Last year I wrote a news story for The Guardian when I discovered that Marks and Spencer was selling bras for six-year-olds. They still sell these garments, but after my story was published they stopped calling them bras and changed the text on their website that had suggested they were a good way of getting girls used to wearing a bra.
I wrote the story because I was shocked that anyone could think that flat-chested little girls were in any way in need of a bra and because of the connotations that go with wearing one.
We live in a society where most parents’ worst nightmare is the idea that someone might kidnap and/or sexually abuse their child. I don’t want to become part of the scaremonger brigade, because most of our kids will grow up safely without ever encountering that kind of horror. But given it’s a concern for so many parents, why do we put up with anything that sexualises children and makes them grow up too quickly?
I’m writing about this issue again because I recently met an eight-year-old friend of my stepdaughter’s who was wearing what she called a ‘trainer bra’ and who proceeded to tell me that it kept ‘her boobs nice and comfy’. I couldn’t stop myself from saying: “But you haven’t got any!”
I told the rather embarrassed looking kid that I’d written a story about such ‘bras’ for a newspaper and she looked even more embarrassed. She told me that she couldn’t recall if it had been her idea or her mum’s that she should begin wearing a trainer bra, but that it wasn’t a recently purchased garment. She had been wearing them for some time.
I know some will probably criticise me for singling out this little girl as an angle for my blog (some don’t even like me writing about my stepdaughters), but I was so shocked that I can’t stop thinking about it even now.
‘Boobs’ are not only a secondary sexual characteristic they signify that a female is no longer a child. Wearing a bra, similarly, demonstrates that one has gone, or is in the process of going, from childhood to adulthood. What does it mean for an eight year old to see herself this way, especially when she actually has no breasts yet. Does she imagine herself a woman in other ways? Does she feel a pressure to behave like a woman rather than a girl?
The implications of this are a minefield, not to mention the various studies – including Linda Papadopoulos’ Sexualisation of Young People Review – indicating that if children are pressured to view themselves as sexual from an early age they will suffer the consequences when they come of age. Ms Papadopoulos even highlights online games aimed at children which encourage sexualised behaviour and says that girls report being under increasing pressures to display themselves online in their ‘bra and knickers’ or bikinis which begs the question, will an eight-year-old, who sees herself as having boobs and needing to wear a bra, think it’s a cool to pose in said ‘bra’ if something on the internet suggests she should? And even if there are no unwanted consequences of children wearing these pseudo bras while they are still children, how might it affect their view of womanhood and of themselves once they are women?
Through being a stepmum I’ve learned just how much kids like to push boundaries and how difficult (and unfair) they find it that there are things that adults are allowed to do that children are forbidden to do – but if we don’t make the distinction how can we be sure that they’ll grow up safely and become the healthy, happy, capable adults we’d like them to be?
You can read Linda Papadopoulos’ report for yourself here: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20100418065544/http://homeoffice.gov.uk/documents/Sexualisation-of-young-people.html