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Stop the sexualisation of children

What would you say if you saw a fashion magazine spread featuring a young model, draped in a low-cut dress, wearing sky-high heels, posed provocatively on a couch, all sexy red pout and tumbling blonde hair?

sex and relationships Updated: Aug 16, 2011 16:18 IST
Seema Goswami
Thylane-Lena-Rose-Blondeau
Thylane-Lena-Rose-Blondeau

What would you say if you saw a fashion magazine spread featuring a young model, draped in a low-cut dress, wearing sky-high heels, posed provocatively on a couch, all sexy red pout and tumbling blonde hair? Nothing much I daresay, given that this is pretty much par for the course.

Except that, in this case, the model in question is 10 years old. Yes, that’s right. Thylane Blondeau, the daughter of a former French footballer and an actress-TV presenter mother, who was featured in the pages of French Vogue – guest-edited by Tom Ford – is all of 10. And yet, there she was, posed like a sex symbol, a latter-day Lolita, in images that would look appropriate only if she was a decade older.

I’m not sure what the editors at French Vogue were thinking of when they shot that photo-feature or whether they anticipated the furore that resulted from their publication, but I have to admit that I find the pictures distasteful, even disturbing. Yes, we know that fashion is all about pushing the boundaries of good taste, but sexualising a 10-year-old should surely be beyond the pale. And sure enough, the images have been roundly condemned by everyone from child psychologists to concerned parents, and in response to the controversy, Thylane’s mother has taken down a Facebook page dedicated to her daughter.

But while this is an extreme case, the sexualisation of young children continues apace all around us; and nobody seems to notice, or even care very much. Go into a store and look at the kind of clothes that are being sold for eight to 14-year-olds. Some of them are just as provocative and overtly sexual as those sold to young adults. What’s worse is that so many parents don’t seem to realise that they are complicit in the sexualisation of their kids when they dress them up in these faux-adult clothes. I was startled the other day to see a five-year-old wearing a T-shirt that said “I’m too sexy for my shirt...” with the word SEXY spelt out in lurid pink sequins. Her young mother thought that this was hysterical and couldn’t understand why I would have a problem with that.

ParentingBut then, we seem to have a sensitivity chip missing when it comes to the depiction of children in popular culture. Tune into one of those dance competition-type shows that are targeted at kids and you’ll know just what I mean. Almost every girl who performs on these shows is just as provocatively dressed and heavily made-up as Thylane Blondeau was in the pages of Vogue. But instead of lying supine on a couch or pouting dreamily into the camera – which is all Thylane was required to do on the pages of Vogue – these girls are performing to Hindi film numbers, with much pumping of the pelvis and thrusting of (non-existent) breasts. And when they finish, the judges commend them on their ‘sexy’ moves and their ‘sensuality’.

No, I’m not kidding. These are terms that I have heard otherwise sensible adults use to describe the dancing style of children on such shows, with nobody as much as batting an eyelid at the inappropriateness of it all. In fact, far from objecting, year after year we continue to dress up our children and present them as objects of desire for every pervert and paedophile who cares to tune in to these shows. In a sense, I guess, this is the fall-out of our far-more-relaxed attitude to childhood, as compared to the West where parents are so protective that they turn near-paranoid when it comes to their kids.

In India, for better or worse, we treat children almost as communal property. If you find yourself in close proximity with a baby in a lift or an aeroplane, you think nothing of making silly gurgling noises and trying to grab its attention. If a child wanders up to you in a restaurant, you say a friendly hello and exchange indulgent smiles with the parents. In fact, complete strangers can come up and coo over our children, pinch their cheeks, say how cute they are, and we are just gratified by the attention. We really do believe that because we find our kids so adorable, it’s only to be expected that others would find them irresistible too. And this belief often blinds us to the fact that this ‘attraction’ may sometimes put our kids in danger.

I am by no means suggesting that we should become as uptight as the West, where every adult who comes in contact with a child is treated as potential paedophile unless proved otherwise. We don’t need to go to the other extreme where even parents are forbidden from taking pictures and videos of their kids at school concerts and games for fear that the images may fall into the hands of predators. I know I would hate to live in a society where teachers are scared to comfort their students by putting an arm around their shoulders for fear of contravening some ‘health and safety’ rule. (Or where you can’t coo over a baby unless you’re on first-name terms with the mother.)

So while, on the whole, I’m not in favour of banning books, movies or TV programmes, given the overtly sexualised way children are depicted in some of these so-called ‘dance’ or ‘talent’ shows, I think there is a case for taking a long hard look at how our kids are depicted in popular culture.
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami

From HT Brunch, August 14

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