Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sexualizing To Sell Swimwear

When my son was born, I had a brief moment of "b-b-but he isn't a girl." It passed in the blink of an eye, but it was still there (I feel almost guilty admitting it, but there you go). We had opted not to find out the sex of the baby beforehand, and I'll admit I had little fantasies of raising a kick ass feminist daughter while pregnant. Of course, since then I've learned that I'm raising a pretty kick ass feminist son, so all is good in that regard.

In the past 4.5 years, I've found myself immersed in issues related to raising boys. My days are mostly relegated to navigating things like long hair, painted toe nailsprincess play, and learning to find the balance (if there is any) with gun play, amongst many other things. While issues affecting young girls do interest me, they mostly reside in my periphery, and I find myself giving them time when I can.

There are times, however, when I simply can't ignore an issue related to young a parent, as a woman, and just as a human being.

Yesterday, my Twitter feed and Facebook wall was abuzz about Submarine Kids, a swimwear line with a questionable marketing campaign. I found myself almost bypassing the link, but ended up clicking, much to my dismay. There I found pictures of little girls in small bikinis, styled to look like young women with heavy make up, wigs and overtly sexualized posing. My heart sank and my stomach turned. How was this any way to market bathing suits to young girls?

Image from Submarine Kids
The young girls I know can't be bothered to stand still long enough to pout their lips, give "come hither" looks or pose their bodies in ways that suggest overt sexuality. They're too busy swimming, splashing and running and generally using their bathing suit for their intended purpose - playing in the water and protection from the summer sun.

This site was first brought to my attention by Melissa Wardy of the fabulous Pigtail Pals. Melissa succinctly summed up the issues I had with the swimwear site in a wonderfully worded letter she wrote to the president of the company.

While I knew that there would be those who would read Melissa's post and say that people were "overreacting," I wasn't prepared for comments from those who not only seemed to be wearing blinders, but accused Melissa and others of looking for trouble where there was none.

While I am completely against sensationalizing things for the sake of furthering a cause, this simply isn't the case with this marketing. Using heavily made up girls in provocative poses sells sex before it sells swimwear.

I have no problem with trendy, well made, adorable swimwear. As a parent, comfort and sun protection are my top goals when it comes to swimsuits, and I can't imagine those would change had my child been a girl. Yet, if a young girl wants to wear a bikini and her parents are okay with that, then it's their choice. That is not my issue.

My issue revolves around the sexualization of these young girls in order to sell these particular bathing suits. There is healthy sexuality, and then there is sexualization, which is something entirely different.

According to the APA, sexualization occurs when:

  • a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
  • a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
  • a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
  • sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.

The marketing campaign that greets you when visiting Submarine Kids falls right into the above, with little regard for the potential affect it might have on their target audience.

There is no need to dress up young girls in a manner that clearly brings to mind older, sexual women. Vampish wigs, thick make up and poses that show off body parts that are years from even being developed comes across as not only vulgar but almost predatory.

To place overt sexuality upon these girls to sell swimwear is both out of place and damaging on many levels. It not only encourages the idea that it is okay to sexualize little girls, but it attempts to normalize it, when it is anything but normal.

One commenter on the Pigtail Pals post suggested that perhaps because the owner of the swimwear line is Brazilian, that the lax view of sexuality was cultural. That is a huge leap to make. A lax view on sexuality and sexualizing young girls are two separate things. And perhaps trying to write it off as "oh, it's just a Brazilian thing" further enables the atrocities that actually occur in Brazil. Brazil actually has one of the largest child prostitution problems in the world (after Thailand), so perhaps it is that embedded acceptance that allows for others to gloss over the sexualization in these photographs.

With both child prostitution and child trafficking growing problems in Brazil, it seems even more upsetting that a Brazilian created company would market swimwear using pictures eerily reminiscent of those used in relation to child prostitution.

It is a shame, really, as the company has a variety of truly kid-friendly suits hidden behind the appalling marketing that greets you when you go to the site. Why Submarine Kids chooses these overly sexualized images to be the face of their company when they could easily use more appropriate ones is beyond me. Perhaps these are questions we should be asking the president of the company.


Sarah Buttenwieser said...

I am with you on this. Including, the shock of a male person coming from my body. Well, three of them. Seriously? The kick-ass feminist boys, though, they have major contributions to make, for us all.

Anonymous said...

wow - agreed! to me, you might as well be promoting child pronography if you're going to put ads up like this. there is a line, but to me it is hazy, and there really isn't much difference, imo. lipstick, wig, that sultry look...that little girl couldn't be more than 7. it's...gross.

I wonder, too: who allows their child to participate in something like this?

Becky said...

Very well written post. I'm completely disgusted that anyone puts up with this kind of exploitation of young girls.