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Teenage girls, self-conscious creatures since the beginning of time, are taking a distinctly of-the-moment approach to their age-old adolescent woes. They are hiring — or prevailing upon their anxious, doting parents to hire — image consultants. According to a recent Washington Post article, those who make a living crafting the self-image of others have seen a sharp rise in clients who are “high-school age” or younger. For these teenage sophisticates, image consultants play the role of sartorial guru: “personal shoppers, closet cullers, and makeup advisers.” It’s like one of those reality-show makeovers, with the teenage client as the object of transformation.
It would be easy to say, as a consultant quoted in the article does, that the trend has been “driven by the media and the Internet.” Girls view themselves as mini-celebrities, stars of the reality show in their heads. Or, in some cases, they are aspiring celebrities, yearning to be “discovered” for their physical beauty and, apparently, for their well-coordinated attire. In all cases, it’s enough to say they want to look the part. But girls have always wanted to look good — if not for the media appearances in their minds, then for the opposite sex and more importantly, their female friends. If there has been a rise in adolescents seeking professional help with their image — if, at 13, they can even be said to have an image — I would guess this has less to do with a corresponding rise in teenage delusions of grandeur and more to do with hyper-vigilant, aim-to-please parenting. (After all, who is paying?) Hannah, the main subject of the Post story, remarks that kids used to make fun of her by writing on her Facebook page: “you have bad skin, you’re ugly, your body’s gross.” Her mother, who brandishes a baby picture of her daughter, is said to be hoping the image consulting will help Hannah “to see herself through a different prism.” She is, understandably, attempting to ease the significant pain of adolescence.
At the risk of sounding wildly insensitive, I know few grown women who haven’t been through some version of Hannah’s experience. Adolescence, to state the obvious, is hard, often wrenchingly so. “I felt another trapdoor in my quivery sense of self fling open,” Mary Karr writes in “Cherry,” her lyrical memoir about adolescence. “My bangs had fallen aside then, so this massive boil in the center of my forehead had been right in John Cleary’s face,” she continues, describing a pimple. “He probably saw my pulse in it. Such rushes of physical shame came more often the summer before sixth grade…” As a girl, I would have loved if someone had scooped me up and made me feel better about my blotchy skin, or my braces, or my childlike body, which remained annoyingly linear for years. (“Mosquito bites” was one delightful epithet I heard.) I wish that someone had told me the leaning tower of hair-sprayed bangs didn’t look so good, and that I might want to turn my collar down and unroll my pant cuffs as well. To have someone descend, makeup wand in hand, and transform you, to save you from the discomfort of your adolescent life — that’s a fairy tale in which little girls have long found comfort. Cinderella, remember, was living among the cinders until a gown and glass slippers transfigured her existence. Only in recent years have we arrived at the mystifying conclusion that a fairy tale no longer serves its purpose as fantasy. As reality programming has shown us, our desires can be realized and our problems can be solved.
But tromping through the mud puddles of adolescence — that’s life. It builds character. And figuring out how to dress yourself in a way that makes you feel good is part of figuring out who you are. Indeed, though we might deride it as such, dressing is not a superficial activity, and particularly not in junior high. The hope here with these young girls seems to be that the exterior will serve as substitute for the interior; the lesson, over time, is that what’s on the outside, always, inevitably emanates from within, that the exterior and the interior should align. How can you have an image before you have an identity? It’s a reversal of cause and effect. And it points up the absolute absurdity of what we call image nowadays — it’s painted on, rather than the result of certain actions. Isn’t there something disturbing about allowing someone else to grant a teenager an identity, at the very moment they are supposed to be forging one for themselves? Self-esteem, any adult will attest, can’t be applied externally, like face cream or lipstick. Acquiring it is a long slog through some bleak and awkward years.
After reading the Post article, I came across Peggy Noonan’s column about the hubris of Sarah Palin (who for many seems to have become a Shakespearean figure). “Her lack of any appropriate modesty did her in,” Noonan wrote. “Actually, it’s arguable that membership in the self-esteem generation harmed her. For 30 years the self-esteem movement told the young they’re perfect in every way. It’s yielding something new in history: an entire generation with no proper sense of inadequacy.” I thought again of the teenage girls, their mothers paying for the patina of perfect. If there is a recent cautionary tale about the dangers of style over substance, of image over content, it is Sarah Palin. She dressed the part, but never did the work that would have allowed her to inhabit it.