A week ago, another mom and I took three ten-year-old girls to the American Girl Store outside Boston as part of earning their Junior Girl Scout “Write All About It” badge. The girls met and were photographed with Jane Kurtz, author of the current Girl of the Year books, but the girls were more interested in the shopping.
My co-leader and I had debated the wisdom of taking them to this mecca of pre-pubescent female consumerism, but we realized that this would be the last year they would be so un-self-consciously excited about going to the store and in the dolls they still cherish. They have realized that some other girls at their schools have moved on, spurred by personal inclination or local and cultural pressure, real and imagined.
The girls raced excitedly form section to section of the store, weighing the cost of the zebra print dress (super cute!) against the cost of Lanie’s nightgown (which came with fuzzy green slippers and a stuffed orangutan). They made wise decisions, sticking to their budgets, though somewhat reluctantly, in some cases, and seemed pleased with their choices.
Even more impressive to them was the sumptuous women’s lounge (restroom) in the swank part of the mall, replete with plush leather couches, three-way mirrors, and marble. They giggled and snapped photos, half-shrieking with awe at the size and splendor of the place. Their sheer girlish delight was a bittersweet reminder of the changes to come. We visited that bathroom both before and after the lunch and shopping at American Girl — and not out of necessity. In another year, these American girls will not only have outgrown their dolls but also this simple gift of an afternoon relatively free of the self-consciousness of adolescence. Like it or not — and I know at least one of them does not — they will have to embrace, or at least make peace with, growing into their teens.
And what’s to embrace, really? Budding breasts? Bras, they have discovered, even those that used to be referred to as “training” bras, purchased from that other girl mecca, Justice, and festooned with smiling monkey faces and peace signs, are just not that comfortable. Zits? They already have some breakouts and have been told countless times by celebrities like Katie Perry and Jessica Simpson that they need to get rid of them with Pro-Activ or never live a full life, even if they gain some status as celebrities. Body odor? Or, worse, pubic hair, which seems to arrive, all at once, without warning. And boys? Well, their male counterparts are “weird” or annoying, puzzling at best. One of the girls in our troop — who wants to be a fashion model — was deeply upset when one of the boys in her class called her “hot.” Another of the troop has decided that it would be vaguely pleasant to be in the general proximity of Joe Jonas, but has no concrete sense of what might, specifically, be nice about it. The third, a sort of intellectual Pippi Longstocking, laughed over American Girl’s A Smart Girl’s Guide to Boys book, for which she had no use. But they know that at some point they are supposed to like these boys,maybe even to, however unappealing they are now, make boys more central to their lives.
Last year two of them were Hannah Montana fans. Now they find Miley Cyrus “weird”, a favorite adjective, but how else do you describe a girl who once looked like and sang that she was “a lot like you” but now works a mic like a stripper pole? But Miley Cyrus has an even harder task in figuring out this ungainly transition from girl to woman, and she has to do it in the spotlight. I can well understand her desire to grow up, to ditch Disney and that blonde Hannah wig, to announce she “can’t be tamed” and stop trying to have one foot in the “best of both worlds” of woman and child. “I’m not trying to look slutty,” she recently declared, saying that, rather, she is just naturally more comfortable in hot pants. This is how we as a culture define female attractiveness in adults, or, at least, in adult performers. But it is especially jarring to see Miley, who at a recent Nickelodeon Teen Choice Award Ceremony thanked “her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” to be dressed like she’s welcoming the thrusting of bills into her bustier. But what else can she do? She wants to declare herself a grownup, to be taken seriously as an adult in an industry with some pretty retrograde images of women — like Brittney in her debauched schoolgirls’ uniform and pigtails, directing us to ‘hit [her] baby one more time.”
As these girls I know well struggle with their own transitions, they are disdainful — and a little fearful — of Miley’s choices. After all, they must wonder what do these choices mean for us? Are we supposed to start to look like this, too? For girls growing up in the era of “choice feminism”, in Linda Hirschman’s terms, or “enlightened sexism” in Susan J, Douglas’, there are no easy answers.
Coming up: iCarly jumps the beav-coon(er, shark)