What message are we giving young girls when we label shorts 'trampy'?

What message are we giving young girls when we label shorts 'trampy'?

The recent controversy over Target’s product lines for the 7-16 year old demographic has painted the chain as purveyors of short shorts that go up “backsides” and make girls look like “tramps”. Some others have weighed in to suggest their product lines are “feeding the peodophiles [sic]”.

If anything, this recent brouhaha has lead thousands to review Target’s product lines. Many report that the quality and conservatism of girls clothing changes once they hit the 7-16 bracket. 

Clothes are pieces that require use and mixture to be given meaning. On their own, they’re nothing ... 

Clothes are pieces that require use and mixture to be given meaning. On their own, they’re nothing – it’s how you use clothes, even when it comes to cheap leggings. What constitutes style is in the eye of the beholder and dependent on choice.

1940's Click for more photos

Children's clothes through the ages

1940's

Is this orange lace top unacceptable for children? Only if you’re willfully intent on seeing it as a top designed to be worn see through only – and if you do, we need a cup of tea and a very frank discussion about your obsession. I’m not going to buy it any time soon but I can’t help but think it’s a piece that would be great for a Molly Ringwald-esque vintage dresser. A piece that teen style maven Tavi Gevinson could use to great effect.

There’s an interesting double standard at play here. Of the recent profusion of trampsteria, few are mentioning the boys’ clothing options and, when they do, they refrain from using shaming language to describe the clothes. Is it perhaps because we’re so focused on signaling to young girls their appearance is a critical factor in worthiness? 

If we’re going to accept the silent message, 'we care more about how girls are dressed than boys', are we using the right language? Especially for young girls at a critical juncture of self esteem trying to think through notions of identity. 

Choices regarding children’s clothing is subjective and one person’s ideals and morals aren’t universally held. In one interview, Greta Hawkhead throws around judgement values to describe Target’s clothing. The inability to ‘cover a child’ and ‘grungy’ are used. I’m not entirely sure what grunge movement Greta saw but, given I spent 1993 wearing a long john onesie with ripped jeans and flannies, I’m unsure how Target have conjured this unique mix of skimpy grunge.

Again, it comes back to language and the sliding scale of acceptability choice brings. Greta references her ideal as pink, girly clothing with cartoon characters but no black or exposed parts. In her mind, that’s how girls should dress, assuming all children have the same body type and preferences to support this commercial ‘right’.

In contrast, my life is an exercise in trying to find clothes that aren’t pink, frilled or featuring 17 different characters with accompanying cartoon and toy range. This is where our choices differ. Add to that, I still can’t find a pair of shoes at Target that will last more than 2 months without falling apart. It’s not always easy to find what we deem acceptable and yet I’m not willing to demand Target change to suit me.

Here’s why I’m not yelling, whining and demanding at brands on social media: I’m an adult. I like to use my inside voice and part of that entails not being mean to or about others. I don’t use the words slutty, whore, trampy, hooker, pole dancer or skanky because I feel that not only are value judgements bad, we’re talking about girls aged 7-16. Using sexualised terms about children sexualises them, not their clothing options.

This is a fact lost on the likes of those who generally profit from sex-obsessed hysteria, such as Australian Council on Children and the Media’s president, Professor Elizabeth Handsley, who likened girls to prostitutes or adult women trying to attract men (most likely for sex!) in nightclubs. I take this seriously because she has a serious title. The organisation sounds like it has the vague sheen of government and knows about appropriate language. So, it’s always great to read someone invested in wholesome development and protection of children is likening them to prostitutes or nightclubbers. 

It’s wholly within any person’s rights to disagree with trends (hi jumpsuits!) and we are able to exercise this choice through consumption. The modern consumer has more choice than before with the proliferation of shops, brands and online stores. Does this mean disagreeing with a product line affords you the right to shout your offence from the rooftops and expect the world to stop and use language that sexualises children? It’s the “don’t like it, don’t shop there” approach with a crucial difference: people don’t need to navigate around your offence – you need to navigate around the available choices.

The use of tramp, skanky or prostitute to describe children’s clothing sends a disturbing message to girls. Skimpy clothes attract pedophiles, according to one commenter, drawing a relationship between what a female wears and the likelihood of assault. This is juvenile shaming where a female’s worth is based on what they wear and not on society’s reliance on proper behavior.

Don’t like some of the clothes at Target? Buy elsewhere. Like some but not others? Get them transferred in from another store and have a chat with the store manager about appropriate stocking. Spend your dollar validating and supporting buyers who echo your preferences rather than forcing a store to sign up to some asinine pledge to stock according to one narrow culture judgement.

Choice is vital. Choice allows us to evaluate, filter and use critical thinking to select what we want. How does using shaming language on a group of children help them develop the tools they need – to assess and select for themselves appropriately as independent beings – when the language is so hateful? How are parents able to actually parent and guide children when they hold the stores accountable and not their parental ability to have discussions with their children? How does the language used help girls grow as women when we’re only providing two options: good girls or sexually permissive tramps, prostitutes or pornographic Girls Gone Wild subjects?

Let’s be clear – the only thing nastier than a poly-viscose blend is using the term tramp or similar about under 16’s. We are raising women. Dress them however you choose but be careful with the language. The kids are listening.