Friday, January 22, 2021

Back to School: Brands, Labels, and the Pressure Girls Feel to Have the “Right” Look

August 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Body Image

The school year is quickly approaching (just writing those words gives me flashbacks to my own stomach knots), so here’s a post dedicated to some of the back-to-school themes in You’re Amazing!

Let’s start with shopping. Not the spiral notebooks and No. 2 pencils kind of shopping. No, I’m talking about those August trips to the mall that leave so many girls feeling stressed about the possibility of not fitting in, and just as many parents agonizing over how to calm their daughters’ fears without spending a fortune on the overpriced “must-haves.”

According to the Girls Inc. Supergirl Dilemma report, 84% of all girls say it’s true that girls are under a lot of pressure to dress the right way; that’s up from 75% of girls who said they felt that pressure when surveyed in 2000. What accounts for the increase? A recent poll conducted by the British Association of Teachers and Lecturers has some answers. Of the teachers who participated, 70% said that advertising’s influence on students is much more significant today than it was ten years ago.

I was subjected to some of that advertising this weekend, in the form of two Wal-Mart commercials. Has anyone else seen these? There is one for moms of boys and another for moms of girls.

Boy version with Mom voiceover: “I can’t go to class with him. I can’t do his history report for him, or show the teachers how curious he is. That’s his job. My job is to give him everything he needs to succeed while staying within a budget…I love my job.” Cut to boy with his new affordable laptop. He’s getting applause from his teacher and the students in the class as he delivers a report.

Girl version with Mom voiceover:“I can’t go to school with her. I can’t introduce her to new friends.” Cut to girl nervously asking “Can I sit here?” to a group of girls sitting together at lunch. “Sure, I like your top!” one of them answers. “Or tell everyone how amazing she is. But I can give her what she needs to feel good about herself without breaking my budget. All she has to do is be herself.” Cut to smiling girls walking arm-in-arm down the hallway.

Hmmm, so boys get to be curious and successful while girls are left to “be themselves” by seeking other girls’ approval of their cute tops? The message here is that girls are amazing, but sadly no one at school will be able to appreciate how amazing they are unless they are wearing the right clothes? And just to be clear, this ad is targeted to mothers. It’s bad enough that girls are caught up in brand mania, but it’s even worse when advertisers are able to effectively market to parents by highlighting this pressure.

I know parents want the best for their children. It’s hard to say no when girls truly believe that their happiness depends on having that one specific item of clothing that everyone else is wearing (I tortured my parents for Guess? jeans for no less than six months until we found a pair on a discount rack somewhere). But as adults, isn’t it our job to help kids understand that being amazing has nothing to do with having the “right” brands? And because I know that talking about inner beauty is guaranteed to elicit the dreaded eye roll, here are a few other tips:

1. Talk to girls about style. There’s a big difference between decking yourself out in designer labels and having a unique style that gets noticed. Ask a girl whose style she admires and why. Chances are, the reasons will have nothing to do with brand names.

2. Help girls understand that not every style works for every body type. Too often, girls try to fit in by wearing clothes that don’t fit them. Point out that when you’re constantly tugging or adjusting an outfit, that makes you feel less comfortable–and less confident.

3. Use shopping as a lesson in money management. Before you go shopping, make a clothing budget together. Even if a girl can’t have every item she wants, she will appreciate being involved in making decisions about spending.

Do you remember this pressure from your back-to-school days? What are some other ways we can we help girls cope?

A version of this post originally appeared on



12 Responses to “Back to School: Brands, Labels, and the Pressure Girls Feel to Have the “Right” Look”
  1. Clare says:

    I’m English so I got a School uniform. It didn’t stop pressure at all. I remember the bag became all important. In my last years FCUK shopping bags were everywhere. I was picked on for not wearing fitted shirts.

    One girl wouldn’t take her jumper off when it was baking in summer because she had a longsleeve top underneath. The way you tied your tie was all important, they couldn’t be too long and you couldn’t have a ‘swot knot’.

    Hell, on PE days the popular girls wore fancy bras so you could see them when they got changed. Then, of course, they accused anyone who looked of being a lesbian.

    For every rule of the very exact dress code our school had the kids had another.

    I’m not a parent but I do lead a Guide unit so it’s something I deal with a lot. I think it’s important to maintain a safe space for girls to express themselves in (our adult to child ratio helps with this), teach them to think critically about the messages they receive from adults, advertisers and each other, depending on interest we run activities around make-up, nails, skin care, and – most importantly – give them a supportive environment so if they find that being themselves gets them picked on they know it is okay with us.

  2. lissa10279 says:

    Awesome, timely post Claire. It’s sad because kids are sooooo judged on their appearances today more than ever. The thing is, you don’t have to dress your kid in expensive brands to have them look nice, but the label-queen-bees at school can be intimidating. When I was in middle school, Aeropostale was the “expensive store, — now kids are decked out in Hollister, JCrew, Abercrombie … carrying Coach purses to class and wearing Tiffany bean necklaces. It’s a marketer’s dream and a parent’s nightmare. And I’d bet most of them do it to fit in, not because they want to wear said brands.

    I especially relate to #2, as I talked about in my post about moms daughters and cookies a while back. My mom — who knows way more about style than I did or even do now! — was big into helping me dress for my shape as a pre-teen and teen. I still value those lessons today.

    We were average middle-class, but she taught me the importance of a having couple signature items and mixing and matching and tried to show me that with the same $X I could buy, say, 3 nice things or 7 things that might fall apart. Sometimes as a kid I still chose the 7 things (quantity over quality) but now, esp., I go more for quality. And though my parents bought my clothes throughout high school, I worked to buy myself the extras that maybe they couldn’t swing. I think kids today could benefit from that, versus having everything handed to them.

    Speaking of pressure … I remember in particular 6th grade when I “had” to have a B.U.M. Equipment sweatshirt, a Hypercolor top, Guess jeans, Skidz pants, top-sider shoes and ZCavaricci pants. That’s what everyone wore in Vernon, NJ then, and I wanted to fit it. My parents couldn’t swing for the Cavaricchis, but I did end up wearing those other things (ugly as they are now!) — they were birthday presents or back-to-school shopping things.

    I feel for moms today … esp. moms with daughters (I haven’t seen that commercial but ugh!). It’s a jungle out there, as Mean Girls showed us.

  3. Fab Kate says:

    Actually, my girls don’t have too much trouble. We shop at thrift (second hand) stores. They know what things we can and can’t afford. I let them explore with style, and we often discuss that style can encompass many things. We talk about how style can be individual and personal, and how style can influence how others perceive us (that it’s counterproductive to go to a job interview, for instance, in jeans and a ‘happy bunny’ T-shirt that says “you’re a loser”)

    I’m not surprised that clothing isn’t an issue with one of my daughters (who is autistic) She loves message T-shirts with snarkly sayings and khaki pants or jeans. She fits in as the “cool nerd type” because she’s more focused on her work than the social scene.

    The other daughter is more social, and yesterday I went and bought her makeup. Last year she experimented briefly with a goth look (she went to a school where a lot of kids were rougher and went for a lot of dark makeup and piercings) but this year she came home with someone else’s light silvery eyeshadow and soft natural lipgloss, so I knew it was time to get her some of her own. She knew that she didn’t like the goth look, and we talked about whether or not she felt comfortable in what she was wearing. She’s naturally a bit preppy, and I’ve encouraged her to not yield to any perceived pressure, because her look would actually get her further once she’s starting to look for jobs and internships.

    Now that she’s in a school where the kids are more interested in their schoolwork than being tougher and cooler than their peers, she doesn’t seem as worried about her clothing. In fact, when I asked her what she needed more, makeup or her flash drive (keep in mind that today is ‘picture day’ at school) she just rolled her eyes and said “the flash drive, of course. It’s more important that I can save my work than that I have makeup”

    I agree that there’s a lot of peer pressure out there… but I think the important thing is to have been talking to your girls all along about the importance (and non-importance) of style… and the balance between the two.

    The other part of all this is that while we want our girls to be popular (successful in networking), we also want them to focus on achievement in academics. Advertising puts us back pre-feminist movement: Boys achieve and girls look pretty. It’s not all advertising’s fault… despite the social changes we’ve undergone, we as a society still don’t grant equality to women in the workforce, and there are active groups (or interests) that would love to see women (as chattel of men) barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. I think a lot of this still seeps insidiously into mainstream society.

    • clairemysko says:

      Hi Fab Kate,
      I love what you said about allowing your daughters to experiment with different styles (I think that’s part of the process of coming into your own). At the same time you’re encouraging them to keep examining for themselves whether those styles make them feel confident and where style fits into the big picture of their lives and their priorities.

      I don’t have kids yet, but in the work I’ve done with girls it’s always MUCH more effective to ask those questions that get them thinking and talking rather than just offering your own point of view. In fact, they’re always more open to listening to your point of view when they know that they will always have an opportunity to express themselves and be heard. Clare talked about that self-expression piece in her comment, too. Couldn’t agree more.

  4. Yum says:

    There was one short year at around 13 years old that I wanted to fit in, and then I realized what a waste of time it was. After that I went back to not caring what people thought of my clothes.

    Right after I saw one of those (annoying) commercials you’re talking about, I saw one that made me even more angry: an ad for a Math and Reading learning center to help tutor kids. A great thing, of course…except in the commercial, the girls all read books and the boys all did math. Because everyone know girls are good at English but suck at Math. (That’s sarcasm, obviously.)

    As someone who’s been fighting the stereotypes of “No Girls In Technology” all her life, it really irritated me that this is still going on. Girls are just supposed to “network” and be pretty, but they can’t be Scientists? I though that era was over.

    • clairemysko says:

      Ugh, these tired gender stereotypes are everywhere in advertising and marketing. That’s why we have to keep pointing them out and getting specific about exactly why they are so messed up. There’s an activity in my book that encourages girls (and their parents) to go to the greeting card aisle in their local drugstore and look critically at the children’s birthday cards. Even cards for one-year-olds are completely gendered. It’s “cuddly & sweet” vs. “rough & tough” messages and images.

  5. missincognegro says:

    I think that there is as much pressure for boys to strive for the “right look” as it is for girls. Otherwise, boys are called, ‘fags’ or ‘gay.”

    As for me, I had my own style, and what the other kids were wearing didn’t impact me whatsoever.

    • Clare says:

      Absolutely, my oldest younger brother (14) maintains a image. He plays cricket and football so he hangs around with other sporty types and considers it an absolute crime to wear anything as formal as jeans. He shaves his head and wears tracksuits and the right brand of trainers. Of which he has several pairs to pick from. I took him down to the sea a couple of days ago and he wouldn’t take his jacket off because his top looked too ‘geeky’.

      That’s not to say that he hasn’t chosen his image but he does feel pressure trying to live up to it.

  6. Yum Yucky says:

    My daughter has gone through an evolution. First she wanted to fit in, so she dressed like everyone else. Then she found her own retro style, but was teased terribly for it (by the boys too), so she reverted to the “I need to fit in” look. Now, she’s finding her way with a totally different style and doesn’t give a hoot what people think.

    But it took a long time for her to get to this point – a lot of hurt feelings, tears, friends she thought were friends, but really weren’t – all because of image.

    • clairemysko says:

      Oh, man. I feel like you could be describing me circa a few decades ago. I really do think that some of that evolution–and sadly the suffering and hurt feelings that come with it–is a natural albeit painful part of growing up. Middle school in particular is tough for everyone, no matter where you fall on the popularity scale. My mother always used to tell me, “This too shall pass,” which of course I thought was a load of you-know-what at the time, but ultimately she was right. I’m glad your daughter has come out the other side with her unique sense of style in tact!

  7. Hil says:

    I was an awkward, nerdy teen who insisted on wearing boys clothes several sizes too big. It wasn’t a style statement so much as a reflection of my deep discomfort with my body. My mother had to push me pretty hard to buy fashionable clothes. I would retort, in true teen fashion, that clothes shouldn’t matter.

    She finally convinced me to wear girls clothes by describing fashion as an anthropological endeavor. Even if I didn’t identify with jr. high culture, it was still important to wear culturally appropriate dress, just as it would be important to wear culturally appropriate clothes if I were traveling in another country. From then on, monitoring fashion trends was known as “anthropology” at my house.

  8. jv8 says:

    Once I got in Jr. High my mother would give me a budget of $250 dollars to buy all of my school supplies, shoes, and clothes to start the new school year.

    And school supplies had to be bought first!

    It really made me think. If I wanted I could blow my budget on 1 pair of jeans. And I almost did my junior year, until my mom asked how cool I would look without a shirt on. I was crushed no $200 jeans for me. I could have used my own personal money, but I already spent it all on glittery eye shadow. So I ended up buying 3 pairs of Arizona jeans from JCPennys and still had money for new shoes and shirts.

    I think it was a great lesson in the cost of looking cool.

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