If you were to meet my daughters, chances are good you would either stifle a laugh, raise an eyebrow or experience a few seconds of silencing sensory overload. They are known for being … original in how they put together an outfit.
Now 6 and 8, they favor loud colors, big patterns, bold styles, historical throwbacks (no problem here going to the grocery store in a prairie outfit plus apron) and, above all else, some seriously good clashing. Somehow, they manage to often look really classy, too.
Many grown women would be envious of what my girls know so young. They choose unexpected outfits that please their inner creativity and wear them confidently, concerned only with how they feel and what they like.
But my daughters — especially the older one — are finally getting to the point where they want to have a say not only in the kind of clothes they wear (that’s been the case practically since toddlerhood, when they both refused to wear pants and have pretty much religiously shunned them ever since. “Hello, nice to meet you, we are members of the No Pants religious sect, can we give you some pamphlets?”) but in where we shop.
Suddenly, stores I’ve paid zero attention to since crossing the threshold into adulthood are demanding my attention.
Even before the official tween years begin, my kids are deftly able to identify which companies are a good match for their personal style tastes, thanks to the range of savvy-to-insidious techniques marketers are using to reach them, from game and app ads to billboard to commercials that have become so much a part of the American child’s media diet that kids don’t even realize the commercials are separate from the content.
My requirements for their dress so far have been simple: It has to be acceptable (read: it doesn’t look like Rihanna’s latest video ensemble), it has to be decent quality (I know they wear it out, but I can’t stand something falling apart after six washes) and it has to fit the budget.
I also get that they want to be inspired and delighted and amused by their clothes. I’m kind of a semi-reformed clotheshorse, so I honor that. They want the satisfaction of dress-up time to bleed over into daily life.
For now they are still dressing for themselves. But I know it’s precious few years until they begin to build their outfits — and, possibly, their whole public persona — based on what they think others want to see.
So far everyone’s needs have been easy to meet at a variety of kid-type stores we’ve been shopping at since they were toddling.
Until now. I can see the precarious future already being mapped out.
Suddenly, they are interested in branching out into the slew of companies catering not to the sweet baby-ness of the under-5 set but to the family of pre-tweens, tweens and teens who want to wear clothes that are mini-versions of a clubbing outfit or bikini bonfire attire.
Thong underwear in a size XXXXS? Sure!
They also are being tempted to shop at companies whose marketing tactics, advertising campaigns and even physical store ambiance make me shudder. When I take my second-grader looking for some summer shorts, do I need her to come face-to-face with a six-by-six-foot black-and-white photograph of a greased-up, sexed-up, pouty young girl lazing, seal-like, across the more mature washboard abs of a faceless guy?
Um, no, I don’t. And she doesn’t need that, either.
And now, in addition to worrying about the blunt sexualization of our children — which ranges across not just the retail clothing landscape but from books to movies to toys — I also have to worry about the ethics and company culture behind those crappy products.
Like Abercrombie & Fitch, the new retail poster child for A**holes R Us.
It’s not the first time the tween-teen outfitter has stirred the pot, and I doubt it will be the last.
I’m not the first parent to decide that I hate shopping at A & F and a handful of other companies like it, where items like shorts with obnoxious rhinestone-studded messages splayed across the butt scream “Look at me, sexy me!” and remind us how vulnerable and impressionable our kids are.
Especially girls. To them, these sexified looks might just seem like the next level up from the princess dress-up clothes they once loved.
These skimpy tops and micro-miniskirts and tiny thongs and crappy makeup packaged just so beckon our young girls just when they are trying to get a foothold in their self identities. It’s not about finding a comfortable, cute, fun outfit that serves you well and makes you feel great, it’s about who can look the most like a retailer’s branded image, which all too often in the case of tween and teen girls is eroticized.
We have to remember that, as parents. These retailers are not looking out for the healthy development of our daughters’ spirits and self-confidence. They are not driven by the mission to help our girls learn to love themselves.
They are motivated by profit and profit alone. And the look that turns a profit these days is not one I want for my 8 year old.
These companies are trying to steal our kids' innocence. It's a form of assault. It's a form of abuse. They're out to destroy my girls at their most vulnerable moment. These companies don't just want their bathing suit on my kid for a summer, they want a grasp on her for years and years of consumer spending and self-loathing.
My first though last week was to boycott A & F. But my brilliant co-worker had a better idea.
She thought, since there's apparently cache for teens in a store that parents abhor, we should all put on our fat pants, threadbare college sweatshirts and Dansko clogs and go hang out in those dark, dungeon-y A & F stores, staring stupidly at our phone screens and exclaiming in loud, nasally voices, "how do you work these confoundit things?" And then watch the teenagers scuttle away in horror and profits plummet.
I don’t know if I would even want to give A & F the satisfaction of my sustained, protesting attention. But I do know I’m getting my strategy together. I hope my girls keep their crazy style and self-love strong and steady through these next wild years.
But every day they seem older and more vulnerable, and any second the tsunami of peer pressure and media culture will be upon us.
One thing I know is that my girls will take their cues, in part, from me. I need to show them that they must value and honor themselves, and they must think for themselves. That it’s OK to have fun with the way they look, and to experiment a lot to find their own personal style.
But it’s not OK to become a vehicle for a brand to exploit its own profit-driven ethic.
There are some companies working against this tide, like Dove with its Girls Unstoppable self-esteem campaign and American Girl, which still holds sway over my kids (but, I realize, not for much longer).
Ultimately, though, I’ll have to teach my girls that brands are just that, brands. They might incorporate a healthier, more emotionally sound ethic into their mission, but my daughters’ well-being is not guiding their central business decisions.
I’ll have to encourage my girls to keep on guiding themselves.
In between school drop-offs and coffee binges, Natalie Singer-Velush is ParentMap’s Web Editor. In her former life she wrote for newspapers and once pumped milk in the bathroom of the King County Superior Courthouse while covering a murder trial. Natalie lives in Seattle with her husband and their two school-aged daughters.