Desperately seeking the female ideal

November 17, 2008 at 5:36 pm Leave a comment

Tweens and teens are trying to look older. Women are trying to look younger. All the self-modifying leaves little time for learning or doing.

Chicago Tribune

By Anne K. Ream

November 16, 2008

Remember your 6th-grade class picture?

I’m sorry to take you back there. I know this is awkward for all of us but think about it for a moment. You might have been many things at 12: bucktoothed, regrettably sporting a bowl cut or, in my case, plagued by a gap-toothed smile.

What you probably weren’t was professionally improved upon. But an unfortunate school photo is, according to trend watchers, fast becoming a remnant of another time.

A plethora of photo agencies and Web sites now offer retouching services that wipe out pesky adolescent imperfections, making for a more gorgeous (and grown-up) school picture. One such site offers a “Total Makeover Age Progression,” a retouching package for young girls that includes new hair, skin, makeup, eyebrows, facial expressions and even arm reshaping.

Tween and teen girls are the new grown-ups, participating in our image-conscious culture in unprecedented ways.

Spas and salons report increased demands for facials, full makeovers and bikini waxes for girls who have yet to reach puberty.

Abercrombie & Fitch has marketed thong underwear with slogans such as “wink wink” and “eye candy” to girls age 7 to 14. Gary Rudman, author of gTrend Report, a nationwide study on tweens and teens, says “There isn’t a real teen on television. Dramas such as ‘Smallville,’ ‘The O.C.,’ ‘One Tree Hill‘ and ‘Laguna Beach‘ feature teens whose vocabulary, complexion, fashion sense, wisecracking and comedy skills well-exceed their supposed years. This places a great deal of social pressure on ordinary teens to act with life experiences they don’t possess.

“The combined efforts of magazines, television programs, MTV and models in teen stores have fabricated an image of what teens should be and look like,” Rudman said. The only problem is, it’s impossible for real teens to live up to the [media-hyped] expectation.”

The sexualization and “adultification” of girls is a troubling enough trend. But it’s bookended with an equally disturbing phenomenon: the extreme “youthification” of older women.

Thanks to Pilates, supplements, salmon-only diets, $500 face creams and a breathtaking array of surgical and dermatological fixes, 50 is the new 30. Or 20. Or something like that.

It seems almost quaint to remember the days when “Does she or doesn’t she?” referred to hair color. Today it’s not so much about what women put on (makeup, hair color, shape-shifting lingerie)—but what we put in—collagen, Botox and an entire arsenal of injectables.

The joke in Hollywood just over a decade ago was that there were three ages for actresses: Babe, District Attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. Well, they’re all Babes now. A recent issue of Glamour, with the headline “Sexy and Happy at 20, 30 and 40,” features a photo of three A-list actresses who, despite a 20-year age span, look to be roughly the same age.

The popularity, in recent years, of child-inspired clothing for women—including schoolgirl dresses and over-the-knee socks—manages to be creepy and, in its faux nostalgia, more than a little bit sad.

The nationally televised 2005 “Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show” that featured supermodels dressed in baby-doll teddies, pulling stuffed animals and surrounded by toys, made clear that the trend of dressing women as girls had gone mainstream. The current Neiman Marcus catalog, which sells $1,200 diamond “Hello Kitty” watches to women, shows that the trend has gone upscale. Am I alone in thinking “Hello Kitty” and “diamonds” really don’t go together?

In a new variation of an age-old formula, teen television programming has come to dominate the adult market, with shows like the high-school drama “Gossip Girl” attracting adult viewers in record numbers.

Disney star Miley Cyrus captured the muddled-up cultural moment we find ourselves in perfectly when she recently told Vanity Fair that “Sex in the City” is her favorite TV show. A 15-year-old-going-on-20 follows the TV adventures of a group of 30-something women who look like they are not much over 20. In a crazy way, it makes perfect sense.

The adultification of young girls—and the youthification of older women—points to a troubling cultural fixation on an age and beauty “sweet spot,” that elusive place and space when women are, at last, “just right.”

The American Psychological Association has a name for this—”age compression,” which is defined as “a phenomenon in which girls are adultified and women are youthified.” According to the APA, age compression affects younger and older women in largely the same ways, impacting cognitive functioning and body image, increasing the probability of eating orders and depression and creating a restless and relentless need in some women to alter who they are.

The realization—or rather, the belief—that at so many points in our lives the world wants us to be different—older and sexier, or younger and fresher—comes at a social cost. Girls and then women become so busy self-modifying or improving that little time is left over for learning or doing. We have the power to change the world, but it’s too often subjugated to the culturally constructed need to change ourselves.

Some say that it has been ever thus. And certainly, a focus on physical appearance is not new: More than three decades ago researchers argued that physical beauty can translate into power for girls and women. But our definition of beauty shifts according to contemporary cultural values, and there is strong evidence that physical appearance was not always the prime currency it seems to have become today for a girl’s social success.

In her groundbreaking book, “The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls,” Cornell University researcher Joan Jacobs Brumberg examined the diaries of adolescent girls in the U.S. over the past 100 years to better understand how they discussed self-improvement. While girls of earlier eras focused on improving their studies and becoming better-mannered, the diary entries of contemporary young women showed an almost exclusive emphasis on improved or changed physical appearance.

Feminist firebrand Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her renowned work, “Our Girls,” once wrote, “I would have girls regard themselves not as adjectives but as nouns.” It’s a hopeful sentiment that feels, right now, more nostalgic than ever before.

Anne K. Ream is a writer and the co-founder of Girl360.net, an empowerment project for tween girls.

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