G-Strings for Preteens

When I grocery shop, I find the peanut butter right next to the jelly. Side by side. Because they go together. Two products people buy in tandem because you use one with the other. You see, retailers intentionally merchandise products of similarity near each other to make the shopping experience more fluid for the shopper. Life jackets by fishing poles, sponges near the dish soap, lacy panties and thongs near the training bras…..

Wait, WHAT!? Did I spy with my little eye a lace and hot-pink python print g-string within an arms reach of the training bras? I did. I was at Kohl’s Department Store and the panties were from Candie’s. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, and at first I figured it was out of place, put there by a customer who hadn’t returned it to it’s intended spot. Then I took a step back. I was looking at an entire wall of lacy, sexy panties all within an arm’s reach of the training bras. No other panties were closer, no discreet cotton bikini cut Days of the Week or rainbows, just this wall of semi-trashy looking unmentionables. What struck me is how tiny and sexy they were. Not a lot of coverage even from the hipsters or ‘cheekies’ (teeny boy short undies). An entire wall, right next to the training bras. Peanut butter and jelly.

This seemed wrong to me, that girls young enough to be wearing training bras (average age is 8-13 years old) would also be wearing lingerie-like panties. After all, lingerie is like gift wrapping for sex, so why in the world would a 10 year old who just bought a training bra also need a black thong with bedazzled skull on it? Who exactly is this 10 year old supposed to be gift wrapping herself for?

I didn’t know the answer to these questions, but I knew I was giving a talk in a couple of days on media literacy, the girl’s marketplace, and hypersexualization. So I bought a pair.

Candie's thong purchased at Kohl's next to training bras.

I came home and showed them to my husband and my mom, which elicited a “Good Lord, Melissa.” I told her where I had found them and she was very surprised. We are, after all from Wisconsin, home of family owned, Midwestern-values Kohl’s. Kohl’s even has a mission statement, something about being:  the leading value-oriented, family-focused, specialty department store. In 5th grade I got my first training bra at Kohl’s. I’ve bought every Father’s Day present for the last 15 years at Kohl’s. And now I had purchased a g-string for a preteen.

At the store I measured with a little tape measurer from my purse (I have a four year old who loves to measure stuff when we run errands) and sure enough, the Wall of Thong was less than 24 inches from the training bras, was facing the training bras and the whole Juniors section. At home, I put the thong, Size Small, on a dress form I use to display my Pigtail Pals tees. I picked my largest torso, an 8T. I had no problem fitting the thong onto the form that has a 29? hip measurement (US standard hip measurement for a 10 yr old girl is 28.5 inches). The image is above.

I went to Kohl’s website to determine if maybe this was just an anomaly at my particular store. Nope. Seems Kohl’s family-focused department store has no problem selling sexy undies to Juniors under several of their labels. In addition to Candie’s, Mudd also makse thongs for teens and Hello Kitty makes a hipster that barely covers the public bone. Certainly there were many choices online for more appropriate underwear for a girl sized 7-16. But that differed from how the store was merchandised. The appropriate underwear was back by the Kids section, nowhere near the Juniors. The sexy underwear was right next to the Juniors section, where these girls would be shopping, either with the family or their friends. Let’s be honest, if you’re 13 years old and hanging out at the mall with your gal pals and you want to buy underwear, are you really going to excuse yourself and walk over to the kids’ section? Is Kohl’s counting on peer pressure to make sales?

Well, next I went to Candie’s website, to see what they were about. Didn’t take long to figure that out. (Britney Spears is their new spokesperson) Candie’s seems to have a track record of taking young women, usually about to release a vocal project, and turn them into sultry, sexy spokemodels for a clothing line that actually isn’t that racy or sexy. The shoes and the underwear don’t really seem to match the vibe of the rest of the line. But, sex sells, and Candie’s markets to a young teen demographic eager to prove how grownup they are.

Britney Spears for Candie's Brand, 2010

What does this picture say to you? To me, I see a pop star notorious for her troubled past, dressed like “Slutty Slumber Party Girl” with a naughty pout and ‘Come hither’ look, complete with heels and tattoo. This is tame compared to much of Candie’s print advertisting. And this. Certainly Brit is a legal adult, and fantasizing about her in a sexual way wouldn’t be deviant by any means. But in this picture, Britney isn’t really portraying an adult woman, seemingly she is portraying a much younger female, specifically, one that is underage and illegal to have sex with. The teddy bear, for me, crosses the line and blurs what is taboo or not. Teddy bears are a child’s toy. Are our children supposed to be sexy? Considered potential sexual partners? How young is too young to wear sexy intimates and pout while teetering on stilettos?

I asked an attorney friend of mine, off the record, about general child pornography statutes. Obviously neither Kohl’s nor Candie’s does anything close to that or illegal, and I’m not suggesting they do. But I was curious,what if a person (an older teen boyfriend or adult male) created a photo like the one above, but it was a 10 year old girl instead of an adult Britney Spears? What would be the call? Lingerie is packaging for sex and retailers are selling lingerie-like panties to very young girls. In many cases these girls are too young to understand the messages they would be sending. That makes my stomach turn. My friend said it is a gray area, which I understand. But when it comes to childhood and sex, there is no room for shades of gray. There is NO amount of sex that is appropriate during childhood.

I started asking parents – eyewitness to their daughter’s development and clothing battles in their homes. Heads exploded. Comments ranged from “Inappropriate” to “Should be illegal” to “Not for my daughter” to “It helps with panty lines” to “They’ll look like strippers”. I saw eyebrows raise, mouths fall open, and faces turn angry. People couldn’t believe that a company would market this kind of underwear to young girls.

So this got me thinking, historically the tiniest of thongs is called a “G-string”, a name given to them by dancers and strippers in clubs who wear this as part of their costuming. Parents had expressed concern that if their daughter was wearing one, she would be perceived as ‘looking like strippers’. So I called up a stripper. I had a most fascinating conversation with Amber, a house mom at a local strip club here in my area. She is a former dancer and now mom of two small kids, and she seemed to convey a stronger sense of family values and social responsibility than either corporations you’ll read about in a minute. We spoke by phone, so I couldn’t see her face, but that allowed me to focus on her voice. And I heard emotion. Frustration. Anger. Amber felt girls are wearing this stuff to feel sexy, that they’ve been taught that’s what sexy is. She said parents need to be more involved because girls were doing this to get attention and schools were too lax on sex and conduct/dress standards. Amber said she had no intention of allowing her children to be exposed to this and that she would never allow her daughter to wear a thong like the python one described above while she was living with her. And then, she said this:

You know, there is a backlash against girls like me. And it isn’t fair. I think what you’re talking about is wrong. People may not agree with what I do for a living, but I pay my bills and provide for my family and people coming in the club to see the shows are legal, 18 and over. But in the stores, that isn’t the case. Girls can buy those thongs but they wouldn’t be allowed to even peek into the club if they are under 18. My industry gets criticized a lot, but we don’t take advantage of kids, we don’t make money off of kids like those corporations do. – Amber, house mom at a Gentlemen’s Club

I was in complete agreement with Amber, so next I wanted to ask a pediatrician what they thought about the issue. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t making a mountain out of a molehill. I sent a message to a friend of mine who is a doctor here in WI and also a mom of a young girl. My question to her was “Can you give me any info, if there is any, on health risks associated with young girls wearing thongs?” Her reply:

A minor medical issue that may result is vaginal or labial irritation, or vulvovaginitis, caused by wearing a thong in the context of poor personal hygiene. My bigger concern, however, is the other choices these girls are being encouraged to make, with regard to their bodies and their sexual health. These young, preteen girls are just beginning to experience all of the physical and psychological changes that come with puberty. By oversexualizing their immature bodies, they may be at a greater risk for engaging in early sexual activity and therefore, at a higher risk for pregnancy and sexually -transmitted infection. – Dr.  H, Pediatrician in Wisconsin

Three mothers: A house mom, a doctor, and me. Interesting bed fellows, I agree. Yet, three mothers all with very young girls, each feeling like a mother to all girls as we looked at this issue.

When I challenged Candie’s about marketing sexy panties to young girls, a rep from Candie’s left a comment on my blog, then sent me a message on Twitter, then sent me an email, all with contradictory or absent contact info and three different age ranges as to who is Candie’s demographic. First it was 16-21 years old. But their own website says 7-16 and Juniors. Then an email response said 18-24 years old. Which is it, Candie’s? The print ads run in teen magazines, arguably read by girls far younger than the 18 years they claim to market to. I don’t know how many 24 year olds wear training bras. Even if their market is 16-21 years old like written by a Candie’s rep on my blog, wouldn’t the promotion on Twitter of Britney Spear’s song “Three”, an ode threesomes, be inappropriate?  Especially considering a 16 year old participating in a threesome, aside from being illegal, would have more chances of getting pregnant, not something Candie’s is trying to promote with their Candie’s Foundation against teen pregnancy.

I continued to press for answers, and was directed to Kohl’s. Fine. So I email Kohl’s, and get a corporate sounding response from an Assistant Manager in the Correspondence Department. I was told “the Candie’s brand is meant to be stylish and invoke self-confidence” and the other brands are carried to appeal to different tastes. I found this incredibly stupid for three reasons.

  • I don’t care if grown women (18 years+) are wearing thongs. I don’t give a hoot. My concern that the thongs were being merchandised to young teen/tween girls was not addressed.
  • Just because other brands are offered does not negate the wrong-doing of the brand over here. I’m not going to shift focus from the problem. Pump fake.
  • Candie’s may be considered stylish by some. But ‘invoke self-confidence’? Hypersexualization does not invoke self-confident girls. It creates confused girls and endangered girls.

I was invited to call with further questions. I had a lot of further questions. So I called and spoke with this same Assistant Manager in the Correspondence Department. I got the overall impression that one) Kohl’s should have given me someone higher up to speak to, and two) they seem seriously confused on what builds self-confidence in young women. Most of the same verbage from the email was regurgitated during the phone call. I questioned Kohl’s embracing a brand like Candie’s who uses overtly sexual marketing to capture the attention of young girls. I asked about the proximity of the sexy panties to the training bras and the Juniors section. I asked how this was meant to empower a young girl?

Here’s what I got, from the corporate representative who was handling my escalated customer service complaint and was told she was on the record:

  • “We offer other choices of brands and styles.”
  • “Candie’s will continue to be an exclusive brand for us. It does well for us.”
  • “We implement changes based on customer feedback.”
  • “I agree with you, and you can always vote with your money.”
  • “Bottom line: it sells”

Bottom line, it sells. Bottom line, it sells?!? The bottom line is this doesn’t sell with me. Hell no.

Had she crafted a prepared statement saying something about Candie’s brand really is meant for older teens and young twenty-somethings and that Kohl’s will look at how items are displayed and merchandised in their stores, I would have accepted that. I would have followed up, but I would have accepted that. I’m not out to burn people on stakes, I’m out to make positive changes for our girls and get people thinking about media literacy. I think Kohl’s has a lot to learn on the topic.

There was no carefully crafted statement. At least Huffy gave me a statement about bike paths. Kohl’s said it loud and clear: BOTTOM LINE: IT SELLS.

Is that acceptable to you? If something is sold to children makes a lot of money for a corporation, should that be all there is to it? Or should there be more? Should there be a sense of social responsibility? Should there be backlash from parents who are so sick and tired of their girls being exploited? Should the companies hear about it?

Many dozens of people have told me they have paid off and cancelled their Kohl’s cards or that they will no longer shop at Kohl’s. I will no longer shop at Kohl’s. There response was far from what I find acceptable. I think until there are changes made, that is the right thing to do. Let’s all vote with our dollars by taking our dollars elsewhere until Kohl’s puts our kids ahead of their bottom line.

Add your voice to the mix. Encourage your daughters to speak up, too. Here’s who I spoke with:

Candie’s: Cory Cole email: Ccole@iconixbrand.com

Kohl’s: Jessica Swearingen 262-704-9185, Assistant Manager of Correspondence

Kohl’s Customer Service: customer.service@kohls.com