Thursday, August 16, 2012

Girls, "Tramps" and "Hookers": Target and the Girls' Clothing Debate

Target leopard print girls' shorts
We hardly ever hear public fretting about what boys are wearing. No railing about whether a boy is dressing in clothing that is not "age appropriate" or that might entice paedophiles. Yet the subject of what girls are wearing, as the recent media attention given to Target's clothing line for girls attests, is one that many parents feel strongly about. The debate began when a school teacher and mother, Ana Amini, posted the following message on Target's Facebook page:
''Dear Target, Could you possibly make a range of clothing for girls 7-14 years that doesn't make them look like tramps … You have lost me as a customer when buying apparel for my daughter as I don't want her thinking shorts up her backside are the norm or fashionable.''

Amini's comments resonated with tens of thousands of parents who "liked" her post or added their own supportive responses. When the social media backlash became a news story, a chorus of parents agreed that many of the clothes on the racks in Target for girls aged from seven to fourteen resembled those of "hookers" and "prostitutes".

The outrage spawned many opinion pieces. Dannielle Miller rightly pointed out that we shouldn't be shaming girls by labelling them "trampy" regardless of what they might be wearing, while others emphasised that it is adults who place any sexualised connotations on clothing choices. The heroine of my undergraduate years, Helen Razer, and Clementine Ford both offered up stories of their own girlhoods in their calls for the virtual lynch mob to calm. Together the articles suggest that for some time girls have innocuously worn revealing clothing, like crop tops or lycra pants, and that girls don't perceive a sexual element to this: it's just like a game of dress-ups.  Razer writes that "kids just see cloth and it is we who see meaning" and Ford proposes that "Clothes can't make children's look 'sexy'. They're inanimate objects." 

I agree with Razer that very young children don't derive significant meaning from clothing—although by the time they hit primary school, you won't find many boys who want to wear skirts or pink in public— but in the age group that is relevant here, from around seven-years-old and upwards, there is a major awareness of the various meanings of clothing. To not see any meaning in clothing, kids would have to be raised apart from our society and culture, with no access to the internet, magazines, advertising, video clips, movies, television or books. 

Branding is just one of aspect of clothing that children understand. I recall desperately wanting a pair of Converse All Stars in grade five but being forced to suffer the indignity of wearing an imitation brand. The shoes were practically identical to the much-longed for Cons, but the logo on the side panel was tellingly different to me and every other kid in my grade. But at least the merciless teasing was reserved for the boy whose family was so poor that he had to wear beaten-up Dunlop Volleys (this was prior to their hipster, ironic reclamation). Even children under 10 know that particular brands are authentic and are "cool" in comparison with generic items or house brands from Big W.

In addition to knowing about how clothing helps to communicate their gender and cultural savvy, girls also understand that clothing plays a part in how attractive or pretty they are seen to be. Cordelia Fine has noted how much more often people compliment young girls on what they are wearing or their prettiness, whereas comments about appearance are rarely delivered to boys. Girls are taught to understand that how they look impacts upon how they are valued. We know that even primary school aged girls are concerned about their weight and understand that being overweight makes them unattractive according to the thin body ideal.

We ought to think about girls' awareness of the importance of being attractive in tandem with the fact that girls are reaching puberty at an increasingly younger age. Breast development—the onset of puberty— is now beginning at an average age of nine years and ten months, according to a Danish study in 2006. Girls absorb from the culture around them what an ideal woman looks like and, as they develop physically, it is unsurprising that they seek to emulate the fashion that is popular for young women, or seen as attractive to boys and men. Girls may have always loved to play with Mum's make-up in the mirror or stalk around in high heels, but the age at which girls actually start wearing these tools that are intended to accentuate feminine attributes seems to be lowering. Or at least mainstream stores like Target seem to offer more clothing that mimics women's fashions without modification for the pre-teen market. So why is it a problem if girls wear all kinds of women's clothing styles? And need this imply sexual readiness to anyone?

What the History of Girlhood Can Tell Us

Richard Westall, Queen Victoria as a Girl
Razer makes a nod to the history of childhood by noting that children were once dressed in the same clothing as adults. Medievalist Philippe Ariès influentially claimed that childhood itself was not "invented" until the modern period, as before this time they were seen, and treated, as miniature adults. (Although there is much debate on this subject, and Ariès' assertion that children were dressed like adults seems to rely on the evidence of family portraits, which is the equivalent of looking at wedding photographs and suggesting that all little boys wore suits in the 20th century.)

Yet, apart from this one comment, the history of how girls appearance has been regulated and how girls are supposed to transition to womanhood have been absent from the discussion. If we look at the policing of girls' dress across the past century and a half, we find that there has always been anxiety about girls being appropriately covered and restrained by their clothing. As I have blogged about previously, make-up was also seen as fraught in the 19th century, especially for young girls who still had their virtue to preserve. (Married women were less susceptible to the risk of damage to their moral character through the sexual associations of cosmetics).

Franz Winterhalter, Queen Victoria, 1842 
When you read girls' books from the nineteenth century, as I do, you'll notice many references to girls "putting their hair up". Young girls wore their hair loose, but when girls of the middle and upper classes reached an age at which they were considered mature enough to be available for marriage they generally wore their hair up in public. This transition carried a great deal of ideological baggage. It was somewhat "trampy" for a girl of marriageable age to continue to wear her long hair loose because of its sensual associations. Just as Islamic women often reserve the sight of their hair for their husbands in the home, so would the proper Victorian woman keep her hair "modest" in public. By putting her hair up, a girl was signalling that she was ready for marriage, but also that she was a good, virginal type. At the same time, a girl might also begin to wear longer skirts. So clearly the protocols for entering womanhood worked to cover more of girls' bodies and contain their sexual appeal, unlike the general movement of today's girls into wearing more revealing clothing and accentuating their sex appeal as teenagers.

These changes in what girls wore and how they styled their hair would usually happen in advance of their "coming out", where they were introduced to "society" and might be presented to suitable bachelors. This would happen at around the age of eighteen, and debutante balls, which were still popular at high schools in Australia until fairly recently, continued some of the old-fashioned traditions associated with a girl "coming out" or being presented to eligible men.

Most cultures have some form of ritual associated with coming of age that marks the transition between childhood and adulthood. In Australia today, most of us don't practice any of the formal rituals that once helped to demarcate girlhood from womanhood and clearly identify the moment of transition. When we see thousands of parents reacting to "short shorts" for girls in Target, perhaps it also owes something to the haziness of where girlhood ends and womanhood begins, rather than solely being a paranoid reaction to perceived paedophilia or sexualisation. I would argue that clothes are more than just "inanimate objects" and that children do understand the meanings that our culture ascribes to them. The confusion among adults, however, about what girls should wear says much about our own uncertainty about girlhood and girls coming of age in a culture that is increasingly fixated on women's sexual attractiveness.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I read a comment recently on another blog - the writer suggested that part of the problem was the use of young models. It situates (indeed, sexualises) younger girls as the standard of fashion. In no small part, our fashion industry is geared towards the younger girl. There never has been an easy answer, though I love your point that this problem doesn't seem to exist around boys. Boys can be uncovered and not regarded as sexually available. There isn't quite the same fashion interest in the younger male.

Michelle Smith said...

Thanks for the post, Rebecca-Anne. I think that's true about the young girl models. It's problematic for women as well when very young girls are used as the ideal type to display clothing, as their bodies are often so much thinner than developed women.

Isaac Burgoyne said...

"...childhood itself was not "invented" until the modern period, as before this time they were seen, and treated, as miniature adults." - Good point. Kids nowadays are considered way too different from adults. Although that's 100% true, I actually like the nineteenth century where the young ones were dressed in the same clothing as adults - no distinction other than size, no "kids clothes vs. adult clothes" and all that stuff.