It’s tempting to discount any trend piece that gathers evidence from a few parents, guidance counselors and psychologists, but today’s Wall Street Journal about the ever-escalating pressure on girls to live up to various brand-named fashion ideals had me planning my move to a tropical jungle with my two daughters in tow. Not because my girls can’t think for themselves, but who wants their kids to have to spend time resisting fashion tyranny during childhood?
The story acknowledges that childhood fashion meanies have long roamed the schoolyard — who doesn’t recall Laura Ingalls’ suffering under the withering comments of spiteful, fashion-conscious Nellie Oleson? But now, contend the quoted sources, it’s worse than ever. Not only do many little girls and teenagers feel as if their clothing determines their social place, but there is an increasing emphasis on designer names. So perplexing is the phenomenon that it’s spawning after-school programs to help teenage girls deal with pressures from the media and peers around fashion. “Have you stopped being friends with someone because she wore clothes you didn’t like?” asks one “Bully Quiz” developed by Penn State professor and author Cheryl Dellasega for Camp and Club Ophelia, a girls relationship program. Educational psychologist Dorothy Espelage tells the Wall Street Journal that in her 14 years of research she has “been surprised by how kids revere those they perceive to have the best clothes.” Such children’s culture dovetails with a trend in many designer labels targeting teens and children.
My personal experience makes me think it is harder for girls to opt out of the vise grip of fashion consciousness than in the past. I’ve even seen the beginnings of fashion bullying at my daughters’ preschool — the kind of funky, progressive, countercultural haven that attempts to offer children a sanctuary from mainstream stereotypes. It has happened again and again, a few little girls, dressed to the nines by their fashionista mothers, infecting a culture of 3- and 4-year-old girls in the strangest way. I recall one little girl whose mother was a fashion stylist and whose wardrobe showed it. Like a micro-Mean Girl, she commented on other kids’ clothes and created a hierarchy accordingly. One parent meeting became totally devoted to the issue, with another mother — a politically active lesbian, no less — offering the solution to her own daughter’s bruised feelings. Perhaps the little fashion horse could take her little girl clothes shopping!
Yeah, I know: It’s weird on any number of levels. But it’s also a sign that fashion fixation (fueled by brand consciousness) has saturated even some of the most unlikely cultural ponds. This trend could be regarded as yet another opportunity for hand-wringing about the ever-widening pressures on the well-to-do — now my daughter needs Juicy, boohoo! — but I’m inclined to see brandmania as an equal-opportunity disease. I first glimpsed the bizarre mentality back in 1988 when I was teaching GED classes to “at risk” teens — meaning kids from the projects who had been kicked out of every other school in the city. One day we were discussing heroes and I asked my students who their heroes were. A lot of the kids didn’t have real-life heroes — but named fictional characters from movies or television. But one young, ambitious mother told me her hero was her daughter. Why? I asked, thrilled at the mention of an actual human being even if said hero still wore diapers. “Because she only wears brand names,” she said with a shrug, as if that were all the justification for admiration anyone could want.