With summer just around the corner, the stores are lining their shelves with sandals, sundresses and swimwear. One option for parents this year is a swimsuit from abercrombie kids, the spin off version of Abercrombie and Fitch and geared for consumers aged 7-14. Originally called the “ashley push up triangle,” parents could, for $24.50, purchase this padded string bikini top for their 7- and 8-year-old daughters.
“What are they supposed to push up?” asks Lawrence resident Adrienne Karam. “I mean, it’s disgusting and so unfortunate on every level, this objectifying and sexualizing of children.”
Sociology professor Lisa Wade blogged about the bikini on her website, Sociological Images. The March 19 post then caught the eye of ABC News and CNN, among other major media outlets, leading to a public uproar which forced abercrombie to re-categorize the top. As of this writing, their website offers the “Lindsey lightly lined triangle” and the “alexis ruffle triangle,” although the products are still padded.
This is not the first time the company has been criticized for its merchandise. In 2002, the retailer was widely denounced for its T-shirts that many considered racist. Also that year they came out with thong underwear in children’s sizes with “eye candy” and “wink wink” printed on them.
This is also not the first time that a company has gotten into trouble for marketing a padded bikini top for young girls. Last year, British clothing chain Primar ended up pulling its line of padded swimwear geared for young girls.
Overt sexual messages that this kind of clothing sends can be very harmful to children, according to child psychologist Michael Bradley, who was interviewed on ABC’s “Good Morning America” when the controversy was swirling around the news cycle. Bradley believes that these clothing styles shape girls’ beliefs about themselves — that their looks are their only value to society and that their bodies are not good enough unless they are enhanced somehow.
The padded swim suit tops are especially disturbing to Lawrence psychologist Barrie Arachtingi.
“Who exactly were the designers trying to get these 8-year-old girls noticed by?” she asks. “Because it certainly isn’t 8-year-old boys.
“A child often doesn’t know how to integrate his or her sexual feelings,” she adds. “Girls at this age are very shy about getting noticed. The idea of boys creates a real discomfort for 7- and 8-year-old [girls]. The naked body is met with curiosity and disgust, and girls at this age are mortified at the thought that a guy is looking at them,” she says.
“Only later [around the onset of puberty] does it begin to be okay for a girl to be noticed by a boy,” Arachtingi says.
The psychologist worries about what children are being exposed to and the kind of attention that the swimwear brings.
“There is a purity to being a kid, and once sexuality comes into play, everything gets amped up. Young girls aren’t ready for this type of attention,” she says.
The children’s clothing industry has changed over the years as designers have pushed the limit as to what is acceptable for children, according to Kristine Bailey, owner of children’s clothing store Blue Dandelion in downtown Lawrence.
“When I go to market in Dallas I see a lot of the more grown-up and super-glitzy stuff,” she says.
Bailey says that apparel would not go over very well in this community.
“My experience is that mothers in Lawrence would not be the least bit interested in that [padded] swimsuit!” she says. “I have a hard time selling two-piece swimming suits in my store. Period. My customers definitely don’t like styles that make their kids more grown up than they are.”
Bailey describes her customers in Lawrence as more conservative when it comes to clothing style for their children. “My customers like a little edgy, but not towards the sexual nature.
“I think if you talk to someone in Kansas City you might get a much different perspective on children’s styles,” she says. “And if my store was in southern Overland Park, then I would sell different stuff to a larger audience.”
Just as Bailey’s clientele differs from other parents, families also have different rules for what is appropriate and acceptable when it comes to clothing and styles for their daughters.
“I never got to wear a two-piece swimsuit when I was young,” says Lawrence resident Julie Embrey.
Now the mother to three children: 14-year-old Olivia, 12-year-old Christian and 10-year-old Elizabeth, Embrey does allow her daughters to wear two-piece swimsuits, mainly because of their functionality. “They are so much easier for my girls to take off when they have to use the restroom,” she says.
As for allowing Elizabeth to wear the padded variety? “Never!” Embrey says.
Choosing clothes and swimwear for her girls, however, can be difficult.
“It’s hard because what is appropriate for Olivia is not appropriate for Elizabeth, yet it seems that the clothes that are marketed for children are more appropriate for teenagers, and the ones marketed for teenagers are more appropriate for adults,” she says.
So what is a parent to do if a child is expressing interest in clothing that the parent finds objectionable?
Most professionals suggest that conversations are the most useful method of handling issues such as this that come between parent and child. Parents should talk about the messages that the clothes send.
“If your daughter is asking for [a padded bikini] then ask where this is coming from,” Arachtingi says. “What is she being exposed to? Other kids? Teenagers? The media?
Conversations take time and energy, she says, but they are a critical aspect of parenting today.
“Parents have to think and understand child development,” Arachtingi says, “but ultimately, they have to be OK with saying, ‘No.’”