Too Sexy For These Shorts

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Shorts! Can they get any shorter? Girls! Could they be any more of a bother?

In an alarming display of the principle that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, mothers are concerned that their daughters will look like tramps if Target doesn’t provide them with more appropriate fashion choices. Little girls are dressing like teenagers. And teenage girls, as we all know, dress like total sluts. And sluts, sluts are bad news.

So here’s the question. Does an eight-year old hanging out in leopard print shorts look like she’s charging for adult services? Does she look like paedophile bait? Or does she look like an eight-year old girl in shorts?

If you answered that she looks like a jumped-up little tart, you’re with the moral majority. Last time I checked, 64 per cent of Fairfax readers thought kids’ clothes were too sexy. If you answered that she’s at risk of being pounced on by a nasty man lurking around the corner, you’re probably on the right side of the worry line. If you’re undecided, click here to see the shorts of doom.

A whirlwind of righteous fluster arose when Port Macquarie mum Ana Amini published an open letter on Facebook pleading for more modest girls’ clothes to be sold at Target. Her analysis got the thumbs up from tens of thousands of Facebook users and has the tabloid media frothing happily at the prospect of stories involving sex and kids. Audiences love that shit.

Here’s what Amini wrote:

"Could you possibly make a range of clothing for girls 7-14 years that doesn’t make them look like tramps. Whatever happened to modesty and feminine clothing that came in a colour other than black. 

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. So disappointing…"

Mothers and daughters have always had troublingly divergent views on what is fashionable, it’s true. But Amini’s letter feeds the patriarchal beast that shames women on the basis of their appearance and glosses over the complexities of sexual assault. As if "modesty and feminine clothing" ever stopped a single rapist.

This medieval notion that female flesh is dangerous and should be covered up lest the knave be provoked and the maiden be ravaged has many adherents. Not one to pause before gatecrashing a moral panic on child sexualisation, Melinda Tankard Reist made herself very available for media comment.

One of MTR’s many projects is Collective Shout. It sounds like an inner-city lefty yammer-fest but it’s just another front for the cover-it-up agenda of puritanical so-called feminists. The organisation has set itself an impressively large remit for outrage:

"Collective Shout names, shames and exposes corporations, advertisers, marketers and media engaging in practices which are offensive and harmful, especially to women and girls, but also to men and boys."

All those ads which show mousy mums in raptures of delight over cleaning products shit me to tears — so I’m hoping they take up my cause soon. Unlikely.

The real gripe of Collective Shout is the pornification of culture and the objectification and sexualisation of kids. According to the sassy campaign literature, "Parents want better choices for their their children. They want age-appropriate clothing, not sexualised styles and designs."

Collective Shout and all those Fairfax readers dressed in age-appropriate clothing have got commentators with clout on their side.

Professor Elizabeth Handsley of the Australian Council on Women and the Media joined the fray. "You get these little short shorts … and the type of clothes you’d expect a grown woman to wear to a nightclub to attract men they are selling in a size seven," she told the Brisbane Times. Yardley-scented it may be, but the whiff of censure applies to women on the prowl as much as it does to girls in the playground.

Nightclubs, little short shorts, attracting men. Lurking not far beneath the surface of the shorts-shaming scandal is the blanket approbation of female sexuality. The earlier we start with the sack-cloth and the chastity belts, the better.

So let’s try out another approach to the shorts: telling pre-pubescent girls that what they’re wearing is too revealing is insidious and unacceptable. It’s starting the shaming too early. Women are asked to swill this kind of bilge for their entire lives. Harassed at the bus-stop? Maybe you should have done up your top button. Raped at a bar? Next time don’t wear a short skirt. If you dress like a slut, you’ll have to deal with the consequences.

Let’s be clear here. If an adult sees an eight-year old girl in shorts as trampy, pornified or somehow otherwise sexually available, the problem is with the adult, not with the shorts. And not with the girl.

So, another question. Is the problem with sexualised styles and designs or the people who look at young girls wearing them and see sexy? There’s a hideous and foolish irony at play when those who seek to halt the sexualisation of children do so by sexualising children.

Campaigners are now calling on Target and other big retailers to stop selling clothing that is inappropriate for young girls. It’s not enough to boycott purchases for your own daughters. Getting in on the act and policing the wardrobes of other people’s daughters is the order of the day.

Last time I experienced life as a seven to 12-year old, the words, "you’re not leaving the house dressed like that," held some sway. That was back in the era of little terry-towelling playsuits and swimming in your undies. Shortness being a defining feature of shorts, not much has changed. Parents can dress their kids any which way they want. Encourage the youngsters to dress like walruses and bonobos rather than princesses and sexy mermaids. Boycott the fishnets, bulk-buy gingham, take up knitting, whatever. But give the wardrobe choices of primary school-aged girls a break.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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