Despite never identifying as a true "girly girl," I can still remember the thrill of being five years old and rummaging through my mother's shoes until I found her super fancy high-heeled ones. I would toddle down the hallway in them (probably leaving scuff marks all over the wooden floors in my wake), a few strands of pearls, a hat, and a faux-fur wrap completing the ensemble.
There was something simultaneously comforting and exciting about playing dress up, pretending to be an adult for a bit, especially in my mother's clothes. My son has followed in my footsteps, eagerly donning my husband's ties or my own high-heeled shoes. He parades around the house, eerily mimicking us to perfection while we all laugh.
Dressing up and pretending to be an adult is a natural part of childhood. Adults (just like fairies, kings, or queens) hold a bit of allure and enticement for young kids, making it a treat to pretend to be them for a while.
Yet, in today's consumer-driven culture, the notion of "aging up" kids is happening in a way that has taken all the fun and pretend out of it. Clothing that is marketed towards kids, especially girls, looks less "girly" and more like smaller versions of outfits found in the tween and teen sections of stores.
(From The Gap. "Sequins Are A Hoot.")
Shorter shorts, tighter shirts, questionable slogans, and more are pushed on young girls. A "Kids N Teen" store in Colorado was even selling crotchless underwear for young girls.
As I've written about here before, even cartoons aimed at young kids, like Dora the Explorer or Strawberry Shortcake are growing up, trading in kittens for cell phones. While playing pretend every once in a while might be fun and healthy, it's gone beyond that point, where companies and advertisers are (not so) subtly pushing kids to look and act like adults.
While I don't have a daughter myself, I know many others who do. They complain that society is in a race to end girlhood—that the notion of just letting little girls be kids is slowly slipping away. They refer to the change in media, clothing, toys and more as examples of how girlhood is being usurped. It only takes one quick glance at Halloween costumes to really drive this point home.
At the same time, adult women are bombarded with the opposite message. Anyone over 21 is reminded on a daily basis (in TV Shows, movies, advertisements, magazines, etc...) that they can capture the beauty (and implied thinness) of youth. We have bras that perk up sagging breasts creams that promise they'll make you look years younger, makeup that ensures a "simply ageless" look, and more.
The juxtaposition of these warring messages is enough to give anyone a headache: Stay youthful! (But not too youthful!) Grow up! (But don't get too old!)
Boys and men are rarely inundated with similar messages. While boys contend with the "Be a Man!" mantra, it's not as prevalent as the daily messages of growing up out of girlhood are. And yes, while adult men can feel self conscious over aging issues like hair loss or erectile disfunction, they are not targeted with anti-aging messages to the same degree that women are.
However, boys and men take in the same messages about girls and women that we all do. My son is still capable of seeing the clothes and toys marketed toward young girls, and everything else foisted upon women to "stay young." He absorbs these messages of aging and youth and beauty. Hopefully, he'll take them all in with a grain of salt—aided by my own opposing messages at home. Hopefully he won't buy into these ideas as he grows up, but with the billion dollar advertising business standing in the way, I can admit it makes me nervous, knowing the battle he's up against.
As I watch my son and his friends scamper around the house, pretending to be grown ups ("who live in a house, but sometimes with their parents still," according to my son) I hope they can somehow revel in their play without translating it into reality just yet. I want them to savor their youth, not because they'll be clamoring for it when they're older, but because it's slowly being pulled away from them.