A major British clothing retailer withdrew a children's bathing suit from sale Wednesday after a front-page tabloid story criticized the store for selling padded bras on bikinis aimed at 7-year-olds.
The bikinis also angered children's advocates and top candidates in Britain's upcoming national election, who say it was yet another product that sexualizes children and encourages them to grow up too fast.
"It's a shame it was ever put on the shelves in the first place," said Justine Roberts, founder of the Mumsnet, a parenting Web site that attracts a large, vocal audience. She nonetheless praised the decision to pull the bathing suit from the shelves.
Primark, a popular discount chain, is not the first retailer to draw criticism for offering padded bras for kids younger than 10. But the outcry of protest is prompting a growing number of companies to pledge support for Mumsnet's "Let Girls Be Girls" campaign.
The popular online forum said such clothing indoctrinates the idea that sexiness is the most important quality for girls and "encourages a culture in which children are viewed as sexually available."
Announcing the immediate withdrawal of the product, Primark promised to donate any profits already earned from the item to a children's charity. The product line, it added, "sells in relatively small quantities."
The retailer acted within hours of a front-page article in The Sun denouncing the product as a "paedo (pedophile) bikini." Politicians swiftly joined the clamor.
"Completely disgraceful," Conservative Party leader David Cameron said of the bikini. "The sort of country I want is one where it is not just the government (that) feels outraged about the early commercialization and sexualization of our children, but companies should stop doing it, they should take some responsibility."
Primark refused to discuss the bikini's padding but a source familiar with the product said the extra fabric was designed to preserve a girl's modesty and prevent any signs of a developing breast from showing through. She spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
There has long been a global concern that products and images may encourage the sexualization of children or direct sexual abuse at them. Barbie dolls have often been criticized for being unrealistically curvaceous. Teenage Disney star Miley Cyrus' bareback picture for Vanity Fair magazine was slammed for being too sexualized, as was 15-year-old Brooke Shields' ad for Calvin Klein jeans in which she said: "You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing."
The American Psychological Association, in a 2007 report on the sexualization of girls, raised concerns about other ad campaigns, such as Skechers' "naughty and nice" ad in 2004 featuring Christina Aguilera dressed as a pigtailed, lollipop-licking schoolgirl. The association also fretted about thongs for 7- to 10-year-olds with slogans such as "wink wink."
"If girls purchase — or ask their parents to purchase — products and clothes designed to make them look physically appealing and sexy, and if they style their identities after the sexy celebrities who populate their cultural landscape, they are, in effect, sexualizing themselves," the report said.
Researchers such as Penny Nicholls of The Children's Society, a British charity, say their studies show that commercial pressures toward premature sexualization and unprincipled advertising damage children's well-being.
"The evidence shows that adults feel children are more materialistic than in past generations, while children themselves feel under pressure to keep up with the latest trends," Nicholls said. "We need a significant change at the heart of society where adults stand up for better values."
A British government-commissioned report in February on the sexualization of young people called for retailers and parents' groups to jointly set guidelines for what is appropriate for different age groups.
"By over-emphasizing their sexuality through fashion, it may make it harder for girls to value themselves for other aspects of their identity," the report by psychologist Linda Papadopoulos said.
Primark, owned by Associated British Foods, has 138 stores in the United Kingdom, 38 Penneys stores in Ireland and shops in Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium. The Penneys stories in Ireland have no relationship to JC Penney stores.