Bikinis, waxing and pole-dancing: Hannah Popham explores the sexualisation of children.

Monday night is going to be a busy night for my imaginary daughters, aged 12 and 14. When I contacted Arlene, who runs a pole dancing school, her one reservation was not their age but that the term had already started. Her only fear in fact was that, having missed three weeks of classes, my young daughters may fall behind the rest of the class. Perhaps I could send them to a private lesson for €60 to allow them to catch up? Perhaps not, Arlene.

Children at Risk in Ireland (CARI) last year reported a 70% increase since 2011 in calls to report sexualised behaviour in children, and aligned the blame with increasingly easy access to pornography: “As more children are exposed not only to soft-core pornography, but also to explicit, deviant sexual material, they are receiving extremely dangerous messages. Pornography encourages sexual expression without any responsibility.” However, in a society in which pre-teens are allowed into pole-dancing classes, is pornography all that is to blame?

I asked a few of the parents I interviewed if they would let their non-imaginary daughters to start pole-dancing classes: “Absolutely no chance. At minimum she would definitely have to be 18, preferably 21. Ideally I’d prefer if it never happened”, said Michael Crowley, the father of a 16-year-old girl.

As a regional sales manager of Irish Distillers Limited, Michael has been exposed to what he sees as another big player in the sexualisation of children – easy access to alcohol: “Unfortunately there’s no problem getting drink. Garages sell about 13—15% of all alcohol sold in Ireland. If you go into any garage in Ireland you will get wine from every region in the world and a selection of vodkas. I’ve phoned gardaí when I see kids go in to someone behind the counter who hasn’t been trained or doesn’t care that the customer is clearly underage and they just lash out the cases of alcohol. I’ve confronted security men in petrol stations and they’ve said: ‘I’m not here to be a moral judge.’” 

While Michael places MTV and the explosion of the ‘Geordie Shore generation’ high on the rank of influences in sexualisation of pre-teens and children, his daughter Aoibhín feels they have impacted her peers in a different way: “I think before the media created a lot more pressure on girls, now it is more on boys. I know at least ten boys of 15 or 16 who go to tanning beds and wax their eyebrows. There’s a lot of pressure on guys from an early age to work out and have a six pack. My friend who’s only fifteen is on creatine [supplement] just purely so that he will look good.”

Strangely enough, when I began trawling through the selection of underwear available to Irish kids it was the underwear for young boys that seemed far more sexualised than the horror of lacy thongs I feared were on sale for young girls. The girls’ underwear section of Marks and Spencer, Littlewoods Ireland and Dunnes Stores left little reason for concern other than the occasional moulded bra. However, on Marks and Spencer’s boys’ underwear section, I came across tight, black, Calvin Klein style ‘Autograph’ boxers for boys as young as six.

This would be no means the first time Marks and Spencer have run into trouble for offering sexualised clothing products to kids. In 2010 they publicly apologised for ‘incorrectly labelling’ a lace top for six-year-olds as a bra. When I contacted them about their ‘Autograph’ children’s boxers, they had the following to say: “We are totally committed to ensuring our clothing offer is age appropriate.  We have signed up to the Retail Ireland Childrenswear Guidelines, which we subscribe for all our kidswear products. We also continue to be proud supporters of the Mumsnet ‘Let Girls Be Girls’ campaign."

According to Mumsnet, the retailers that sign up to this campaign agree 'not to sell products which exploit, emphasise or play upon 'children's sexuality'. It is evident from their website that one clothing company in particular had ignored their pleas, and it came as no surprise that they were not among the companies who had agreed to the campaign, started in 2010. At the time of writing this, Littlewoods Ireland stocks an array of sexualised items for little girls. These included, but were no means limited to: boots with heels of at least two inches in a children’s size 10; tight-fitting short body-con style dresses; and heart-entwined jumpers idolising boy-band One Direction for girls as young as five. Although I contacted the company with links to the items concerned for comment, they have yet to respond.

One teenager I spoke to seemed particularly effected by the sexualisation of clothing from a young age. Emily, who is now 16, gave way to pressure at age 11 to wear make-up, and finds it increasingly difficult to find clothing that is not sexual. As not many of the high street clothing companies have a section for teenagers, she says that they are presented with fashion intended for women who have already reached sexual maturity. ”It’s increasingly difficult to get clothes that don’t show cleavage or shorts that don’t show half your bum. I remember going shopping for summer clothes with my friends and all we could find were skin-tight high-waisted shorts that left little to be desired and tops that displayed a lot more then I felt comfortable in.”

Emily sees the pressure to dress sexually as an impact of celebrity culture in which looking good is everything-a world in which girls her age on the X-Factor are told they must be ‘the full package’: “Especially as a teenage girl, you are bombarded with sensational images of scantily-clad celebrities, people who teenagers look up to and aspire to be. You want to dress how they dress; wear make-up like they do; own sky-high heels and wear incredibly short dresses because it’s a lifestyle shown to be normal.”

I have just one more treat planned for the youngest of my imaginary daughters, aged twelve. Just around the corner from Grafton Street is Urban Wax, a company which openly accept girls as young as eleven for underarm, leg and bikini waxing. Despite my initial reservations that she may be too young for her probably scarce body hair to be encased in hot wax and painfully ripped from her skin, the team reassured me: “I understand your concerns regarding waxing for your young daughter but it is completely safe. We would always recommend waxing over any other form of hair removal for young girls deciding to remove it.” Their ‘Little Lady Classic Bikini’ is only €20; a bargain.

In a society in which it is possible for a 12-year-old to get a bikini wax, attend pole-dancing lessons and to easily find heels in her size from Irish companies, is it possible for our kids not to feel some sort of pressure to become sexualised from an early age? Should we be allowing boys as young as six to wear the same tight, black boxers worn by male models four times their age? Should we be ignoring the fact that young teenagers are able to access both tanning beds and alcohol long before they turn the legal age of 18? Dr Trish Mylan, an Irish psychotherapist who worked for 13 years as Singapore’s Principal Programme Officer for Child Welfare isn’t so sure: “We as adults look through a certain lens based on our development and relationship to/with sex, i.e. we would see sex there - but does the child or young person see that?  I can't see that they do. They are being exploited commercially, but exploited sexually? No, probably not.” That being said, the prospect of a child who waxes, pole-dances and wears sexually suggestive clothing at 12 still remains extremely unnerving.

Follow Hannah on Twitter: @bananapop2.