Why even wait? On John Lewis’s toddler bras

Update to this post – John Lewis have tweeted this:

So it looks like we may not be at that stage just yet …

2014-12-09 22_59_36-Buy John Lewis Girl Vintage Floral Bras, Pack of 2, Multi _ John Lewis

John Lewis are selling Vintage Floral bras at £8 for two. It sounds a total bargain, right? Unfortunately they don’t have any in my size. It’s not the usual hassle, where all the nice ranges stop at a C cup. In this case, the problem is age. I’m 39 and this particular range only goes from ages 2 to 5.

I find the whole thing incredibly depressing, and not just due to the obviously creepy aspect of it (who buys a bra for their toddler? And why?). I’m saddened because it cuts into that brief time when girls have bodies that are just bodies and starts to tell them, ever so subtly, what their true value will be. To be treated like a person with breasts is bad enough; to be treated as such long before you’ve even got there is worse.

Feminists have long identified the onset of puberty (the time when you’d usually get your first bra) as a particular flashpoint for girls. Suddenly you’re no longer “a child” – a mini human – but someone whose humanity will always be in question. This shift from unisex person to female object can happen quickly, and cause a great deal of distress (even for girls for whom the onset of menstruation doesn’t mean forced marriage and/or withdrawal from formal education). Growing breasts means becoming fair game, someone who is believed to have put herself on the market simply by existing. You might have no choice in the matter, but still you will be held accountable for the responses your body provokes.

In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf describes the first girl in her class to get breasts: “Since no one else looked like the class slut, she was given the position, and she soon capitulated”. It is not something a girl does, but something that is done to her. Wolf herself found a different solution:

Anorexia was the only way I could see to keep the dignity in my body that I had had as a kid, and that I would lose as a woman. It was the only choice that really looked like one: By refusing to put on a woman’s body and receive a rating, I chose not to have all my future choices confined to little things, and not to have the choices made for me, on the basis of something meaningless to me, in the larger things.

I can identify with both of these tortured paths. An early developer, one of the first girls to wear a bra, I soon realised I didn’t like this role, so I regressed and put puberty on hold until my early twenties. Of course this was not a conscious decision. I didn’t know what, if anything, I was gaining from this, at least not until I lost it and became a piece of meat again. As Wolf notes, although the human cost is too high, there is an extent to which anorexia works:

Not only does it solve the dilemma of the young woman faced with the hunger cult, it also protects her from street harassment and sexual coercion; construction workers leave walking skeletons alone. Having no fat means having no breasts, thighs, hips, or ass, which for once means not having asked for it. Women’s magazines tell women they can control their bodies; but women’s experiences of sexual harassment make them feel they cannot control what their bodies are said to provoke.

Going from 28AA to 34F in the space of a year made this more than apparent to me. The more flesh I had, the more exposed I felt, and the more I felt coerced into playing a particular role. The big-breasted woman isn’t thoughtful, quiet, self-contained; she is obvious, brash and available. My body had become an advert for something I wasn’t and I didn’t know what to do other than go along with it. I still feel stuck with this not-me body now.

That there is a time before all this – when a girl might see her body as just that, hers, and not some alienating object – is precious. To speed up the process of objectification and alienation – to dress up breasts that don’t yet exist – is needless and cruel. We treat grown women as sexualised objects; we don’t need to start treating tiny girls as sexualised objects in the making. There is nothing inherently wrong with a female body – nothing at all – but few things say “the flesh and blood person doesn’t matter” like taking a bra away from its actual purpose, so that the difference between breast bearer and potential breast bearer is erased (who cares? It’s not for your personal benefit. It’s just a statement about what you are beneath the male gaze).

John Lewis claim that their toddler bras “provide lasting comfort”. I guess that comes from the fact that there’s no underwiring (not to mention no breasts to support). But there’s nothing comforting in being marked out, from age two, as “one of the people who will, at some point, grow a pair of tits and hence no longer be viewed as herself”.