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REAL LIFE

Advertising the Wrong--and Right--Image of Childhood

February 25, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They look like caricatures of grown-ups--sexy grown-ups; rich, sophisticated grown-ups; silly grown-ups on vacation in Waikiki. But really, they're just kids promoting JCPenney's spring and summer "retro-chic" children's line.

They're cute, in that twisted sort of way that has come to pervade the marketing of clothing and cosmetics and triggers an insidious merging of childhood and adulthood--especially for girls.

In this case, the boys pose in baggy T-shirts, while the girls wear bathing suits and pose in S-shaped curves. A girl toddler strikes a cheesecake pose while a boy toddler takes her picture.

According to Penney publicist Robbie Ellis, the ads are nothing more than kids dressing up. "Didn't you play dress up when you were young?" she asked.

When I was young, childhood was a different experience altogether. Children were considered separate from adults. No one I knew had sex in the seventh grade. No one had heard of designer jeans or blow-dryers.

The concept of childhood came into existence slowly after the Middle Ages, a time when children dressed like adults. Over the past few decades, the pendulum has started to swing back. "We've come full circle, back to children being pictured as little adults," said Mary Pipher, an anthropologist and psychologist who, in her popular book "Reviving Ophelia," describes how mass culture has affected the mental health of young girls.

JCPenney is not Calvin Klein, but any blurring of the distinction between children and adults can be a dangerous contribution to the trend, she said.

"One of the sad things about this is the message it sends to parents and young girls that what's important about a 7- or 10-year-old girl is her appearance, how expensive her clothes are, how attractive and sexy she is. I think it's a dead wrong message to send. What's important is, in fact, everything else. Her character, her interests, her talents."

In her research, Pipher has found girls as young as 5 who are preoccupied with dieting. By sixth grade, she said, 79% of girls say they want to be thinner.

One of the problems with ads such as JCPenney's, said Seattle sociologist Pepper Schwartz, is that young girls start early on to compare themselves to adult standards of attractiveness and worthiness so far removed from their own physical development.

Schwartz has an 11-year-old daughter who wants to wear sexy tube tops. The girl is old enough to know why it's cool. But, Schwartz said, "She doesn't understand the consequences of masquerading like an older girl."

One of the consequences is that girls who dress like adults attract boys or men looking for companions who mistakenly think young girls are in the ballpark. Schwartz said she asked her daughter, "Do you want little boys to grab and kiss you?

"She said, 'Oh, mother.' "

Schwartz urged parents to just say no when their children beg for clothes that are too old for them.

Pipher advised parents to boycott products that are advertised in ways that are harmful to children.

Corporations can use alternative images to sell their products, and some do. Nike commercials stress what girls can achieve if they are allowed to participate in sports. Timberland boot ads show the contributions of ordinary young men and women.

In addition, Pipher said, consumer protection legislation could prohibit certain kinds of marketing to young children.

"I'd like to restack the deck so advertisers give children a decent set of guidelines about what's heroic and what's important," she said.

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