As if it wasn’t enough that tweens and teens are getting mani-pedis and blowouts, there are some–in the affluent DC suburbs, at least–who are also have their own image consultants to glamorize them. These Stacies and Clintons are doing booming business, according to an article in this weekend’s Washington Post entitled “Minor Makeover.”
“In the past couple of years, the market of 12-to-20-year olds has absolutely grown,” says Los Angeles stylist and image consultant Abby Michelle Moll, who works with adult clients and their kids. “It’s being driven by the media and the Internet.”
Reality shows like “How Do I Look?” and “What Not to Wear” usually center on the remarkable before-and-after transformations of the participants. Maybe it was only a matter of time before the trend hit teens and preteens. The idea of perpetually camera-ready teens is what youth market analysts call KGOY, “kids getting older younger,” which is, of course, no new phenomenon.
A lot of the girls quoted in the article sound like nice, slightly lost middle- and high-schoolers who are hoping to break out of their awkward phase.
“I don’t have the best confidence,” says Hannah Abrams, 16, shrugging and offering a small smile. “I feel like a makeover will make people look at me in a different way.”
That kinda breaks my heart…once upon a time I was a geek with a bad haircut and not-particularly-flattering clothes, and I can certainly understand how she feels. But I don’t think that an image consultant would have been the silver bullet for my insecurities. Having a professional pick apart the way I looked? Yikes. I would have just felt worse. And I don’t buy into the idea that being thin, well-dressed, well-coiffed or perfectly made up makes you a confident or happy person. In fact, a lot of the most well-put-together women I know are also the most painfully insecure and self-loathing. Personally, I got through my awkward phase–I still cringe to think of it today–because I had an awesome, loving family who never put much emphasis on my looks, my weight or my clothes. As a result, neither did I, and when the occasional Mean Girl made fun of me, it stung, but I mostly just thought she was an asshole for caring about shit like that. Unfortunately, not all moms seem to feel like mine did:
“To find a grown-up who will help my daughter establish how she wants to look is a gift,” her mom says. “I think other girls can sometimes steer her in the wrong direction.”
Well, which direction are YOU steering her in, lady? You’re her mom! Why don’t YOU help her establish her look–if that’s what’s important to her? The article explains:
..the image consultant is not just a sign of adolescent precociousness and privilege. It is also, for some, a balm for the troubles of adolescence. It’s tough being a teenage girl, as it probably has been since time immemorial. That’s one thing Hannah’s mother thinks about sometimes: how tough it is to be her daughter’s age, how critical the kids are of one another, how much less complicated the world seemed when Hannah was younger.
It sounds to me like it’s also a cop-out for the mothers of these teens. Yes, adolescence is tough. I think it’s fair to say that it’s gotten tougher in recent years–one of the girls in the article was quoted as saying she was very depressed after some other girls brutally mocked her skin and weight on her Facebook page, which made me offer up fervent thanks to Ceiling Cat that I went to high school in the pre-internet years. Still, I think the moneyed, upper-middle-class parents in this article are just hiring the image consultants so they can slough off their crucial responsibility to instill confidence and teach their daughters how to respond to peer pressure and lookism. (Full disclosure: some of the families mentioned in this article live in the tonier neighborhoods of my hometown, and the reporter’s depiction of them strikes me as dead on.)
I’m also going to go out on a limb here, and say that based on what this reporter saw in her time with the image consultants, it sounds like they’re instilling exactly the WRONG values in girls:
There is also a brief lecture on body type (“Kate is built like a ruler and can wear little kilt skirts,” she assesses), and for the finale, an individual color analysis during which the girls are draped in various fabrics to determine their most flattering shades.
By the end of the presentation, it has become quite clear that the students are well above average. When quizzed, they rattle off a list of favorite designers as if they’re reciting the periodic table, instantly recognize the significance of Glickman’s purse being a Jil Sander, and rhapsodize over the genius of Andre, a personal shopper at Mazza Gallerie’s Neiman Marcus.
Ultimately, it’s not what to wear that concerns them. It’s the pressure to wear it better.
“I dress for other girls,” admits Meredith.
“It can be pretty competitive,” Kate says with a nod, placing her mini Chanel bag over a slender shoulder. “You don’t want to see someone wearing the same thing.”
Adjusting her Burberry headband, Jane adds, “But we don’t want to be the different one, either.”
Wow. Way to make over your daughter into a body-concious, shallow, conformist, materialistic brand whore! And all for $500 an hour.
Needless to say, these image consultants have an exclusively female clientele. There are no hired guns to tell their teenaged brothers how to gel their hair to maximum effect, or pick out clothes that make their waists look smaller and complexions brighter.
The whole article left really bad taste in my mouth. I know that girls are growing up earlier these days, and I know that they’re exposed to a hell of a lot more pressure than I was. But I think their parents are doing them a real disservice.
I don’t long for the days when kids stayed innocent well into adolescence. Innocence is highly overrated, especially in women, and I find that most parents are actually nostalgic for naivete. Trying to completely cut off girls from our body-snarking media culture–by banning internet use or T.V. watching, as some parents I know have done–strikes me as unrealistic and even dangerous, because you cannot shut the world out forever. Eventually it will find them. They need to be prepared when it does, whether they’re eight or eighteen, so I think parents need to monitor the media-culture dosage and be open and honest and active in their daughters’ emotional development. Hiring someone to fix your daughter’s hair and teach her to buy the latest fashions is none of those things. It might be easier for the daughter and the parents to pretend that a makeover will erase all her social anxieties and adolescent self-doubt, but it won’t, and it sends exactly the wrong message about what will.