August 25th, 2011

Children’s Lingerie & That “Je Ne Sais Quoi”

Images from "Jours Après Lunes." Photo array by Jezebel.com.

With the recent uproar about a French company selling lingerie for young children, it’s reassuring that American society largely rejects the idea of putting little girls in sexy bras and underwear. It’s ironic to see kid lingerie being sold in a country where kids being naked in public doesn’t have the same stigma that is held in the United States. There have been criticisms that the uproar in the U.S. about this French company is the product of an uptight American mentality. While I don’t agree that these complaints are, by any stretch of the imagination, uptight, I do think there’s an important underlying dialogue in this criticism.

The photographs of the child models on the company’s site are perhaps more disconcerting than their actual products. Their poses resonate those enacted by grown women in various forms of media. When women strike these poses, they become the subject of the male gaze, something that is not only troubling for women but should be absolutely off-limits for children. There’s a fine line between femininity and hyper-sexualization that’s becoming more and more blurry for young girls in our society. While there’s a huge difference between being ‘uptight’ about kids being sexualized and about letting your kid run around naked, the two issues are complexly intertwined.

If you go to any beach in the U.S., you’ll see shirtless little boys in their swimshorts while the little girls wear a cutesy one-piece, boardshorts and a swim shirt, or a “two piece” swim suit (aka bikini). You rarely see a girl over the age of two without a shirt. When I was five years old I remember standing in my driveway, greeting a friend and hearing the mother ask me why I didn’t have a shirt on. I’ve always remembered the feeling of exposure I had at that moment. While little boys are freely flaunting their upper body throughout their childhood, why are we so concerned with covering our little girls? There’s something about the way we still teach femininity that says that little girls, even as toddlers, should not be naked in public.

When you enter puberty as a young girl, you can feel the process of sexualization happen as the world begins to alter its interactions with you. A common reaction is to cover up, whether physically, emotionally or both, to maintain some sort of security in your body while you’re feeling increasingly exposed. The mere fact that this lingerie company exists is proof that First World girls are becoming sexualized much too early (from early puberty, to sex, to sexualized clothing). In the U.S., we have babikini.com, a baby string bikini company–another veritably creepy concept. As I grew up with my friends wearing “two pieces” from an early age, I always wondered why we couldn’t just wear the bathing suit bottoms if we hadn’t grown breasts yet. What was it about our nipples that the rest of the world couldn’t see? When you begin to tell a child that she needs to cover parts of her body that look exactly like the boy next to her which he doesn’t have to cover, there is a disconnect. When little girls are told to cover their bodies so early, we remove the unabashedness from their relationships with their bodies and replace it with self-consciousness.

It is important for girls to be prepared for the heaviness of the way the world interacts with them. But it’s equally important for them to really know what it feels like to be a little kid for as long as possible before they enter the complex role of sexuality and womanhood. The stigmas prevent our little girls from being just kids and transitions them far too soon into a space that isn’t at all safe for them. Telling children at age three to cover their nipples is the very beginning of sexualization. But since they’re years away from puberty, they shouldn’t be even remotely exposed to the concept. After all, isn’t one of the best parts of childhood being able to run around, not in your French lingerie or American bikini, but unabashedly naked?

–Emily Breitkopf

Emily is a contributing writer for The LAMPpost. You can find more of her writing on her blog, “Kids and Gender.”

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