Oh, my achy breaky heart, Billy Ray, what is going on? The pictures that appeared recently of the Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus's sister, Noah, have certainly stirred up a storm. The clothes that she has been spotted wearing are from the line launched by her best pal and fellow child star, Emily Grace Reaves, aged nine, which has attracted criticism in the US for being too similar to women's lingerie. This is not the first time Noah has caused a stir. She was shown posing on the red carpet at Jamie Lee Curtis's Halloween party wearing a short strappy dress and knee-high PVC boots. An outfit all black and purple; all the better to complement her berry lipstick and black eyeliner. It sounds like the average celebrity's bad stylist day, but the controversial part of this is that Noah is just 10 years old.
Noah's older sister, Miley, came in for her fair share of criticism as did their father, over a photo shoot for Vanity Fair in June 2008. Miley, then 15, posed topless for the photographer Annie Leibovitz wearing just a bed sheet to protect her modesty. It seems the Cyruses haven't learnt from the furore that caused, which led Miley to issue a press release apologising to her legions of fans. But it's not just the Hannah Montana crew who err on the controversial side of style. Just last week, the British glamour model Katie Price, aka Jordan, was criticised by her ex-husband, Peter Andre, for posting pictures of their two-year-old daughter on Facebook wearing lip gloss, eyeshadow and what appears to be her mother's false eyelashes. Andre was reported to be fuming, having previously objected to Price using hair straighteners on their daughter and dyeing their four-year-old son's hair blonde. And let's not forget the pictures of Suri Cruise wearing nail varnish at the age of two and this year tottering around in high heels.
It's fair to say that parents come under a lot of pressure from their daughters to allow them to dress a certain way. Cosmetics and clothes are marketed directly to young girls through children's magazines, plastered with pictures of their style icons Hannah Montana, Selena Gomez and the cast of High School Musical, and in shops. Even in the UAE, where we are spared the worst excesses of such displays of pre-pubescent girls dressed provocatively, there are opportunities for young girls to dress like, and do things previously reserved for, their mothers.
Nearly every nail bar in Abu Dhabi and Dubai offers a "princess" manicure or pedicure for girls as young as two. In Dubai, a children-only spa opened four months ago. Here, young girls are offered manicures and pedicures as well as facials and makeovers. Although the nail polishes used are non-toxic and water-based, is the message these little girls receiving really so harmless? Dr Roghy McCarthy, a clinical psychologist at the Counselling and Development Clinic in Dubai, says that young girls who habitually leave the house wearing make-up and adult-style clothes are missing out on opportunities to play what psychologists refer to as "symbolic games" or pretend play. "Children used to take a little bit of Mummy's make-up to play with, but they knew it was pretend games, trying to be like Mummy. But now it has become real," says McCarthy. "It's not: 'I want to be like my mum', it is now 'I am like Mum'."
Symbolic games are important, McCarthy says, because "it teaches them to understand and empathise being like someone else. When a child takes a doll in their arms and rocks it like Mummy, this imitation helps them develop and become a normal adult in society. If children miss out on this, there can be serious communication and adjustment problems." She is particularly worried by the messages that young girls send out, albeit unwittingly, by wearing such provocative clothes. "Parents are pushing sexuality without realising the consequences. They are putting innocent children in a dangerous situation, making them more vulnerable," McCarthy warns.
She adds that she sees increasing numbers of children suffering from anxiety. "I see a lot of children with low self-esteem, who are anxious about being accepted by others and who are being bullied." A lot of that bullying relates to girls who are picked on for not being up to date with the latest trends, McCarthy says. "There are girls as young as eight or nine who are bullied at school for not following the fashion, for not going to the nail parlour and buying the right clothes."
Kristy Warneford, an Australian who lives with her family in Abu Dhabi, has two daughters, aged seven and three. She thinks parents need to acknowledge responsibility for what their children wear, but at the same time should be cut some slack to adjust to the realities of modern life. "You have to look at it in the context of how we live. When it's really hot, we take them to play centres and to mani-pedi places. It really is a lesser evil; they're not wearing fishnets and long boots."
There's no point hankering after some 1950s ideal, Warneford says "The days of floral pinafores and traipsing through fields of daisies are not realistic and not going to be recaptured. You've got to move with the times. My daughter likes to wear skinny jeans and rock 'n' roll T-shirts. It's an expression of who she is and what she likes. As long as she's not going out in lairy gear, I don't mind."
The companies selling children's cosmetics and scaled-down adult clothes are playing on young girls' desires to be like Mummy. But ultimately, the companies' goals are sales. As parents, our goals are to protect our children and enable them to grow into healthy and balanced adults. As McCarthy says: "If you do all these things by the time you are 18, then what are you going to do when you are in your twenties?"