By Jennifer O’Connell
The British entrepreneur, Duncan Bannatyne, is in hot water over revelations that the chain of beauty salons he owns is offering leg waxing to 13-year-olds.
Parents posting on internet chat rooms are outraged that the Dragon’s Den star appears to be encouraging teenagers to “waste time and money removing perfectly normal body hair”. The founder of the influential chat forum Mumsnet, Justine Roberts, told one newspaper: “You'd hope there would be a longer period of grace for girls to be girls and not obsess about being hairless.”
That is a lot of idealistic nonsense.
And I should know - I first got my legs waxed at 13.
In a perfect world, as Roberts says, you would hope that young girls could remain ignorant of the joys of waxing rash and ingrown hairs for longer.
But I’m guessing that for Roberts to be able to say that, she can’t have been a particularly hirsute teenager.
As an adolescent who might kindly have been described as flocculent, however, I applaud him.
My period of fuzz-free grace ended the second puberty exploded into my life. By the time I was 13, I had legs that would have looked good teamed with a pair of football shorts and boots, and enough hair on my arms to ensure that sleeves were an unnecessary luxury in winter.
My bristly limbs were a constant source of teasing in the playground, and it made me self-conscious, embarrassed and miserable.
I gave up wearing shorts and skirts in the summer, and mooched around, hot and unhappy, in jeans, until my mother could take it no more.
A card-carrying feminist and a responsible parent, she nonetheless decided that she couldn’t stand by and watch my ill-fated experiments with family sized tubs of Jolen bleach, my father’s razor, or the toe-curlingly painful prehistoric grooming machine known as the Epilady.
Wisely, she decided that if I was determined to do something about my body hair, waxing was the way to go. And so she booked me into a local salon and handed me two Disprin.
I wasn’t emotionally scarred by that first waxing experience, or any of the dozens I had throughout my teenage years. I didn’t develop a cosmetic surgery habit or fall prey to body image issues – on the contrary, I felt much better about myself when I discovered that the main source of my insecurity could be dealt with in half an hour on the beautician’s table.
The row between Bannatyne and Roberts is just the latest in a long line of controversies surrounding what young girls do with, or wear on, their bodies.
It’s such a heated issue that no fewer than four separate reports have been commissioned in the UK in the past ten years into what’s being called ‘corporate paedophilia’ – the marketing of prematurely sexualising clothes and accessories to children.
Acres of column inches have been devoted to worrying over the sale of padded bras and heels to children, or claims that mothers were taking little girls for spray tans in advance of their first communion.
I can’t help feeling that it’s slightly creepy – and not indicative of a particularly healthy society - this newfound obsession with little girls and their bodies.
Despite all the newspaper reports dedicated to bemoaning the sexualisation of children, I don’t see much evidence of it. In fact, I’m not convinced little girls have changed all that profoundly since I was one.
Back then, we were just as interested in identifying and mimicking what grown-ups said, did, and wore. We pranced about the house in our mother’s lipstick and high heels; the only difference today is that it’s more likely to be their own lipstick and high heels, and they might actually leave the house dressed like that too.
Yes, some adolescents dress in a manner and listen to music with lyrics that occasionally causes me to choke on my Ovaltine – but what generation hasn’t been shocked by the dress sense and musical taste of the one that came after it?
I don’t think little girls are the problem. I think the problem is with the rest of us.
It’s as though we’ve been so rocked by the child abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and recent high profile cases of child abductions, that we no longer trust other adults to know how to behave when confronted with an eight-year-old in a sparkly pink t-shirt.
And so what started out as a well-intentioned drive to improve child-protection measures has become a hysterical overreaction to the merest hint that children are, in fact, nascent adults, and future sexual beings.
The suspicion that this is all a bit of a storm in a double A cup is borne out by a report carried out by the Scottish parliament into the sexualisation of children on the high street.
The team of researchers commissioned to look into the problem found…well, not very much at all. “While there are undoubtedly some “sexualised” goods aimed at children, there are relatively few of them, and their availability is limited,” it concluded.
The bottom line is that while you might not like your six-year-old acquiring a wardrobe made up of more pink than you’d find in the entire Mattel factory, or while you might prefer your thirteen year old not to wax, that’s a question of taste rather than one of actual harm.
Actual harm is what you do to your child if you force her to endure years of mockery over a cosmetic problem that could be remedied with 20 minutes and the price of a coffee and sandwich.
In my experience, if there is a pressure on children, it’s less about prematurely sexualising them, and more about encouraging in them the notion that they must conform to a single body type.
I was shopping in Gap recently and came across a pair of jeans for 3-year-olds marketed under the label ‘Mini Skinny’.
Give me a preteen waxing habit any day.
This column first appeared in the Irish Independent Weekend magazine on October 15, 2011