For those who might have missed it, Witchery has just launched a new clothing range for eight- to 14-year-old girls called "8fourteen". In a brilliant stroke of imagination, the launch occurred on Valentine's Day – because, of course, girls from the age of eight need to understand that male romantic approval, and attracting it through your physical appearance (euphemistically termed "personal style"), is what really matters in life.
The advertising campaign presents two girls from Sydney, aged 11 and 12, as "little sisters" to Australia's Next Top Model Montana Cox, aged 18. Leaving aside some leopard print, the clothing range itself appears to be mainly age-appropriate (although, curiously, this isn't well indicated in the campaign). The list of "facts" presented about each girl appears unobjectionable enough (about which, more later). The accompanying films of the girls, however, artistically shot in black and white with acoustic music, made us gasp.
The overall mood is romantic, but the moves, and how they are cut together, gave us the creeps. The girls pout and smile, twist and turn in front of the cameras to display their faces and their bodies. "Oh, but they're displaying the clothes!" comes the reply. Yeah, right. They wear only one outfit each.
It's not just the "It's all about me" feel of the thing. It's the "I love to be looked at" and the "make love to the camera" messages. How can the footage not be referencing a male viewer?
The "sexualisation" of girls for the purpose of selling products has been condemned worldwide for several years now as a form of "corporate paedophilia". The Witchery campaign certainly shows signs of this problem.
Meanwhile, there is an even more worrying global trend towards mainstream business getting involved in the production and sale of pornified images of children.
Japanese business is, as usual, ahead of the race in this commercial game. There is a whole industry (referred to as "junia aidoru") that thrives on selling images and DVDs of pornified girls recruited by modelling and "talent" agencies. Videos show Japanese girls being asked by men behind cameras to state their name, age and favourite food (inevitably ice-cream or some other white food to eat on camera). The girls then undress, taking off their school uniforms, down to their underwear. They never take off their underwear, so the material is legal – just. The films are distributed by mainstream businesses such as Amazon Japan and Rakuten. The mainstream entertainment industry in Japan recruits the girls and produces the films.
Thankfully, it does not yet happen here, but in Australia the advertising industry needs to be aware of this trend – if it isn't already – and reject it outright. Is this where any sane person in Australia wants to go?
"Tween" fashion is an expanding market, but it remains worth saying: the implication that eight-year-olds are simply physically miniature versions of 14-year-olds, and that 14-year-olds are simply physically miniature versions of 18-year-olds, is garbage. They're all at quite different developmental stages. Putting the older ones up as "style models" for the younger ones is not appropriate.
Girl after girl tells the people who work with her and the people who love her that she is anxious about her appearance, and that this distorts her life in various ways. Study after study shows body dissatisfaction is now high among primary school age children. This is associated with anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.
Yet the creative industries keep coming up with campaigns such as this. The placement of a few "fig leaves" of information about the girls ("But the best thing is my cat, Pepper!", "My role models will always be my Mum and Dad") isn't fooling anyone.
Life has so much more to offer than "style". Despite the evidence, there will be many people who disagree with us about Witchery's campaign and the bulk of the tween fashion industry shows no sign of stopping its trajectory. But we are compelled to keep speaking out about what is being done to the next generation of girls. They deserve better.
Dr Emma Rush is a lecturer in philosophy and ethics at Charles Sturt University and lead author of the 2006 Australia Institute report Corporate Paedophilia: The Sexualisation of Children in Australia. Dr Caroline Norma is a lecturer in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT.
Signatories to this article include: Barbara Biggins, Australian Council on Children and the Media; Dr Joe Tucci, Australian Childhood Foundation; Steve Biddulph, author and family therapist; Dr Ramesh Manocha, Generation Next; Bernadette McMenamin, ChildWise.