Let Them Be Young: A psychologist’s point of view

Young children in the UK are exposed to sexualisation on a daily basis. From music videos to magazines, there is evidence to support that these factors can have a long-lasting psychological effect on children. Recent evidence has concluded that there is a direct correlation between clothing and media content, which could cause mental health risks, particularly in adolescent girls.

Dr Arthur Cassidy is a media psychologist who specialises in the over-sexualisation of children’s clothing in the fashion industry.

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Let Them Be Young: The rise of independent retailers

Jan Shaw has been making clothes for as long as she remembers. As a child she would knit clothes for her Barbie dolls, which led to her making clothes for herself and selling some on to friends. It wasn’t until later life when she had her first grandchild four years ago that she decided to start making clothes again.

Jan was involved in a project in the Philippines where she sponsored a young boy who was living as a street child. She visited the country for two weeks to help teach children various skills, but when she returned to England she left wondering how she could raise money for those desperately in need.

The church which Jan is a part of started up a charity to support these street children, and she initially organised a craft fair, which raised over £2000. Knowing it wasn’t viable to host an event every week she began selling her clothes online where she donated all profits made to the charity.

Based in Dorchester, Dorset, Jan runs her business Jan Jan Creations from a sewing room in her home. Her products are then advertised online on her Etsypage. Jan designs her products with the children in mind; she considers comfort, appropriateness and usability the most important qualities in her work.

With the rise of sexualised clothes in the mass market, it seems that increasingly more people are starting up independent clothing business to fill a large gap in the market. Retailers are simply not providing the public with the best clothes for their children and are turning to alternative methods as a resolution.

Let them be young: Outlining the problem

Leather bodycon skirts, studded high heels and padded lingerie are all products you would expect to see hanging in a women’s high street store, not something you’d stumble across whilst in the children’s section. Nevertheless in the last five years, there has been a sharp increase in products marketed in large retail stores that are deemed highly inappropriate for young girls to wear.

Four years ago, to try and bypass the issue, the Department for Education released the Bailey Review – Letting Children Be Children. The government believed that children of the United Kingdom were living in a pressurised environment, conditioning them to ‘grow up too quickly,’ and requested guidance from the Chief Executive of Mother’s Union, Reg Bailey, on how to address the sexualisation of childhood and the ways in which it could be resolved. In total he came up with fourteen various recommendations that included the introduction of age restrictions on music videos and Internet censorship of adult online material.

The sixth recommendation was to develop a specific code of good practice when retailing to children. This meant restrictions on all products for girls including clothing, accessories, underwear, bikinis, high heels, slogans and even certain fabrics used to make them, such as lace. Bailey stated that ‘parents want age appropriate clothes, not scaled down versions of adult fashion.’

But in the time that has passed not a great deal has changed, and retailers are still selling clothing that many people feel are too ‘explicit’ for children. Searching through racks of clothes for her kids, Ruth Lopardo realised that clothing made for girls these days were one of two things; either highly gender-stereotyped or extremely over-sexualised.

“Most of the clothes that are marketed on the high street towards girls are so stereotypical, they are pink with ‘little princess slogans’ or are highly sexualised, and that really concerns me. From about eight or nine, up to when a child is fully grown and can wear normal clothes, there’s a real scarcity and a lot of what there is, is just scaled down adult clothes.”

Fed up with being offered minimal choice, Ruth decided that she would fill a gap in the market with the creation of her Newcastle based children’s brand – ‘Love it Love it Love it.’ Knowing this wasn’t enough to make a substantial impact on the issue, Ruth and her business partner Francesca Aitkin initiated their first campaign ‘Let Clothes Be Clothes,’ which aimed to create a movement here in the UK.

One of the most recent shops to feel the wrath of Ruth’s campaign was retail giant John Lewis. Just before Christmas 2014 during the hype of ‘Monty the penguin,’ the company sent tongues wagging when they began advertising bras for girls as young as two on their website. Parents and various campaigners like Ruth from around the country complained, and when contacted the store stated that there had been ‘an error in loading the item onto our site, which meant it was labelled incorrectly by age and not by size.’ Nevertheless, the product description remained the same for some time, until they eventually altered the name of the product from bra, to crop top.

Other leading fashion brands have also come under scrutiny in recent months. Ruth believes that Next and River Island are also in the long list of culprits that aren’t adhering to retail codes of practice.

“In terms of sexualisation of clothes in the high-street, we see Next as a company that keeps continually being pointed out for over-sexualising girls, and also some of the more fashionable stores like River Island that are aimed at adolescents and young adults and then expand into kids wear. It may be due to a lack of experience in dealing with children.”

An aspect that concerns many, especially child psychologists, is the long-term lasting effect that exposure to over-sexualisation has on children. Recent evidence has concluded that there is a direct correlation between clothing and media content, which could cause mental health risks, particularly in adolescent girls.

Ruth was not the only mother to be concerned about the psychological effects that clothing may have on young girls. In October last year, Huffington Post journalist Stephanie Giese wrote an article about how retailers are ‘normalising sexy before children even understand what sex is’. Like Ruth, she also had young girls to clothe, so using her position of power as a journalist; Stephanie made the issue a matter of public interest.

“We need to take responsibility as a culture for the messages that we present to our girls and show them that we value their bodies as well as their minds. We need to remember that we are not raising girls, we are raising women.”

Back in 2010, Mumsnet, one of the largest UK websites for parents, developed a similar campaign to Ruth and Stephanie’s called Let Girls Be Girls. It stemmed from users of the website who were concerned that increasingly sexualised products were affecting the minds of children. Their aim was to challenge retailers and ask them to not sell products that exploit children at a young age.

Five years on and spokeswoman Jane Gentle has said that ‘since the main thrust of support, numerous large retailers continue to back the campaign, and along with the support and endorsement by the government’s Bailey Review, change can and will certainly be achieved’.

“We continue to talk and highlight key issues as and when users ask them to. The aim of the campaign isn’t to demonise any particular person or retailer; it’s about joining forces for a change.”

Ruth believes that parents will eventually boycott large retailers, and turn to independent clothing makers that can be found online on social media or on websites such as Etsy – but she has her concerns over the pricing of unique products.

Let them be young

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At the start of this year, I took on the challenging task of researching a topic that is not debated near enough as it should be in our society, and that is the over-sexualisation of children’s clothing within the UK fashion industry. The project was initially posted through my University’s news website; however, due to the upgrade of my blog, I thought it was time to upload it to here!

Admittedly as a young girl, I would always think about growing older. I would put on my Mother’s clothes and makeup, and pretend to be a grownup way before my time – let’s face it, all girls do it. But luckily my mum saved me from myself and always dressed me in appropriate clothing. However, when walking around high street stores nowadays, with family members of a young age (without trying to sound too old!) I always think to myself that the clothing for children is far too explicit, some you could describe as ‘scaled-down adult clothes.’

Using this observation I chose to develop it into a university project and whilst talking to peers and parents, I realised that this wasn’t just an issue that parents believe to be of high importance, but also the younger generation. Let Them Be Young explores the past, the psychological issues and the resolution to the problem to help raise awareness.

N.B. Results as of January 2015