I’ll preface this post with a statement of facts:
I am not a parent.
I do not intend to be a parent for several more years.
I was brought up by very conservative parents.
I didn’t go through a “wild” rebellious stage.
I do not wear Victoria’s Secret products.
I might wear Victoria’s Secret products someday–when I’m married.
I am not an expert in parenting, child psychology, marketing, ethics, or anything else.
I am in possession of a measure of common sense.
In the past twelve hours, my Facebook newsfeed has exploded with outrage over a rumor that Victoria’s Secret is launching a new line targeting a middle school audience. So I’ve done some searching on the subject, and I have a few reflections:
First, the controversial campaign is called “Bright Young Things” and is part of the VS PINK line–which has traditionally targeted the 18-24 demographic. In short, this is a line dedicated to college students. It advertises itself as a “spring break” necessity. “Bright Young Things” is just another spring collection of sweats, underwear, and swimsuits. It doesn’t look too different from what they’ve always sold.
I’m not sure where the idea that this line was meant for middle schoolers came from. True, the ad campaign features a young-ish model with a less curvaceous body than most of VS’s other ads. But the model is certainly older than middle school aged–I’d venture to guess she’s just under eighteen, if not older. And the concept of this campaign is still geared to college students. It’s advertised as “spring break” wear. Spring break, as in that thing that college students do. At big universities with Greek life, it’s a traditional party week, filled with drinking, music, and behaviors you shouldn’t chronicle on social media. And what is spring break to a middle schooler? It’s a few days out of school around Easter time. I’d venture to say that most middle schoolers are not going on wild spring break beach trips to participate in questionable parties. If they are, I’d say that’s a parenting problem.
But the I see it, the problem isn’t so much what’s being marketed or to whom. The problem is who’s buying it.
Businesses market products to people who have the power to buy them.
In the case of products targeted towards children, businesses have to find a balance between appealing to the child and meeting parent approval. After all, children don’t have jobs or a consistent source of income. Their purchasing power is incredibly limited.
Middle schoolers–preteens–are usually aged 11 to 14. The labor laws in this country place heavy limitations on the type and extent of their employment. At this young age, many girls are employed occasionally as babysitters, and a few might help out in a family-owned business. They can’t work a steady job with long, regular hours. At least not legally.
Having once been a twelve-year-old working a babysitting job on weekends, I can attest to the fact that twelve-year-olds have limited income. I think, over the course of a summer, I might have earned a few hundred dollars total, most of which my parents encouraged me to put into a savings account (which has come in handy during my college years). I spent a little bit of that money though…on a cute shirt from Old Navy, some cheap flip-flops, lunch and a shake at Chick-fil-A, and books. Mostly books, actually. (Confession: I was a strange child.) But I didn’t spend much of that money. I learned early on to calculate the time and effort costs of earning money and prioritize my purchases. Was that shake at Chick-fil-A worth cleaning all the toilets at home? (Yes.) Was that boxed set of The Lord of the Rings books worth the six hours of babysitting a spoiled tyrant and her sweet-but-autistic-and-nonetheless-challenging-to-care-for younger brother? (Yes.) Was that super-cute sundress worth two days of said babysitting? (Heck no.) Because–let’s face it–I, like the average middle schooler, had limited funds.
Like the average middle schooler, I also had limited transportation. While the law in this country might allow pre-teens some small ways to earn money, it still does not permit them to drive. I couldn’t just hop in a car and drive myself to a store when I wanted to purchase something. I’d venture to say that’s still the case–last time I checked with my local DMV, anyways. I’m the oldest child, without the benefit of an older brother or sister to take me to the mall. I didn’t have a much older friend either. If I wanted to go somewhere, I had to ask my parents to take me–and you better believe they weren’t taking me to Victoria’s Secret at that age. They didn’t just drop me off at the mall unattended with a wad of cash or their credit cards either. Because they were good, concerned, protective, engaged-in-my-life parents. How bizarre.
And sure, kids today know how to take a bus, and they have older siblings/friends who can drive, and maybe they live close enough to the nearest mall to walk or bike there. So maybe they can get themselves to a Victoria’s Secret store if they really want to. And maybe these same kids with transportation also have a little extra cash. But really, are their parents so uninvolved with their children that they don’t have a clue what these kids are doing?
And even if I had been so (un)fortunate as to have an excess of funds, free transportation to the local mall, and unaware parents to allow me to purchase lacy, scandalous panties that would have allegedly led to my ultimate downfall into the world of whoredom at the tender age of twelve, I still would’ve run into a problem.
I didn’t do my own laundry.
So, even if by some chance I did manage to acquire underwear from Victoria’s Secret, I probably wouldn’t have gotten to wear them more than once. Because after that, I would’ve been faced with the choice of re-wearing unwashed panties (gross!) or of throwing them in the garbage. Because if those had appeared in the laundry at any point, my mother would’ve seen them. And would’ve known whose they were. And I’d have some ‘splainin’ to do. Which would’ve ultimately led, not to my descent into whoredom, but my descent into a long stint of groundation and the anti-trust zone.
But maybe I was atypical for my peers. I’ll admit that possibility. (I mean, the end result has been proof of at least some difference. After all, I’m twenty-two years old, about to graduate college. I’ve never been drunk, never even tried alcohol. I’ve never smoked or done drugs. I’m not an unwed mother, not in an abusive and sexually-based relationship, not looking forward to a life of depending on welfare or child support checks. And before anyone jumps down my throat about being self-righteous and judgmental and making assumptions about everyone else who isn’t like me: can it. I’m basing this comparison on real girls that I graduated high school with–the majority of whom never went to college or dropped out within the first year, have one or more children, work meaningless part-jobs for meager pay, and struggle financially every month. In my county, that’s a reality. One that I’ve somehow, by the grace of God and the vigilance of my parents, been able to avoid. But I digress.) I remember envying my peers for their freedom when we were growing up. I remember feeling jealous sometimes because their parents dropped them off at the skating rink or the movies or the mall every weekend for hours at a time, while mine wouldn’t even let me go to the library unsupervised. I certainly did grow up with girls who–somehow or another–had spending money and transportation and uninvolved parents who didn’t notice (or care) what their daughters wore to school.
Maybe that’s the case for some of these scandalously-clad middle school girls. But I’d venture to guess that the majority of youngsters wearing Victoria’s Secret’s provocative, lacy panties own them because someone (ahem, parents, looking at you) bought the underwear for them. Because, looking back, when I’d ask my peers in the locker room where they got that cute lacy bra with the matching polka-dot panties or the camisole that showed a little cleavage–items not found in my wardrobe until I was eighteen and had a steady job–they invariably said, “I’m not sure. My mom got them for me.”
Yep. Let that sink in. Those too-mature-inappropriately-sexy-and-exploitative panties were purchased for pre-teens by their parents. And if it was happening ten years ago, I’d venture to guess it’s happening now.
The real problem isn’t marketing. It’s parenting.
Let’s think about this rationally for a bit.
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF A BUSINESS?
To make money.
HOW DO BUSINESSES MAKE MONEY?
By selling a product or service to someone who desires it.
HOW DO BUSINESSES SELL PRODUCTS AND SERVICES?
By making them appealing to the target demographic in advertisements.
So is what Victoria’s Secret is doing in this ad campaign really so different from what every other business does? They want to make money. They make money by selling lingerie, underwear, and other clothing–most of which is sexually provocative. They sell these items by marketing them to their target demographic–mainly women ages eighteen and older. And occasionally these products meant for older consumers attract the attention and desires of younger consumers.
How is this so different from any other company marketing any other product?
We have the obvious example of alcohol. For legal and ethical reasons, alcohol may not be purchased by, provided to, consumed by, or marketed to minors (under the age of 21). Alcohol products are not promoted on channels that show primarily children’s shows during the hours that children typically watch television. Advertisements for alcohol include the information that it is illegal for minors to consume alcohol or for anyone to provide alcohol to a minor. These advertisements also bear the warning that consumers should “drink responsibly,” along with warnings from the medical profession about the potentially harmful effects of alcohol. (Granted, most of these messages are in small print at the bottom of the screen and rushed at the end of the commercials. But they’re there.) Ads for alcohol don’t use children either. The typical alcohol commercial depicts attractive, healthy, happy young adults (in their mid twenties to early thirties) having a good ol’ time while consuming the alcoholic product. The message? “Alcohol is a good way for young, cool, happy adults to have fun together.” Does this advertisement attract some minors to alcohol consumption as well? Inevitably, the answer is yes. Some minors read the advertisement (perhaps even somewhat correctly) to mean that consuming alcohol will make them more grown up and cool. Is this interpretation the fault of the alcohol company? Maybe. Is the morality of providing potentially misleading messages to young people questionable? Yes. Is underage drinking the fault of the alcohol companies? No.
But Amelia, I hear you saying, alcohol is a bad thing for children, just like skankified underwear. Right. I hear you. I hear the sound of you missing the point of that last paragraph. So let’s consider a different scenario.
Let’s say…popular secular music.
The general public would seem to agree that, overall, pop music is a generally benign thing. If we didn’t, would we allow it to be played during prime listening time on almost every radio station? If we (as a whole) thought pop music was inherently evil and dangerous to our children, at some point, someone would’ve successfully petitioned to remove secular music from the radio during hours that children were likely to be listening. And if that were the case, we definitely wouldn’t have things like KidzBop–the kid-friendly, censored-of-profanity versions of the Top 40s. (And yes, KidzBop is evidence that we acknowledge that some of the Top 40s music is inappropriate for children in its original form. Why else would we censor?) But what themes are common in this music? Skimming through this week’s Top 40 (available here), I can sum it up as follows: electronic dance music with Spanish lyrics about terrorists, Goodwill purchases and sex, sappy break-up songs, looking sexy, sappy relationship songs (including sex), alcohol consumption, foreign pop bands singing uplifting songs of encouragement, sex, death, shame, shame because of sex, one-night-stands, sexual frustration. About half of these songs include profanity. And though the KidzBop versions substitute different words for the cursing, they fail to change the major theme of the songs. The real kicker? The KidzBop albums aren’t even marketed to pre-teens–they’re marketed to elementary schoolers. The infomercials advertising the albums depict adorable children (apparently younger than my fifth-grader sister) singing and replicating the music videos for these popular songs. KidzBop is cool when you’re in second grade; no self-respecting seventh grader would admit to listening to it. And these songs, though without profanity, can hardly be considered truly age-appropriate. For instance, popular song “Moves Like Jagger,” when recreated by KidzBop, removes the blatantly sexual words, but not the sexual innuendos. “California Girls” cuts the second (“sex on the beach”) verse, but not the lines in the chorus that talk about partying or the lines in the verses that refer to drinking. And then, the ever-popular and celebrated One Direction song, “Live While We’re Young.” Check out the lyrics. It’s about sneaking out of the house for a night of promiscuity and reckless behavior, because, hey, you only live once. (Exhibit A: verse two lyrics: “Hey girl it’s now or never, don’t overthink, just let it go/ And if we get together,don’t let the pictures leave your phone.” Exhibit B: chorus: “I know we only met, but let’s pretend it’s love.”) Yep. That’s what I want pop culture teaching my [hypothetical, nonexistent] children. But when our fourteen-year-olds come home saying, “Mom, I’m pregnant and I’m scared,” do we immediately say, “Darn it! I knew I shouldn’t have let them listen to that pop music!”? Nope. We blame ourselves for not paying more attention. We blame the guys that took advantage of them. We blame every adult who should’ve done something to stop this from happening. Maybe we blame the child for her actions too. For the most part, the music is left out of it.
Somehow, we are ok with pop culture teaching our children that promiscuous sex is a vital part of being young–even while being outraged that another company markets an adult product in such a manner that it is appealing to an inappropriately young demographic.
And we’re not blaming the music producers, or the movie producers, or the television producers, or the authors and publishers of popular tween novels that feature graphic descriptions of sexual encounters of various types for the hyper-sexualization of today’s young people. And we’re not blaming the parents who allow their children to consume this media. Or the parents who fail to put healthy limits on their children’s behavior for fear of squashing their miniscule personalities or whatever psychobabble excuse we want to use for overindulgence. No, we’re blaming Victoria’s Secret. A large corporation. That markets to adults. And sells adult clothing that the average pre-teen can’t afford on her own.
Because it’s easier and less time-consuming to be outraged on Facebook and Twitter and your blog than to parent your child.
It is easier to start a petition to ban a product from being sold in a store than to tell your child, “No, I will not purchase that item for you because it is inappropriate for you at this time, and I don’t give a flying flip what your friends think about it,” and stick to it. It’s easier to write poorly-phrased and grammatically incorrect invective against “exploiting the innocence of children for profit” than to take a step back and look at the culture that already views people as objects for consumption. It’s easier to accuse a major corporation of brainwashing our children with a misguided idea of beauty and healthy sexuality than to look at ourselves and the mixed messages we send in our own homes. And yes, maybe Victoria’s Secret and her peers are responsible for some of the sexuality in our culture. Maybe they can take some of the blame for skewing the views we have about the female body. And maybe they’re able to do this because we let them.
Sex sells, and we’re buying.
We buy plenty of it. In the poll for social acceptability, we vote with our money. In a consumer culture, what society is willing to allow will undoubtedly become visible, but it’s only what society is willing to pay for that becomes truly popular. And in this consumer society, sexuality sells big time. Why are shows like The Bachelor/The Bachelorette–which objectify women, promote promiscuity in the interests of finding “the one”, and make a mockery of healthy relationship development–on tv? Because we watch them. Why is there so much sex in our pop music? Because we keep buying it. Why do the shorts keep getting shorter, the bathing suits keep getting smaller, and the necklines keep getting lower? Because we buy them.
And sure, there is a sector out there that refuses to participate financially in the aspects of culture that it finds reprehensible. My parents are part of it. Growing up, I didn’t watch the popular movies or tv shows. I didn’t know the Top 40 songs. I didn’t own shorts that came above mid thigh. I didn’t have a two-piece bathing suit. My parents, who held the purchasing power for our family (and for me), made a clear decision about what they believed was acceptable. And yes, it was difficult for me to understand at the time. And yes, I argued with them on it. And yes, I made exaggerated claims that they wanted me to dress like a nun and take a vow of celibacy and never ever find a boyfriend (because what boy wanted to date a girl who wears shorts that could’ve come from the boy’s department) and didn’t want me to be pretty. And yes, sometimes I felt out of place because I didn’t dress like most of the girls my age. (*Refer back to above paragraph about where they all are today.)
And no, I didn’t get my way.
And I’m perfectly unharmed by that. My little minuscule personality wasn’t crushed to smithereens. Neither was my ability to think for myself. I made it through high school with a perfect 4.0 GPA. I had friends who cared about me, no matter what I dressed like. I was awarded over $140,000 in scholarships to various universities. I have held several respectable jobs. I’m now a senior in college, about to graduate with three separate degrees earned in the course of four years and embark on a career as a teacher.
And, wonder of all wonders, I have a boyfriend of two years who loves and respects me and wants to be with me long term, no matter what I choose to wear.
Having been parented by people with conservative values who upheld a high standard of behavior for me was not in the least bit damaging. Having been denied my preference at the time did not negatively impact me. Having parents who were involved enough in my life to know where I was and what I was up to almost constantly until I reached the age of 18 didn’t keep me from maturing and learning to be independent. In fact, it taught me accountability. I learned that I had to consider my actions carefully, because my actions had consequences–even when I became an adult.
I turned out this way because my parents chose to be my parents–NOT my friends. I turned out this way because my parents told me no when what I wanted wasn’t right for me. I turned out this way because my parents were willing to let me be unpopular in favor of becoming a better person. I turned out this way because my parents chose to raise me themselves, instead of turning me over to the coddling consumerist culture of popular media and fashion trends.
So if you want to be outraged at Victoria’s Secret and the fact that their clothing might somehow be appealing to young girls who have grown up in a culture that tells them to grow up as quickly as possible, that their worth is based on their attractiveness to males, and that being promiscuous is a necessary experience, go right ahead. But do yourselves and your children a favor and back that outrage up with your actions. If you are disgusted by the objectification of women, don’t treat your daughters like property to be guarded until sold to a husband. And don’t let them see you worry about your weight or your appearance. Don’t encourage them to believe that you only feel beautiful when you have your makeup and high heels on.
You’re the parent. For a large portion of their lives, you have the power to tell your children no. You have the power to choose what’s best for them, to set guidelines, to shape their sense of morality and respectability. And you have the power to choose any standard you want for your children–whether that’s to let them do as they please and learn on their own, or to set boundaries and protect them from the rest of the world. The point is that, as a parent, it’s your responsibility to make that choice. And you’ll have to deal with the consequences that come with whatever choice you make. Just like your kids will.