Clothier Abercrombie Kids has recently gained attention for selling a string bikini top that was originally marketed as "a padded-pushup top" for tweens. In response to the press, the company has dropped the "push-up" description, but the bikini top is still being sold in its stores to 7-14 year old girls. The padded push-up string bikini adds to the many sexualized products marketed and sold to children including thongs, high-heels, lacy camisoles and even stripper poles.
Many people think that these products work to push girls to grow up too fast, but it's more insidious than that. These products teach young women that 'sexy' is a look, not a feeling. From a very young age, our society teaches girls that it is important to look a specific way in order to attract the male gaze. Sexy is about how others view them, not how they feel or what they want. Girls are being sent a message that their role in a sexual relationship is that of an object of desire, not an equal partner.
Healthy sexual development is a part of an individual's overall well-being and leads to greater intimacy, higher self-esteem and personal happiness. But sexual well-being is in jeopardy when girls learn to measure their sense of worth by how well they match up with the narrowly defined image of sexiness they are being marketed. Obtaining self worth primarily through sex appeal has been directly linked to diminished sexual health among adolescent girls. A study by Impett, Schooler and Tolman (2006) found that girls who believed their worth was tied to their sex appeal were less likely to use condoms and were less assertive with sexual partners. Other studies have linked this thinking with increased rates of body shame, anxiety and inhibition in acknowledging one's own sexual feelings or pleasure.
In the grand scheme of things a padded push-up string bikini may not seem like a big deal. And if it was a one-off occurrence, perhaps it wouldn't be. But sexy lingerie and bikinis marketed to kids is sending the message that they should look sexy. This pressure is not just encouraging girls to grow up too fast; it is threatening their chances for healthy sexual development.