What Flaunts Beneath
Lolita Complex in Child Fashion
There’s something to be said for burqas. They make you curious about what flaunts beneath. Curiosity providing half the octane in any turn-on, that would make the veiled and gabardined from Kabul to Jiddah the most erotic babes on the planet. Hold the snickers: Islam may be reputed to be a religion of prudes in league with our own Puritans’ frigid airs. But that’s only because Islam’s delicious complexities have themselves been veiled by western prejudice, just as Puritans have endured centuries of equally misinformed stereotypes (the private lives of Puritans were more erotically charged than a Britney Spears concert could ever hope to be). The point being that you can’t judge a thrill by its cover.
But what happens when there is no cover? Western mores are considered liberating in proportion with the amount of skin revealed (and, increasingly, rebuilt). There’s little difference between the glossy ads in Vanity Fair and the centerfolds in Playboy. That’s not exactly a problem. Many of us would trade every burqa mystery for the soft, public porn that makes up much of what’s left of women’s fashion these days. The problem is when there’s no difference anymore between adult and children’s fashion when children are so sexualized by media and the ad industry, and play-along parents, that you wonder to what extent society’s anxieties about children’s eroding innocence are the hypocritical veil for a culture in the thralls of a Lolita complex.
It’s back-to-school week, the time of year when kids’ wardrobes are purged and remade, and also when parents get their annual reality check from the trenches of what kids are sup posed to wear and bare in order to be cool. Some interesting items surveyed in the pre-teen section of a local discount clothier: A black see-through negligee which, my wife informed me, is actually a so-called peasant shirt fit for eveningwear (it seems Eastern Standard Bedtime is now more like Miller Time); jeans that have dispensed with buttons and zippers to make room for leather strings last seen bridging cleavage in Vegas; shoes with heels the size of Montana buttes; shirts whose promise of 50 percent off has nothing to do with price; and cut-off denim hot shorts, pre-faded in two strategic spots, available for girls age 4 and up.
The designer’s tag that goes with each item says it all: “With Xhilaration there are no rules. Whether you choose to go crazy or dress to thrill. Make a statement. Make a scene. Wear what you want and it won’t be wrong.” The tag dangles from clothes for 4-year-olds as it does from those for 12-year-olds or 16-year-olds. Elsewhere we get cotton T-shirts with the “So many boys, so little time” and “Porn Queen” imprints, also for 5- to 6-year-olds, and the line of thongs for pre-pubescent girls with a cherry and the words “Eat Me” embroidered out front. Break down the barriers all you want and it won’t be wrong, you say?
Childhood, it’s quite true, is a recent invention. For most of history there were no such things as adolescence, teens, pre-teens, let alone “tweens,” that latest Madison Avenue invention raiding the kitties of 8-to-12s. But as an Enlightenment invention that culminated in child labor laws, juvenile justice and an end to child marriages—in this portion of the world, anyway—it wasn’t a bad one. The trend happens to be going the other way now.
If there is an advantage to the boundaries breaking down again, it’s harder to see than a corruption of childhood that’s been no more imaginative than imaginary. The segmenting of childhood and adolescence into supermarket aisles turns kids into maximum-yield consumers. Using sexuality as a sales pitch turns them into objects as malleable as their insecurities. And for ad vehicles, teen magazines reconfigure the adult editions’ fabrication of women as bimbos on the prowl and on display, with nothing more crucial to worry about than lip gloss and come-ons.
Mere capitalism? No. Try child exploitation. The abduction-of-the-week is becoming the summer’s favorite reality show, but child abductions—extremely rare in the scheme of things—are nothing to worry about compared with the daily abductions of childhood going about subtly and surely all around while parents profess impotence.
Complicity is more like it. The nation desperately needs an uninhibited discussion of teen and children’s sexuality. But it priggishly pretends in one case that it shouldn’t exist and in the other that it doesn’t, all the while thrilling to the perverted uses of both by advertisers and media. As a crock, not even Britney Spears’ paean to virginity comes close.