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Sexy styles beckon little girls
low-rider rants, gauzy tops, aimed at kindergarten set

By Jenny Deam
Denver Post, 6/24/06

Tanya Keith knew someday she would face this crossroads in parenthood. She just didn't think it would happen when her daughter was 6.

Yet there she was, in the middle of a shopping mall, literally at the junction of The Children's Place and Limited Too clothing stores.

One path meant a bit more childhood, the other signaled her daughter, Sequoia, was growing up faster than she liked.

"Of course she picked Limited Too," sighed Keith, a 34-year-old mother of two in Evergreen.

As they entered the store, which caters to elementary-school girls, Keith was stunned at the offerings. She quickly laid down some rules: no midriffs, no micro- minis, no low-slung jeans, no tart-in- training T-shirts.

"I'm a firm believer that girls and women of all ages should be able to wear whatever they want, but I'm not going to serve my daughter up on a platter," says Keith, who still can't believe she had to consider this issue as a kindergarten parent.

A few years ago there was an outcry from parents and children's advocacy groups about the sexy, imitation-adult fashions aimed at pre-teens in fifth, sixth and seventh grades. They worried about the grown-up message about sex and body image such fashions were sending.

Today many of those same fashions have been further miniaturized and are now filtering down to sizes 4 to 6x.

For example, at Target stores one of the most popular items for girls as young as 4 or 5 is a line of gauzy, summer camisoles patterned after adult and older-girl styles, says Kristi Arndt, a spokeswoman for the department stores.

She adds not all grown-up fashions translate for younger girls. She says her company always tries to "tweak" styles to make them age-appropriate.

Robert Atkinson, a vice president for Too Inc., the parent company of Limited Too, says his store also mimics older styles but makes adjustments for younger buyers.

In fact, he believes fashions in his stores are actually more conservative these days than they were a few years ago.

Typically, he adds, grade-school girls shopping at Limited Too are more interested in impressing their female friends than the opposite sex.

Still, in the early-elementary age group the concern is less about any overt sexual messages than rushing little girls out of childhood.

At Bromwell Elementary School in Denver, kindergarten teacher Betsy Sturgess sent a letter home to parents in April asking them not to send their daughters to school in the popular low-rider pants.

For children who still sit cross-legged on the floor or swing from monkey bars, it simply isn't practical to wear fashions that slide off shoulders or show bottoms when kids play, says Sturgess.

But isn't this less about fashion and more about parenting?

After all, the grown-ups still presumably hold the control and the checkbooks when kids are this age.

Pushing age boundaries

Diane Levin, co-founder of the national Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, argues it is too easy to just blame parents.

There also is a matter of buying what is being offered, especially at affordable prices. While certainly more conservative children's fashions exist, they often are more readily available at higher-end stores.

In modern marketing there is a phenomenon called "age compression," where manufacturers and advertisers constantly push the age boundaries of products.

Even if adults object in the beginning, they can become desensitized if exposed to a product long enough, says Levin, who is writing a book called, "So Sexy, So Soon: The Sexualization of Childhood."

"What used to be marketed to an 8-year-old is now being marketed to 5- and 6-year-olds," she explains.

One of the tricks of the trade, Levin says, is to feature older children in an advertisement playing with or wearing a product that is actually meant for younger children. Because children usually want to imitate older kids, the younger ones will be attracted because they think it makes them seem older.

Levin adds adults are not immune either, especially in today's competitive parenting arena where everyone wants to think their child is precocious.

No Pussycat dolls

Recently, toymaker Hasbro came under fire for its intention to launch a line of dolls for 6-year-olds modeled after the music group and former burlesque act The Pussycat Dolls. Members of the group, known for their suggestive dress and raunchy lyrics, would take a cut of the profits from the dolls.

Levin's group, along with the Dads and Daughters advocacy group, mounted a campaign to block the release of the dolls.

On May 24, Hasbro announced it was shelving the project because it decided the musical group's image was "inappropriate" for 6-year-olds.

Lisa Jacobson, an associate history professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara and author of "Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century," was heartened by Hasbro's reversal.

"This shows there are real limits to how far a manufacturer can push the boundaries," she says.

Jacobson says today's parents have more power than they are led to believe.

Still, Jacqueline Ardrey, director of design and merchandising for Hanna Andersson, a high-end children's clothing company, insists the industry must take some responsibility for what it pushes.

Certainly there is a longstanding trend for children's clothing makers to take their cues from the adult fashion world. But just because someone can does not mean they should, she says.

"A lot of us who develop products (here) are moms. It's a filter we put everything through," she says. In fact, she says her company rejects the majority of minaturized styles as inappropriate for their target age of 3 to 7.

Still, just as older styles are reaching down to the elementary set, so, too, is the peer pressure to wear them.

And that, as any parent knows, is a mighty force to be reckoned with.

Kate Edwards, a Denver mother, says it is getting harder to find clothes she approves of and her daughter, Alex, will wear. She remembers fondly the pretty smock dresses her daughter used to love. That is, before Alex hit kindergarten and saw what others were wearing.

"They're pretty and cute," the 6-year-old explains about the older-girl clothes she now covets.

Edwards shakes her head at the gathering storm.

"I totally thought I could put this off for a few more years."


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