card is a design from several years ago which should no longer have been available to purchase – but that’s hardly the point, is it? The point is, it was designed, approved, printed, shipped, and sold in the first place.
I was reminded of several stories which have made headlines in recent years, including one in which a retailer was found to be selling wildly inappropriate toys through its online arm, including a pole-dancing kit for children (yes, you read that right!), among others. One that also springs to mind is the shirt made for little girls emblazoned with the logo ‘So Many Boys, So Little Time’, which was also withdrawn from sale after parental complaints. Recently, several retailers pledged to make their stock more appropriate for children, which was a step in the right direction, and it was widely welcomed. However, despite the fact that steps have apparently been taken to halt this early sexualisation of children, I fear that it is still going on. Recently, I was in a children’s clothes shop looking for a present for a friend’s wife, who had recently given birth to a baby girl. I found a beautiful outfit, and had just handed over my money, when I noticed that there was a display of underwear aimed at 2- to 3-year-old girls beside the till; I was disgusted to see that they were made to resemble adult underwear. I almost felt like asking for my money back and turning on my heel, but my nerve failed me, and I didn’t say anything to the sales assistant. I should have.
Why do we put so much pressure on our own children? Why do parents buy these sort of items for their children? Parents who allow their daughters to dress in Playboy-branded clothing ‘because it’s just a bit of fun’ are, clearly, unaware of the damage they’re doing; I refuse to believe they don’t care about the effect their choices are having on their children. I can’t understand how this has been allowed to happen. Is it driven by market demand, or is the ‘fashion’ for these sexualised items created by manufacturers? I can’t imagine purchasing anything for any child which bore any hint of an inappropriate or sexual message, so I’m completely baffled at the thought of a parent buying such an item for their own child. Perhaps I’m underestimating the power of pestering – if a child sees that all their classmates have lewdly-branded schoolbags, or whatever, then they’ll stamp and whine until they get one, too. I’d really hope, however, that if I’m ever lucky enough to be a parent, that my own sense of what’s appropriate will win out over my child’s ability to annoy me.
I don’t accept, either, the argument that if a child is too young to understand the message they’re bearing on their clothing, or whatever, that it does them no harm. My own feeling is that if a young girl grows up wearing (for instance) Playboy-branded clothing, that she’ll be inclined to think there’s nothing unsavoury about the brand as she grows older, and begins to understand what it really means. The brands are building their future client base by targeting the youngest consumers they can; even that cynical market-building, on its own, makes me uneasy. If a little girl is given clothing which labels her as ‘juicy’, or ‘sexy’, or whatever, that’s the sort of mental image she’ll construct of herself. Then, when she grows into womanhood, it may be the case that she’ll be more inclined to judge her own worth by her appearance, or her sexuality, than might have been the case otherwise. This sort of reduction of womanhood is prevalent enough as it is – we don’t need future generations of women to keep doing it to themselves.
I am heartened that there was such an outcry over the greeting card, all over the world, when it was discovered. I’m also heartened that parents were the ones who drove the big retailers to change their policies and take some of these horrible items out of the marketplace. But I do fear it’s just an aspect of a larger problem, and that the war is far from being won. Childhood is short and fragile enough – I hope we come to our senses, as a society, and protect it for as long as we can.