From Diapers to Thongs: Discuss

On March 18, 2013, I found an article in my inbox sent by a colleague with the note, “YOU HAVE to blog about this!!” The piece, “Victoria’s Secret is coming for your Middle Schooler,” was written by Amy Gerwing and posted on the website, The Black Sphere.

I should have seen this one coming. My first red flag went up last November when Justin Bieber, the teen icon that’s worshiped by nearly every American girl under the age of 14, tweeted that he was getting ready to sing at the highly provocative Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

Orange thong with pink lace trim; "Call me" is written on the front
Call Me

Ms. Gerwing continued to express her outrage at Victoria’s Secret’s new marketing campaign, Bright Young Things which, she explained, was targeting pre-teens and teens as Victoria’s Secrets next demographic to, and – these are my words, not Ms. Gerwing’s – be clad in garments with the sole purpose of rendering the tween unclad, if that is a word, as quickly as possible. And just to be certain that we are on the same wavelength here, I am not even saying that this is because the panties and thongs – yes, thongs for tweens – are lacy, and silky, and seem to scream, “Take me off!” No, there is nothing covert about this line of undergarments. There is nothing left to the imagination. These panties are branded with the following messages boldly placed on the front of the panty just above the crotch: “Wild.” “Feeling Lucky?” “Call Me.” I could see why my colleague was suggesting that I blog about this.

As a feminist who lost her virginity the same year that Ms. Magazine was born and who went through adolescence with the hot-off-the-press “bible,” Our Bodies Ourselves, it is easy to see why this blatant example of over-sexualizing pre-pubescent girls would enrage me.

Red shirt with the slogan "Who Needs Brains when you have these?" written across the chest
Who Needs Brains when you have These?

Not to mention that my anger reminded me of some activist work I did regarding a line of t-shirts by Abercrombie & Fitch that resulted in the removal of the product by the company. So I started looking into it and found that there had already been uproar about the Bright Young Things campaign and at least a dozen articles, including one by Ben Davis published as early as March 11, with the same accusations and complaints voiced by Ms. Gerwing. And as the buzz spread from Facebook page to Facebook page and Tweets about Teen Twats took center stage with the viral speed, Victoria’s Secret released a statement on Monday, March 25th via their Facebook Page:

Despite recent rumors, we have no plans to introduce a collection for younger women. “Bright Young Things” was a slogan used in conjunction with the college spring break tradition.

And the floodgates opened and the media went wild! Was this whole thing a mistake; a misinterpretation on the part of the journalists who wrote the first stories about the tween marketing?

If that was the case, isn’t this issue now more about lousy fact checking and jumping to conclusions? I certainly couldn’t write a piece protesting a campaign targeting tweens if no such campaign existed. So I went back and had a look around. I found a plethora of articles from such sources as The Daily Beast, SalonThe Houston Chronicle, ABC News, and the New York Daily News. What emerged were three points of view. The first was anger at the sexploitation of girls as young as ten years old that has motivated Diana Cherry, a mother of four from Seattle to start an online petition lobbying for Victoria’s Secret to pull “Bright Young Things” from shelves. According to an article by Olivia Bergen published on March 26, 2013, Diana Cherry says:

Sexualisation of girls by marketers has been found to contribute to depression, eating disorders, and early sexual activity – and this new ad campaign is a glaring example of a culture forcing girls to grow up too fast.

Carrie Goldman writes in the Huffington Post on March 26, 2013, “My Daughter Does Not Need a Thong That Says ‘Call Me’ On the Crotch.”

The second point of view was anger at the opposition’s prudishness and at the suggestion that we should take away the choice of little girls to wear whatever damn underwear they want. I am trying very hard to understand that point of view. I am thinking that perhaps this group believes that having an age limit on sexy panties is not a very feminist point of view. One mom of a nine-year-old girl, Jenny Erickson, made the news on Good Morning America and stated this point succinctly: “No one wants to be the girl with the ugly underwear.”

And lastly, I noticed that the authors of practically every article were pointing their pens at V.S. and screaming “underpants on fire,” challenging their claim that it was NOT their intention to market this line to tweens, but to college girls. Most of the writers used the same supporting evidence to substantiate their point. According to Business Insider:

 When somebody’s 15 or 16 years old, what do they want to be? They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that’s part of the magic of what we do at Pink.’ – Chief Financial Officer, Stuart Burgdoerfer, of Victoria’s Secret parent company, Limited Brands.

This statement made by Mr. Burgdoerfer in January, 2013, seems to imply that the company was fully aware of the trickle down effects of marketing and were counting on younger girls emulating older ones. The controversy now had another focus: the appropriateness of the lingerie line for young girls and whether or not VS had intentionally marketed to tweens in the first place. The subject became so confusing that it merited an entry on Snopes.

  • Claim: VS introduced a line of provocative lingerie for teenage girls.
  • Findings as of March 27, 2013: Mixed.

But even if we give Victoria’s Secret a one-time only “get out of jail free card” and the benefit of the doubt that they aren’t marketing to tweens, we also have to take Burgdoerfer at his word. The company knows that 15- and 16-year-olds want to dress like the college girls. And the college girls are wearing thongs and panties that say, “Get Lucky,” and, “Call Me,” on their pubes. So even if we believe they didn’t mean to market to little girls, how do we feel about that?

Victoria’s Secret is NOT the only retail giant who knows that sex sells and that selling sex to a younger demographic will sell more. Are we being too puritanical to complain about this? Or are we protecting kids from being called disparaging names like “Pedi-Bait” and “Prostitot?” What are the roles of the parents in all of this? Who ultimately takes responsibility, the parents or the vendors? What kind of messages are being sent to tween and teen-aged boys? I would love to hear your feelings, opinions, and concerns.

‘Til Next Time!

Dr. Deah

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Dr. Deah Schwartz

Dr. Deah Schwartz, clinician, educator, and author specializes in Expressive Arts Therapies, Eating Disorders and Body Image. Deah is the Co Author of the NAAFA award winning Off-Broadway Play, Leftovers, and its companion DVD/Workbook Set. An outspoken “New Yawker,” Deah believes that it is everyone’s responsibility to point out and eliminate size discrimination even when it means battling the mainstream media, and even worse, family members! To find out more about Dr. Deah’s work or to book a session visit her website at www.drdeah.com

20 thoughts on “From Diapers to Thongs: Discuss”

  1. On one hand, women are already sexualized ENOUGH. We don’t need teen/preteen/little girls to be sexualized (more) as well.

    On the other…different people find different underwear comfortable. If a girl hates how brief/bikini/boycut styles (or, hell, boy’s briefs or boxers) fit and prefers thongs, why the hell shouldn’t she be able to wear thongs? Having a preference for a certain style of underwear doesn’t make one slutty or provocative or sexualized.

    On the left foot, though, I’m less a fan of “provocative” patterns on underwear, especially when worn by kids. A thong with “call me” on the crotch is…icky to me. But, well, that’s why I only buy solid colors/stripes/occasional printed patterns.

    I don’t know. I kind of feel like we, as adult women, are responsible for making sure girls aren’t treated like objects, but at the same time, my preferences aren’t universal.

  2. I think this is much ado about nothing. The claims that the line is being marketed to middle-schoolers because the CFO mentioned that 15-16 year olds might aspire to buy their clothes too is just wrong. With a very few exceptions, 15 and 16 year olds are in high school, not middle school. The gulf in maturity between middle-schoolers and 15-16 year olds is vastly bigger than the gulf between the 15-16 year olds and girls in college. Hell, I was only 13 months past being a 16 year old when I started college, and several of my friends were only 17 when they started freshman year. I wore VS bras and underwear in high school. Admittedly I don’t think they did the slogans yet when I was that age, but I do remember a tube top I bought there (with my mom in tow!) that was positively microscopic. And I turned out fine.

    I really liked the point Amanda Marcotte made on the XXfactor blog at Slate, in response to Evan Dolive’s handwringing about girls’ futures:

    Apparently, you can fill out applications to major universities or have boys see you in your underpants, but you can’t do both. Having a boyfriend touch you under your clothes is lady-kryptonite that renders you permanently unable to do or care about anything else.

    Girls can wear sexy underwear and still have two brain cells to rub together on topics other than boys and sex. Hell, they can spend tons of time thinking about boys and having sex and still be happy, healthy, and successful in life. It isn’t an either-or.

    Now, do I think an orange and pink thong that says “Call me” is tacky? Sure! But different strokes for different folks.

  3. I recall in high school (which was not long ago for me) that Victoria’s Secret was the coolest place, and people who shop there are mature, sexy and daring. Whenever we were at the mall there would be someone who wanted to go in, and buy something, anything. Mints. Lipgloss. Just to have that pink and more pink striped bag to carry around that seemed to signal, “I’m a woman.” Instead of Limited Too or other brands that seemed more girl-ish and little kid like.
    I think young girls have been exposed to VS marketing for a long time, and that it isn’t a new phenomenon AT ALL for teens to want the hip, sexy and more “grown-up” underwear sold there.

    1. Yeah, I agree that it’s not a new thing. And honestly, underwear that says “Call Me” is a bit…. I don’t think poor taste is the right word, but somewhere in that neighborhood… no matter who is wearing it.

      However, and maybe I’m in the minority here, but I don’t have any problem with a high schooler wearing a thong. Thongs aren’t 100% about sexybusiness. Maybe you don’t want underwear lines with your prom dress, you know? A dress or pants don’t even have to be that tight for that to happen, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with avoiding the “Are my underwear all bunched up right now?” thought while wearing something.

      1. Yeah, it’s not about the thong for me as a , shall we say, structural design, it is the way the thongs are sexualized. I am all for pretty underthings at any age…if that’s something parents or kids find fun…and a personal way of expressing individuality. But once again girls are under pressure to compete in the cool arena based on what they are wearing. Do you think preteen boys are shopping with their moms and dads for sexy underwear? My son could care less if he had boxers or whitey tidies as long as he didn’t have to do the laundry!:-)

      2. True, very true, thongs are sexualized, for sure. But you can easily say that about ALL the underwear featured in those ads, not just the thongs. I think that the point is that the whole company’s brand is sexualized. Which is kinda what I think people are going for with the fancy undies with the lace sparkle “Lucky You” business going on. There are other options I think are less “marketed as sexy” and more “cute comfy”, like the undies of whatever cut/style in cotton print/fun colors, but by virtue of being from VS, they’re SEXY and PINK and ULTRAFEMININE and SEXY cause all lady people wanna be SEXY for the menz! That is my perception, or at least was in high school. To be fair, in high school any undergarment is a sex-related thing, in that undergarments cover genitalia, and those are for sex, so by the transitive property, underwear is a sex thing.

        Or maybe that’s just my peer group. Maybe it was different for you.

        I got off topic here. My point was more that VS has successfully marketed itself to consumers of all ages so that when we see/hear Victoria’s Secret we think, that is a store for sexy lady underthings! Not, that is a practical panty peddler.

    2. I agree it’s not a new phenom. but the focus on younger and younger girls is new. I just think we have so little time to be girls who don’t have to worry about panty lines and being hip and cool based on what we are wearing, whether it be our makeup, clothing or underclothing, that to make that time even shorter is sad. What a great world it would be if our coolness was based on qualities not determined by our lip gloss, panties, or push up bras. As the old song went, “Give me just a little more time!” Thanks for writing!
      Warmly, Dr. Deah

    3. The other thing that drives me crazy about this campaign is that it is called, “Pretty Young Things.” I may just be an ossified feminist from the sixties, but a young girl being called a thing and having their value be proclaimed based on their appearance and their age…it’s just so dehumanizing. Do we really want our girls to grow up feeling like they are only desirable as a pretty young THING?

      1. I wasn’t in existence in the sixties and I dislike the “Pretty Young Things” phrase for the same reasons you do. I’m a human being, not an item you can pull off a shelf and ring up at the register.

        I see why people in marketing thought this tag line was clever, as they have a line of “Sexy Little Things” that I had previously assumed referred not to the ladies but the things they want us to buy, as all those were decidedly sexy and little. I can see how that tag line and this one come from the same way of thinking.

      2. I agree with it being a little icky to call young women “things,” but I think since it has dual meaning, referring also to the underwear/bras/t-shirts/etc. they’re trying to sell, it’s not out and out awful (for me, anyway). I also think having them be neon and colorful is attention grabbing and playful, but in a way that I don’t think is inappropriate for teenagers exploring their sexual identities. I think it’s totally reasonable for teens to try out some sexier underthings, even if those seem to be “inappropriate” under their clothes. Keeping sexy or cute or colorful or revealing underwear off teenaged girls isn’t going to prevent them from having sex; parents teaching their kids to respect their bodies, their peers’ bodies, their values, etc. might, if that’s the parents’ objectives. Probably the VS swimsuits and t-shirts are worse in terms of objectifying and sexualizing, since you see those out in public.

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