Tuesday, October 11, 2011

What Not To Wear - For Nine-Year-Olds

You’re stupid, you’re fat, you’ve got Kmart shoes, your hair is ugly, you wear old lady clothes. These are some of the comments that fourth-grade girls sling at each other on any given day. My niece is nine and a half years old and can never get it quite right - she's got the wrong tee shirt, the wrong hairstyle, her bike is the wrong brand, her mom wears the wrong pants; it's always something according to these classmates of hers. Sounds harmless to an adult, but the effect builds up over time.

I know my memory is failing, but I don't remember things being quite that bad when I was that age. Yep, we’re going to reminisce about the good old days! For me it was the 1960s.

We might not have liked the clothes our parents chose for us, but most of the kids I knew were in the same boat. We had our choice of Montgomery Wards, J.C. Penneys, and Sears. When we got the big catalogs in the mail, I would page through the toys first, and then the clothes for juniors. I always wanted more grownup outfits for school. One year I remember being obsessed with a pink miniskirt and matching coat, which would have looked perfect with white vinyl boots, which I also did not have. Further, I wanted my stringy dark blond hair to magically transform into a perky brunette pageboy, and I wanted blue eyeshadow and white lipstick. My mother was having none of that. I had to dress appropriately, which meant stiff and uncomfortable little-girl fashions from the little girl fashion pages.

If you were nine years old in 1969, you hoped your mom would get you one of these groovy jumpers and matching polyester pants. source

The kids at school didn’t much care about each other’s clothes. My biggest concern was that girls had to wear dresses, and I was always either skinning my unprotected knees or accidentally showing off Paris and France when I was jumping, swinging, and sliding on the playground. And outside of school, the only unrealistic image threatening us was this:


Now I realize how lucky I was to be born decades before sexed-up teen rock stars, preteen cosmetics, and beauty pageants for 5-year-olds. How do today’s little gals ever learn how to be real women?

My dear niece is not even 10 years old, yet she’s already bombarded with pressure from peers, media, and family to look or act this way or that. Put aside for a moment the inflammatory topics of the Pretty Baby-esque theme happening in French Vogue, and the tendency of young pop singers to dress like… I don’t know. This is just the regular, middle-class, mall-shopping American elementary school children of today, viewing one another’s logo tee shirts with a viciously critical eye.

This girl lives far away and I don’t get many opportunities to see her. But we talk, and I pick up tidbits of information here and there about her life at home and at school. There’s so much conflicting information, she doesn’t even know what she herself likes anymore. She can only try to conform to the strongest influence. One minute that’s her parents, the next it’s her school "friends." And as we all know things are probably just going to get more difficult for her, at least on that front, for another 10 years or so.

During my high school years, I was never close to the “in” crowd, and so I didn’t even try to keep up with the latest makeup and clothes. I had a choice of blending in with the brainiacs or the parking lot crowd. Although I’d never be able to completely shake my geek image, I chose the parking lot, which made getting dressed in the morning especially easy: the uniform was baggy jeans and plaid flannel shirts (we were so ahead of our time!). Conformity was easy; competition was nonexistent. I kept my interest in hairstyles, makeup, and colorful matching outfits to myself, and although I was sewing at the time, I never wore any self-sewn creations to school. And in college we were all just too busy, uh, studying, to think about what anyone was wearing.

But my niece is growing up in the age of designer fashions, celebrity obsessions, and constant, instantaneous access to the latest must-have item. Mean girls have always been around, but cyberbullying is a relatively new and dangerous phenomenon. Body weight, social connections, and money used to be the concerns of adults, and now children obsess about these things they barely understand.

I know these are huge, complex issues for parents and children everywhere. I’m not a parent and so my understanding is very superficial. I don’t have any answers, although I wish I did. I don’t know what parents can do to counteract all the confusion and conflict their children are subjected to every day. Many books have been written on the topic, but I’m not sure any one of them has the answer, either.

But I really identify with my niece and her struggles. It’s hard to be a female of any age, but I think the pre-teen and teenage years just keep getting more difficult with each generation. My fervent hope is that my niece and her contemporaries can find some inner strength to push back against all the influences, find individual styles of their own, and feel comfortable with themselves.

How have you helped your daughter/granddaughter/niece/sister or other young woman with self confidence and self image? Any tips for me?



  1. What a heartbreaking situation for your niece!
    Kids have always been cruel to each other, but it has definitely become much worse in the cyber age. With real time access to everything happening in the world, the influences are far, far beyond the Sears catalog and the 11 TV channels that influenced my early years!
    And it is a difficult place for a parent to be, also. What a child learns about how to deal with this will probably influence many, if not most, of their future interactions as well.
    I think the key is to do our best to cultivate a healthy self image in the children in our lives, and to teach them that what is said to them in an unkind way is not a reflection of them, but of the person doing the talking.
    I think that the children who have a forum where they are comfortable; be it a church group, gymnastics team, dance or music or sports program, do the best, because group activities give them a built in support system.
    The other thing I would have to say in this time of so much drug and alcohol abuse among children and teens, and the high suicide rate, is to listen and pay attention to every little thing. If something makes you uncomfortable, investigate. No stone unturned. It might make the child crazy in the process, but the goal is to have them reach adulthood as fully functioning, healthy human beings. Even if they don't appreciate the process, every person who grew up that way is grateful to their family in adulthood.

  2. Anita, thanks for the thoughtful advice. I agree with all, but had forgotten about the importance of having another social outlet outside of school, where you can be yourself. This is not only a place to talk about your problems but sometimes simply just to feel comfortable in your own skin around others who accept you. (I guess that's important at any age!)
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. It doesn't help that she (the niece) is in denial that there are different body types (as opposed to just gaining or losing weight) and that some clothing styles will not fit or look right in any size!

  4. Bro, that's very perceptive of you. ;) Although it might be an inability to understand the situation, rather than outright denial.
    Unfortunately many of us *never* figure out what clothes look best on us, and we continue to be confused by marketing images that make every style look perfect on the model.

  5. Katrina, at this point it's outright denial. She said so. :-)