YOUNG girls are being sexualised by inappropriate toys and magazines, a Holyrood committee was warned yesterday.
High-heeled slip-on shoes available for babies, sexual slogans printed on girls' underwear and magazines "blurring" the lines by using child-like models, were highlighted to the equal opportunities committee.
And one of the most popular brands of dolls on shop shelves came in for particular criticism as the launch of the inquiry into the sexualisation of children.
Bratz dolls, which have been challenging Barbie for supremacy in the girls' toy market, were condemned by the NSPCC as the committee opened an inquiry into increasing levels of sexual imagery in goods aimed at children.
Tom Narducci, a senior consultant for the NSPCC, criticised the way dolls were dressed in short skirts and fishnet stockings and said they were sexualising girls as young as five.
The dolls were among a list of products and activities brought to the committee's attention.
There were also worries about young girls being given all-day beauty treatments with make-up and hair stylists, instead of traditional birthday parties.
But MGA Entertainments, which makes the Bratz dolls, hit back, saying that the problem had far more to do with what youngsters saw on television screens at home.
A spokesman said: "In the end, Bratz are plastic dolls which are conservatively dressed by today's standards.
"The only people who have sexual images of them are adults, who have their own thoughts about these things.
"What is of far more concern is some of the live-action programmes where girls get their role models. These role models start out as 13- or 14-year-old innocents and end up as promiscuous 16-year-olds or in nude pictorials."
The committee also heard criticism of Playboy Bunny images being used on pencil cases and clothes marketed at young children.
There were fears that, at the extreme end, the social sexualisation of girls was being used by paedophiles to make their victims feel responsible for abuse. And it was also feared that it could force children into prostitution.
Mr Narducci warned that girls were effectively being trained to become sexual objects.
He said: "The use of sexual imagery is now more pervasive than before and it does give a very disturbing perspective on girls and young women.
"For girls, it's all about being more attractive to a man. For boys, it's all about looking at girls as sexual objects because that is what they are being trained to become."
Ed Mayo, the chief executive of Consumer Focus, warned that young people were "more sexually confident now than they have ever been".
He added that this sexualisation affected their school-work and led to many girls dropping out of the school system.
But there was anger that some organisations had refused to turn up to the committee meeting. They included Playboy, which sent in a submission; Asda, which has been under fire for selling clothes which sexualise young girls; the Scottish Grocers Federation and the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC).
In a written submission, Playboy's chief executive, Christie Hefner, said that she would never allow licensees to use the Playboy Bunny image on children's products.
Fiona Moriarty, the SRC director, wrote: "The SRC does not believe that much of the committee's focus is relevant to the retail sector – these issues are more aimed at the manufacturing and advertising sectors."
But members of the round-table discussion disagreed. Nationalist MSP Sandra White called the SRC's response "ridiculous". Ms White added: "They're absolving themselves completely, and that is absolutely wrong. I'm very disappointed with their attitude."
THE equal opportunities committee was yesterday attempting to "test the water" on the issue of whether young children are being sexualised by products.
The committee will now decide whether to take the issue forward as a full-blown inquiry when it next discusses its work programme.
The committee's Conservative convener, Margaret Mitchell, told The Scotsman that she believes there is a mood among members to take the discussions to a more formal stage. "I think the members of the committee found it a very positive and interesting meeting," she said.
"There is a lot of material to work on, but there is also a lack of proper research, which the committee could carry out. This is a subject that concerns people widely and one I think we are keen to pursue, but that ultimately is for the committee members to decide."
If the committee does hold a full inquiry into the issue, this can potentially form the background to new legislation, or could see the committee calling on the Scottish Government to take certain steps to tackle the problem.
It is likely organisations such as Asda, Playboy or retail industry representatives who declined to come to yesterday's meeting will be called on again to give evidence to justify some of their commercial activities.