At the Nordstrom department store in Scottsdale, Ariz., I’m standing in front of a rack of bras and nighties. The bras are made with padding and underwire. The nightgowns are lacy, see-through and sexy, something I’d buy to wear for someone else, if you know what I mean. The bras and nighties don’t come in my size. I am, after all, in the toddler section of the store.
What toddler needs a bra? Or sexy lingerie? Is this just an American thing, I wonder? “Alas, selling bras to little girls is becoming normal in America,” says M. Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It. “The bras are padded and in push-up varieties, and there are matching thong panties too. These come in preschoolers’ size. I’ve been told that moms go wild for them,” she says. Moms? Durham herself has two young daughters, ages seven and 10. She believes manufacturers market what she calls “hypersexual” kids’ garments in order to create “cradle-to-grave” consumers for these kinds of products. “There’s no consideration of what kind of an impact this is having on girls’ lives,” she says.
Children’s bras, it turns out, have been creating controversy outside North America. Tesco, a British retail chain, came under attack earlier this year for marketing a padded bra to seven- and eight-year-olds. Tesco released the following statement in its defence. “It is a product designed for girls at that self-conscious age when they are just developing. It is designed to cover up, not flatter, and was developed after speaking to parents.”
Apparently not all parents. The handful of mommy bloggers who write about toddler bras all seem to have the same reaction: “Yuck!” Canadian Erica Ehm, founder of the online magazine Yummymummyclub.ca, and who has a five-year-old daughter, says bras for toddlers and children are “obscene” and “disgusting.” They should wear bras “when they start to get breasts. It’s bad enough that my daughter got a makeup kit and high heels for her last birthday.”
I decide to go on a Canadian shopping trip to Old Navy, after calling to ask if they sell children’s bras. They do, for six- to 12-year-olds. “We’re going bra shopping,” I tell my almost-five-year-old daughter. “For me?” she asks, excitedly.
At Old Navy, sure enough, I see the bras in the children’s section. My daughter picks out a pink-and-white striped one, with lace around the shoulders. It’s padded. The size is 30 A. I pick out another one—for research purposes—also a 30 A, with underwire. They are $12.50 each. The bras could fit on one of my daughter’s large stuffed animals. “Let’s go home,” my daughter says. “And play bra!”
Mommy blogger Vanessa Johnson lives outside San Francisco and works in advertising. Her daughters are six and seven. She tells me she was shocked when she was with her daughters at one of the discount American stores, TJ Maxx, and saw the children’s bras. “My daughter really wanted one. But I was appalled because of the padding.” Johnson said no to her daughter. At first. “I said no and tried to change the subject, but she kept talking about them. I mentioned it to a cousin who has an older daughter who said that her daughter went through a wanting-a-bra phase, and she bought her a sports bra. So I compromised and got my daughters each a sports bra.”
Johnson says that at first it was non-stop bra talk in her home. Her daughters would wear them and say, “I love my bra.” And they’d ask questions like, “Can you wear a bra to the movies? Can you wear a bra to go out and eat?” “I thought, ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ ” says Johnson. “My eldest wore it under her uniform to school one Monday, but by Tuesday she was over it. Now she only pulls it out once in a blue moon. But last week we were at another store and my daughter saw some bras and said, ‘They’re so pretty.’ They are obviously aware of them.”
My own daughter forgot about the Old Navy bras by the time we got home. Two days later she found them and put on the pink-and-white-striped padded one. It fit her. She wouldn’t take it off. She wore it to sleep. I told her she couldn’t wear her bra out of the house. Thanks to the padding, she looked creepy—like a four-year-old who was going through puberty with budding breasts. We argued and argued. I figure I asked for it. Introduce a bra to a five-year-old and you’ll soon be fighting with a teenager.