IT’S that time again. The headlines are in bloom. A little later than usual this year, but no less colourful than before. Yes, readers, it is “paedo bikini” season. A time for reporters and readers alike to get their knickers in a twist over the supposed sexualisation of girls by high-street clothing retailers.

This year it is New Look that stands accused. When The Sun ran its “PAEDO BIKINI” front page more than a decade ago, it was Primark. These stores won’t be the last to be put in the dock for swimwear-related offences. As long as there are clicks to be had for tabloid news sites and viewers to be riled up with Good Morning Britain “debates”, this particular moral panic will not go away.

Store spokespeople may try to point out that light padding or shaping is actually designed to protect the modesty of girls in the early stages of puberty, who might not wish to brave the pool or beach with their developing chests covered only by a flimsy blend of polyamide and elastane, but once the “paedo bikini” grenade has been launched it’s too late. What kind of person would defend such a garment? Only a highly suspect one. Down with this sort of thing! “What do we want?” “Flimsy swimsuits for pubescent girls!” “When do we want them?” “Spring/summer 2021!”

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In an ideal world, no nine-year-old girl would be self-conscious about wearing any type of swimsuit, and she certainly wouldn’t be hung up on comparing her body to those of others. But the average age for girls in the UK to start developing is 11, with the NHS defining “early puberty” (about which a GP should be consulted) as under eight for girls and under nine for boys. If stores are providing extra coverage for ages nine and over it’s because there is sometimes something to cover – and while of course padding should never be obligatory, it hardly seems fair to deny girls a choice. There will never be a shortage of itsy bitsy teeny weeny bikinis for them to choose from, after all.

Perceived lack of choice was part of the objection to an English headteacher’s request, reported earlier this week, for female pupils to wear “modesty shorts” under their dresses and skirts to avoid flashing their underwear when doing gymnastics in the playground. “While we do not want to give children messages that they are responsible for the actions of others, we cannot stand by while children’s actions may attract inappropriate attention from members of the public,” he wrote in a text to parents that was promptly shared on Facebook.

It’s hardly surprising that parents kicked up a stink. The most alarming thing about the proposal is that the headteacher implies dubious characters may be spending their time circling the school grounds watching the children play. If this is the case, the addition of shorts is hardly an appropriate response. Equally, telling girls to change their behaviour or how they dress to avoid negative attention or harassment from boys – as schools suggest with dispiriting regularity – is clearly completely wrong-headed.

But have we lost sight of the difference between oppression and gentle guidance, victim-blaming and practical solutions? Loose Women carried out a poll asking “Are modesty shorts for four-year-olds a good idea?” and the respondents were split almost exactly 50/50, with many of the “no” voters objecting more to the language than the basic principle.

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PART of the problem here is the Americanisation of language, which means phrases with a previously accepted meaning in the UK such as “protecting your modesty” have taken on more sinister connotations. In the United States – and in the language of high fashion – “modest dressing” for women doesn’t just mean adequate coverage of ones’s underwear, it implies neck-to-ankle coverage of a kind that complies with the demands of religious fundamentalists.

It’s not really credible to suggest that parents purchasing “cartwheel shorts”, or telling their young children that where possible we keep our pants covered in public, is part of a slippery slope that leads to mandatory hijabs or temple garments. A sensible balance must be struck between teaching children about “private parts” for their own protection and shaming them for performing a handstand. Hopefully most people grasp that it’s never appropriate to tell them a dirty old man might be watching.

When I was at primary school no-one got het up about the odd flash in the playground but the girls all wore cycling shorts under their netball skirts. One might ask why we didn’t simply wear shorts, but wouldn’t that just be a different sort of dress restriction to which some might object? The most competitive teams deployed a tactic whereby a teammate held the hem of the goalkeeper’s skirt to stop her from toppling into the goal shooter she was very closely marking.

My modest proposal is to keep the focus on letting girls (and boys) catch up on a year’s worth of lost opportunities to play, swim and socialise, and worry less about what they wear to do it.