Why are parents defending a kids' push-up bra?

Abercrombie's idiotic new product causes controversy -- and finds surprising fans

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published March 30, 2011 3:20PM (EDT)

Abercrombie & Fitch has long been famed for its seductive wares and provocative campaigns. But this month, just in time for spring break, the company provoked a torrent of parental outrage when it unleashed a sexy bikini -- for children.

As Sociological Images pointed out two weeks ago in a post on "another example of the sexualization of young girls," the "Ashley" triangle top from Abercrombie Kids was branded as a "push up triangle," an odd choice for kids of an age where there's still usually not a whole lot to push up. And this assumed need for enhancement has been a long source of shopping frustration to parents -- and potential embarrassment for kids. "We go into the little girl section and there’s nothing for her," an exasperated mother told the Chicago Sun-Times last week. And a mother of two young daughters told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I think it's truly sad we spend all this time telling our children they're beautiful just the way they are and then we provide a product that tells them they're not."

But the company that back in 2002 was marketing thongs for little girls with the words "eye candy" and "wink wink" may not have the best instinct for what constitutes age appropriate attire. Responding to criticism, A & F posted on Facebook this week  that "We've re-categorized the Ashley swimsuit as padded. We agree with those who say it is best 'suited' for girls age 12 and older." Oh, well, then it's fine, because what 12-year-old doesn't need a padded bikini?

Furthermore, that "re-categorizing" of the swimsuit does not change what it is or does. Nor does it affect the Abercrombie girl's size chart, which starts at a height of 4-foot-8 and a 27 ½ bust -- about the dimensions of a 10-year-old. Abercrombie can call its line of triangle tops double yarmulkes if it likes; it can offer them to girls well into their high school years, but that doesn't do jack to change the fact it's still peddling padded, push-up tops for third-graders.

Yet in the midst of the controversy, those tops -- with come-hither names like Fallon and Sadie -- have found their share of defenders -- and for a surprising reason. "Its just padding! its a GOOD THING!" wrote one Facebook commenter, while another added, "I want the lining and the padded [sic] for my developing daughter, it keeps her looking appropriate!" Yet another spelled it out more directly: "BATHING SUITS HAVE PADS TO COVER NIPPLES." Yes, apparently this is your shopping conundrum, bathing suit-buying parents -- cleavage or beamers? Maybe Abercrombie is sexualizing your daughter, or maybe it's just modestly offering a protective layer between her budding breasts and the outside world.

Yet somehow other clothing brands manage to offer swimwear that doesn't scream "Little Girls Gone Wild." Old Navy's line this year is a collection of simple, colorful mix and match halters, tanks and bottoms.  L.L. Bean has its own typically preppy, decidedly unpadded outfits that look perfectly suited to sandcastle building. Even American Apparel, the standard bearer for inappropriate garb, offers basic, one-piece bathing suits. It's entirely possible to build beachwear for little girls that's cute and colorful and, yes, acknowledges and accommodates their growing, changing bodies without creating designs that somehow suggest a middle schooler ought to have bigger boobs -- or flatten out the suggestion of a nipple.

So why did Abercrombie then not opt to go that route? It's pretty simple. As Facebook commenter Renée Johnson pointed out, "If the bathing suit looks like it has breasts of it's [sic] own, it's going to make a young girl look more developed than she really is." And there's always a market for that, especially when today's tween in a ruffled A&F triangle top is tomorrow's credit-card-carrying mall shopper. And though Abercrombie may be hastily spinning the Ashley as "suited" to older girls, the company is still clearly plenty comfortable marketing its sexed-up image to very young ones. If you're not in the market for swimwear, you still can pick up a pair of "Cute Butt" yoga pants with the word "Abercrombie" festooned right across the ass. They start in children's size 8.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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