Young girls should not be shamed for dressing like "tarts" and "hookers" because this is how society is teaching them to dress, an Australian academic argues.
In an era when 10-year-olds model for Paris Vogue and a Canadian business offers "Little Spinners" pole dancing classes, Dr Michelle Smith says notions of promiscuity and empowerment are more contradictory than ever.
In a speech yesterday Smith, from Melbourne University, said girls "are branded "tarts" and "hookers" for dressing in a way that reveals their bodies, but are immersed in popular culture that presents being sexy and sexually available as the foremost qualities of the ideal woman."
Film, television, advertising, magazines and the internet are all to blame, Smith said.
Retailer Target recently endured a storm of criticism across the Tasman on social media after the mother of an 8-year-old girl criticised its range of clothes.
"Dear Target," school teacher Ana Amini wrote, "Could you possibly make a range of clothing for girls 7-14 years that doesn't make them look like tramps ... You have lost me as a customer when buying apparel for my daughter as I don't want her thinking shorts up her backside are the norm or fashionable."
In the Victorian era, girlhood was treated as a distinct stage between childhood and womanhood.
"Being a girl meant being in a state of transition," Smith said, and the media largely reinforced this idea.
However, in 2012 she says girls are held to a 19th century standard of sexual innocence while living in a culture that emphasises the need to be sexy.
"There is not a sphere of life where being sexy is not the ultimate achievement of a woman, nor a place where how she looks is not the most important thing about her," she said.
The result was a paradox.
"Being sexy is sold as the path to "empowerment", but also one that only "tramps" and "hookers" choose to take."
Smith concluded "we shouldn't shame (girls) if they try to emulate what our culture tells them is most valuable."
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