Underwear, Discernment, and Truly Bright Young Things

No one should be surprised that Victoria’s Secret is now targeting “tweens” with their new Bright Young Things line. In our market culture, it no longer feels all that wrong for our preteens to don underwear (yes, I use that antiquated term intentionally) that draws attention to their private parts (that ancient phrase is intentional, too) with exaggerated cuts and printed suggestions. Columbus, Ohio, takes a step closer to Bangkok, Thailand. We’re just more understated about it all.

Addressing this phenomenon, BusinessWeek quotes Jennifer Foyle, senior VP of global merchandising for the American Eagle Aerie intimates brand. “We really use the word ‘pretty’ more than ‘sexy’—that’s really not the Aerie girl.” With the public outcry against sex trafficking of young girls, at least a vestige of conscience steers us away from calling little girls “sexy.” But it’s a thin veneer when the market simply prepares them for what’s coming.

This dulling of our sensibilities is driven by a host of factors, not least of which is economic. Such marketing to younger demographics to secure customer loyalty in their later years has been called “gateway marketing.” If you can get them hooked on your brand at 12, you have a source to tap for the next decade.

I’ve realized as the father of three daughters that the gateway marketing actually occurs much earlier. It’s not sexual in nature, so it’s easy to miss. But the basic principle of marketing to create desire and promise fulfillment is behind everything from Dream Lights to Club Tabby. Our children, boys and girls, have their affections trained from an early age to respond to the regular cycle of new product lines. So long before our girls come to the age when crude underwear could possibly appeal to them, their impulses have been trained to respond to the latest marketing promise.

Coming of Age

But I refuse to fear my daughters’ coming of age. Not because the dark appeals to them will get any lighter, but because I am confident God can make them truly bright young things. I can pray for and work toward what Paul does for his spiritual children in Philippi: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (1:9).

Christian parents pray desperately for both their daughters and also their sons to have this discernment to approve what is excellent in God’s eyes. Paul knew only God could ultimately provide this discernment, and that is why he prayed. But he also knew it was something he had to teach, and that is why he wrote the rest of the letter.

Paul taught what he prayed for. He instructed them how to discern what was pleasing to God in their conduct (1:27), in their relationships (2:3-4), in their attitudes (2:14-15), in the things they listen to (3:2), in their sense of self (3:4-8), in the people they want to be like (3:17-21), in what they worry about (4:4-7), in what they think about (4:8-10), and in what they find contentment in (4:11-13).

Pray and Teach

Paul demonstrates that it is necessary for parents to put legs to their prayers by actively teaching discernment to their children. This training, of course, can only attain its ultimate purpose when a heart really wants righteousness, a product of saving faith alone. But regardless of a child’s spiritual condition, parents must lay a framework for discerning truth from error.

In the market of desire, this is a dynamic task. Parents need to both protect their children from exposure to those things that stir their desires as well as train them to stand against them when they come. We are doing primarily the former in their early years. As they grow, we can do more of the latter. I can think of a few ways these two principles may be applied, none of which I received as some midnight revelation from God:

Avoid exposure to things that stir desire. Negatively, it’s best to avoid commercials altogether. I have found my children are far more content when not barraged with why they shouldn’t be. We must also think carefully about the value systems being presented in the shows they watch. What promises of joy or fulfillment are implied in that narrative worldview? Sitting kids indiscriminately in front of a TV or computer might be the best way to undermine discernment. Also consider avoiding certain stores or departments that more nakedly appeal to kids’ impulses. Positively, we want them to experience the truer forms of satisfaction that marketing cannot deliver: the sense of accomplishment from hard work, the reward of serving others, and the joy of engaging relationally. These are better pointers to the satisfaction of knowing God.

Expose them enough to train them to examine things biblically. As our children grow, we want to expose them to enough of the virus that their bodies might develop resistance. The key here is that parents accompany them in these exposures. Simply loosening up standards as they get older is not teaching discernment. Instead, they’ll need to be instructed in real time through well-placed questions and careful consideration of Scripture within the complex situations of life. Wise parents will manage the complexity of those situations as much as possible for the sake of the child not being thrown into the deep end too quickly. This takes time, effort, and no small amount of courage in the face of resistance. But most of all, it requires parents themselves to be pursuing the ability to discern what is pleasing to God through the knowledge of his Word.

We want our children to have a cynical eye to the messages they’re hearing about what is valuable. Marketing only works if a person is inclined to believe it. If our daughters, and our sons, are inclined to believe it generally, then we should not be surprised that they’d fall for it in the specific things we find most crude.

Again, only genuine love for God will spare them from the love of the world (1 John 2:15-17). But parents are called both to shield them from and also train them to resist the world’s strongest beckonings. And God often uses this labor to make children into truly bright young things that “shine as lights in the world” (Phil 2:15).

  • Melody

    I would be a little wary of avoiding things that stir desire. All the kids I knew who were “protected” that way when they were young were also the kids who went crazy after high school. They didn’t learn how to deal with those messages when they were young and they didn’t magically get a backbone with their diploma.

    My parents protected me in age appropriate ways, but as I got older that looked a lot less like shielding me from certain images or voices and a lot more like talking through those things. What they meant, how they conflicted with the Bible.

    My siblings and I tease our parents that we couldn’t watch a tv show without discussing what the world view of the writers was.

    We’re all grown up now and we’re all strong Christians. It’s not because we never encounter things that stir negative desires, it’s because we’re equipped for when we do.

    • Caleb W

      Great comment, Melody. I observed the same things in my overprotected peers.

  • Robert

    What’s the evidence that Victoria’s Secret is marketing to tweens? They have publicly denied it:


  • Lori

    Victoria’s Secret is not marketing to tweens. “Bright Young Things” is the name of an ad campaign for their Pink line, which is marketed to teens. If you look at the actual ad–which discusses the clothing as perfect for spring break–it’s clear that it’s for a line of clothing and underwear aimed at college-age women. There is no new line of underwear coming out.

    Now, Victoria’s Secret has admitted that they know that, by aiming a line at college-age women, teen girls will be interested in it. They admit that they want 15 and 16yo customers (how many companies don’t?) and that they will attract them when they market to college women, because those are the women that teen girls want to look like. But they are not marketing their underwear to tweens or expecting tweens to buy these products.

    The underwear with the words on it are silly and demeaning and, sure, it would be nice to live in world where nobody would either manufacture or buy such things. But, there is a difference between marketing sexy underwear to prepubescent children and having post-pubescent teen customers of a line marketed to college women.

    For these 15 and 16yos, sexual desire has already been awakened: that’s what puberty does. The question is how you help your teens to understand and deal with that desire. And, honestly, I don’t see any biblical mandates about what kind of underwear women should wear. There’s certainly things in that line I wouldn’t allow a teen daughter of mine to wear (like underwear with lewd innuendos), but there are other things where it would really depend on her reasons. Is she trying to attract male attention through what she’s wearing, or arouse male desire? In that case, the problem isn’t the clothing, it’s the motivation, and we’d need to deal with that. Is she concerned about fitting in with the other girls in the locker room? We could address feeling like you need to fit in and maybe also find things for her to wear that we felt were appropriate but didn’t make her feel embarrassed or uncomfortable when she was changing before gym class. Or does she enjoy wearing frilly, feminine, fancy things? If that’s all it comes down to, I’m not sure a teenager wearing underwear that fits that description is really a problem.

    • Lori

      Correction: Their Pink line is directly marketed to college women, and they acknowledge that teen girls are also part of their intended market for it.

  • http://thenface2face.wordpress.com Karen Butler

    If they are not marketing to tweens, then why are the undies sized to fit a ten year old? And why was Justin Bieber hired to launch the line a year ago?

    “…directly marketed to college women?” Really?

    I don’t think there are too many anorexic college women with ‘Bieber Fever.’

  • JohnM

    What does Bangkok have to do with it?

    • Tom

      Bangkok is known for being a sex-saturated environment–oftentimes with children involved.

  • Darren Blair

    As an MBA with a specialization in marketing?

    For all intents and purposes, marketing is applied psychological warfare. The goal is to get people to perform a certain action. Marketing of all sorts takes place in our daily lives without most people even knowing it. In fact, this article could be construed as marketing in that the author is trying to sell people on the notion that action must be taking.

    That being said –

    One of the easiest ways to avoid being suckered in by marketing is to become an educated consumer. Even learning the basics of how marketing works and the product / service being offered can help a person defend themselves against what’s going on.

    For example, you know how a lot of bars offer free peanuts and other salty snacks? It’s called a “loss leader” – the loss the owner takes on the product is counter-balanced by it spurring greater sales elsewhere. In this case, when a person consumes large quantities of salty products, the natural human reaction is to want something to drink. In a bar, that means increased alcohol sales… especially if you’re using mixed drinks and cocktails to satiate your thirst, which offer rather big profit margins. A person could easily avoid this trap by not eating any food at the bar itself, but if they’re there with others then they run into the peer pressure to eat. Gotcha.

    So how does this help your kids?

    If you’re worried that your children will fall for whatever they see advertised, then it’s your job to be a parent. Watch some of their favorite television shows and movies with them. Listen to some of the songs they listen to. Read the books they’re reading. Not only will you have a good idea of what media messages they are receiving, your children will likely come to believe that you’re legitimately interested in their lives. Both your knowledge and your children’s new-found esteem for you will give you an advantage when it comes time to sit them down for a polite yet firm talk about not just advertising in general but also what media in total they happen to be consuming.

    It will take a fair amount of time to accomplish, but it will be time well-spent.

  • http://becomingchao.blogspot.com Colleen Chao

    Thank you for your call to trust God and diligently equip our children for the world He has placed them in. “But I refuse to fear my daughters’ coming of age.” Amen and amen!

    Regardless of what Victoria’s Secret is doing, your words resonate with this mama’s heart and have pointed me back to Christ tonight. Thank you!

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  • VA

    11 year old girls may be “bright” and “young,” but they definitely aren’t “things.” I can’t understand how this whole campaign doesn’t have VS scrambling to correct such an outrageous ethical and marketing flub.

  • Anon

    RE: sheltering; I am a teenage minister’s daughter, and I find that oversheltering generally does give bad results, as Melody pointed out. The question is, then, what IS oversheltering? My parent were very sheltering with certain parts of my life and, because of that, I didn’t really know how to deal with a lot of things I was feeling. We are not a family that shows much loving emotion and growing up that has been horrible for me and it has pushed me into things I wish I never had been pushed into at a very young age. I am now free of those things, but the fact is that not talking to your children about things and simply keeping them away from the world isn’t going to do them much good, as as soon as they are free they will immediately want to see what was so wrong about these things that they were kept from them.
    RE: underwear; I have a few Christian friends who buys their underwear exclusively at VS(though since the build quality of the underwear’s gone down quite considerably they’re thinking of changing). And pretty much all my Christian wear nice underwear. It’s not all flirty innuendo laden bottoms; they all like to buy nice underwear because (as every lady knows) cheap bras usually don’t fit well and are therefore uncomfortable to wear and can cause all sorts of problems. Also, it’s just about confidence- not confidence in attracting me, etc; but just feeling comfortable both physically and mentally in yourself. While looks are certainly not everything and we should not be focusing on them or making them an idol, sometimes it’s nice to get dressed up and think you look good and to celebrate what God has given you. That’s what I think on the matter, at least.

    • Autumn

      I am pretty sure it is possible to intelligently comment on this article without discussing details of our own undergarments… Or our friends undergarments…. Kind of TMI….. :) That being said….. I don’t think anyone should be giving VS the benefit of the doubt…. They are a shamefully sex driven company that promotes soft core porn in their magazines, billboard type store posters, and their yearly ” fashion show” aka ogle fest. So I don’t doubt for a minute that they would love to have Tweens buying their stuff….. Ultimately the responsibility lies with the parents who would allow their child to purchase and wear any of this nonsense!

  • Anon too

    Anon – I was a sheltered ministry kid – no T.V., no going to movies, no rock music , no tight jeans, and not so much love. And the consequences were as you describe – I grew up starved for love, and willing to use anything the world offered to get it (not realizing in my ignorance that was they were selling was a corrupted, toxic love that was actually fatal). In God’s goodness, not only did He save and being teaching me what real love is, he gave me three daughters of my own, not just to teach, but to learn along with them what I didn’t learn growing up, about what it means to have a body made in God’s image, to display- as a woman – some of the most profound and staggeringly beautiful things about the character of God.

    Now that I have moved from being in your shoes to being in your parents, here’s what I’ve learned –

    Parenting is brutally hard. We know what the world is like. We carry our own scars from getting burned by it. We would die to protect our daughters from those scars.

    And we forget that can’t protect them from something far more dangerous than the world -their own hearts. And we forget that we don’t need to, because someone already bore those scars Himself on the cross. And because that Someone is alive, He is the one who has the power to protect our girls’ hearts, by giving them new ones. When He gives you His Heart and His name, so that you know with certainty that you are loved the same way God loves Him, then your outward appearance (or appearance under your outward appearance :) ) gets oriented properly. Note that I don’t say it doesn’t matter – when you’re the beloved daughter of the King of the Universe, you have His reputation to consider! But it matters in the right way.

    Praying for you and your parents to be confident that God can be trusted, and to seek His heart as He works in yours.

  • Anna

    I grew up in a very protected family environment, too. We didn’t have a television, got most of our clothes from garage sales and goodwill, and drove junky cars. I never went to school dances (until prom my junior and senior years of high school). I’m the oldest of 6, but none of us went off the deep end or rebelled. We’re a close, loving family, and we all have very strong opinions about right and wrong. My parents lived in a way that showed that they didn’t care much about what the rest of the world thought of them, and because they were authentic in that way, all of their children learned to be that way as well. No, we’re not perfect. We have lots of faults, too, and my parents did do things wrong, but we were accepted, loved, and modeled what it meant to be authentic. If your children only are taught rules, without you modeling what your teaching and showing love and acceptance even when they fail, then, yeah, they probably are going to chase after worldly love and acceptance. Likewise, if you’re not teaching your children what it means to hate the world, to be different, and to live as aliens and strangers, than don’t be surprised when the idols of comfort, safety, health, and security rule their lives someday.

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