Nothing about the Witchery images recognises that children are anything other than miniaturised adults. The images invite you to ‘read’ the children as adults
It’s always a pleasure to publish the work of Dr Emma Rush. A lecturer in ethics at Charles Sturt University, Emma is lead author of two significant reports on the sexualisation of children, published by the Australia Institute. She is also a contributor to Getting Real: Challenging the sexualisation of children.
Closing down the cultural space that allows children to be children
A child is not a miniature adult. They are not a fashion accessory. They are a developing human being and need the cultural space to be just that. Yet we are now seeing constant marketing of adult appearance culture to children, as in, for example, the latest ads for the Witchery Kids brand. The Witchery Kids campaign is simply one particularly sophisticated example of corporations functioning to close down that cultural space for kids to be kids, with resulting ‘appearance anxiety’ for children during a period in their lives when they need the space to develop into their own person.
The wording of the new Witchery Kids campaign, ‘We believe that fun and imagination are the centre of every child’s universe’, is not reflected in the marketing images. Not one of the children in the images is smiling and it would be stretching it to say that even three of them are engaged in imaginative activities
This campaign needs to be seen in context. Four years have elapsed since the release of the landmark Australia Institute paper Corporate Paedophilia: Sexualisation of Children in Australia . This paper criticised the sexualisation of children in marketing images (among related issues) and provoked considerable public debate, ultimately leading to a Senate Inquiry into the Sexualisation of Children in the Contemporary Media .
Over the same period, confirmation of the risks of sexualising children has come from major reports by psychologists in the United States and United Kingdom (Papadopoulos, 2010).
So put yourself in the position of an advertiser. They have to push the boundaries to get attention, but they don’t want to attract a backlash like the one seen four years ago… so this is the result. The public don’t like sexualisation? Let’s try adultification instead.
Nothing about the campaign images recognises that children are anything other than miniaturised adults. You could replace the children in the images with adults and nothing would appear odd. The images invite you to ‘read’ the children as adults.
But what is really creepy is that the campaign ties into the child-as-fashion-accessory-for-the-parent’ trend, encapsulated in the expression ‘mini-me’. To all who see children in this way, I say children are not “a reflection of the adult’s personal style”, as the celebrity blogger on the Witchery Kids website says. Is there an expert out there who can explain to me how such colossal egoism can be compatible with effective parenting?
So I’ve coined a new definition of adultification: pressure put on children to prematurely adopt narrow and stereotypical forms of adult appearance and behaviour. ‘This is the way kids should look. This is the way kids should behave.’ This is about making money with scant respect for anything else. Give us a break.
The risks of adultifying children are similar to those of sexualising them, but sometimes not as obvious.
If children are vulnerable to self-image concerns, these may develop over time into self-objectification, that is, experiencing one’s body as an object. Psychological research suggests this detracts from both cognitive and physical performance.
We all recognise this in our daily lives: the child (or adult) who is overly focussed on their appearance will not be fully attentive to other things in their lives. This is of particular concern in childhood while the brain is still developing.
Even without the fully blown consequences of self-objectification, time and energy spent on conforming to adultified stereotypes may distract children from the important tasks of developing skills (physical, creative, intellectual) and relationships that provide a real foundation for rewarding teen and adult years. Think playing sports, climbing trees, making music, making art, reading, developing technological capacities – and developing caring relationships.
Well, no. The world is so much bigger than that. That kind of limited self-understanding leaves children very vulnerable to the opinions of others. Children, just like adults, need a self-understanding based on substance rather than style.
Of course the Witchery Kids campaign will not cause such limited self-understanding by itself. It doesn’t need to. It’s just part of the constant corporate dripping that wears away the stone of a sane and healthy human life. We can’t just cut children off from the broader culture. Parents can’t do that and they shouldn’t have to.
We need a broader culture that doesn’t undermine children’s healthy development. Advertisers and marketers need to stop seeing children as fodder for their campaigns. In suggesting children are older and more knowing than they really are, Witchery has sent a harmful message. They need to be reminded that children are not smaller versions of adults.
Read more by Emma Rush: ‘Making children vulnerable to sexual danger and harm’; ‘The market is eating our children’