July 3, 2005

Bras designed for girls growing up fast

By Rasha Elass

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As parents lament that children growup too quickly, lingerie companies are spotting an opportunityto market bras especially for younger girls.

Companies like Sara Lee Corp., whose brands includeBali, Hanes Her Way and Playtex, and privately held MaidenformInc. have made a major investment in this area in the past fewyears.

Indeed, some large department stores have started to traintheir employees that one of their responsibilities will involvebra fittings for "first timers."

"They're either so shy and embarrassed that they'd ratherbe anywhere but in (the intimate apparel) department, orthey're so proud and enthused about being a grown-up that theychoose something totally inappropriate," said Beverley Hinkson,national bra fitting specialist at JC Penney .

Hinkson, who has been fitting customers with bras andtraining sales associates to do the same for the past eightyears, said first-time customers are coming in at increasinglyyounger ages.

"It's usually their mother's idea to come in for afitting," she added.

Indeed, some girls as young as 6 are starting to developbreasts, said Iris Prager, who has a Ph.D. in health educationand oversees the Web site sponsored by Procter & Gamble Co. that's called www.beinggirl.com, which aims to educategirls about puberty and familiarize them with P&G's line offeminine products.


While the average age for menstruation has been stable at12, other signs of puberty, including breast development, areappearing much earlier, Prager explained, referring to a largeU.S. study of 17,000 girls.

The study, published in Pediatrics in 1997, found that theaverage age at which girls first develop breasts has declinedto a little over 9 for Caucasian girls, and a little over 8 forAfrican-American girls.

"Different factors, both genetic and environmental, controlpuberty," said Dr. Steven Dowshen, a specialist in pediatricendocrinology at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children inWilmington, Delaware, and chief medical editor ofKidsHealth.org, an online site for parents and their kids.

No one really knows why girls approach puberty at a youngerage today than what used to be the norm.

But theorists have come up with such disparate reasons asthe increasing incidence of obesity in children, an abundanceof hormone-laced food in the average American's diet and eventhe influence of mature sexual themes in movies and ontelevision.

Whatever the reason, the medical community agrees that, atthe very least, American girls today look more developed at ayounger age than they did a decade or so ago.

And they're shopping for bras.

Sara Lee Branded Apparel, one of the largest manufacturersof bras, started three years ago to respond to this new market.

"When we introduced 'Barely There' three years ago, weimmediately found it appealed to this whole category ofcustomers," said Joanne Kaye, director of merchandising at SaraLee. "This customer is very modest ... and not ready to wearthe underwire."

To appeal to a young girl's fashion sense, Sara Lee makesthe bras in blue with yellow or pink and green with cranberry,Kaye said.


There is another dynamic driving the demand for bras bygirls today that wasn't as prevalent a generation ago: sports.

"In my daughter's school, they won't let you play without asports bra," Kaye said. "If you have an 8- or 9-year-old girlstarting to develop breast tissue, these bras also have a nicemodesty effect."

Then there are half sizes.

Kaye said this patented system is popular with developinggirls whose breasts may not conform to traditional sizing.

Maidenform -- an iconic brand whose bra ads in the 1950sand '60s with slogans like "I dreamed I was a toreador in myMaidenform bra ... " became part of American culture --introduced a version of its "One Fabulous Fit" bra for youngergirls in 2001.

But not all companies did so well with this demographic.

Abercrombie & Fitch misjudged the market andintroduced sexy lingerie targeted at youngsters last year.

These included thongs decorated with phrases like "WinkWink" and "Eye Candy" that caused an uproar among parents andchild advocacy groups. The company withdrew its line.

But with a large selection of modest, functional andaffordable bras for young girls, even single fathers arecomfortable dropping their pre-teen daughters off at the malland letting them pick their own.

"We're prepared for the single dads," JC Penney's Hinksonsaid. "They bring their daughter and say, 'Please fit her witheight or nine bras and I'll be back in an hour to pay for it."'