Fashion bullies attack - in middle school
By Vanessa O'Connell
The Wall Street Journal
October 25, 2007
Aryana McPike, a sixth-grader
from Springfield, Ill., has a closet full of designer
clothes from Dolce & Gabbana, Juicy Couture, True
Religion and Seven For All Mankind. But her wardrobe,
carefully selected by a fashion-conscious mother, hasn't
won her friends at school.
Kids in her class recently instructed her that she was wearing the wrong brands. She should wear Apple Bottoms jeans by the rapper Nelly, they told her, and designer sneakers, such as Air Force 1 by Nike. She came home complaining to her mother that "all the girls want to know if I will ever come to school without being so dressed up."
Teen and adolescent girls have long used fashion as a social weapon. In 1944, Eleanor Estes wrote "The Hundred Dresses," a book about a Polish girl who is made fun of for wearing the same shabby dress to school each day. The film "Mean Girls" in 2004 focused on fashion-conscious cliques among high-school teens. But today, guidance counselors and psychologists say, fashion bullying is reaching a new level of intensity as more designers launch collections targeted at kids.
As a result, an increasing number of school and community programs focused on girl-on-girl bullying are addressing peer pressure and the sizable role clothing plays in girls' identity. In Pennsylvania, California, Maryland and several other states, for instance, community groups and some schools have started Club or Camp Ophelia, a pair of programs developed by Penn State professor and author Cheryl Dellasega that teach girls relationship skills. A "Bully Quiz" the girls take asks, "Have you stopped being friends with someone because she wore clothes you didn't like?"
Dorothy Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who has studied teenage behavior for 14 years, says she has seen an increase in "bullying related to clothes." She attributes that to the proliferation of designer brands and the display of labels in ads. In the more than 20 states where she has studied teens, she has been surprised by how kids revere those they perceive to have the best clothes. Having access to designer clothing affords some kids "the opportunity to become popular -- and that protects you and gives you social power and leverage over others," she says.
Over the past three years, numerous designers have targeted the lucrative children's and teens' markets. Little Marc, the kids' clothing label by New York designer Marc Jacobs, expanded its line this winter and dropped its price, making it more accessible to a greater number of shoppers. The French luxury label Chloé, Milan-based Missoni and Italian designer Alberta Ferretti are launching new kids' labels for spring or summer next year. Other designer kids' lines include Dolce & Gabbana, Armani and Burberry, while Michael Kors, Coach, Dooney & Bourke and Dior have been targeting teens or kids with accessories.
Retailers, too, have rushed to cash in, opening offshoots of their boutiques specifically for children. Cantaloup and Scoop, which sell designer clothing for women in New York, now have Cantaloup Kids and Scoop Kids boutiques that carry a similar selection of designers for their customers' daughters and sons.
The greater focus on fashion in teen magazines and on TV has increased girls' awareness of designer labels. "The market has become more sophisticated," says Fiona Coleman, children's trends editor for WGSN, a fashion-consulting service. Kids today follow not only what celebrities wear, but also what their children wear, she says. Brooklyn Beckham, the son of soccer star David Beckham, was photographed wearing Junior Dolce & Gabbana in magazines as a toddler, propelling the brand into the limelight. Madonna's daughter Lourdes Leon, who has her own stylist, has appeared in magazines wearing Juicy Couture tracksuits.
School guidance counselor Angie Dooley sees the love of labels at Lawrence Junior High School in Fairfield, Maine, where some girls wear the same few brand-name items they own again and again. "They don't want anyone to know that's all they have," Ms. Dooley says.
In one study, more than one-third of middle-school students responded "yes" when asked whether they are bullied because of the clothes they wear. Susan M. Swearer, associate professor of school psychology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, surveyed a total of more than 1,000 students at five Midwestern middle schools from 1999 to 2004, with about 56% of the sample female. While the prevalence of fashion bullies was greater in wealthy cities and towns, where more designer clothing is available, she found the problem is significant in poorer communities, too.
Teens and adolescents are expected to wear not just any designer brands but the "right" ones. "The better brands you wear, the more popular you are," says Becky Gilker, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from Sherwood Park in the Canadian province of Alberta. "If you don't wear those things you get criticized." In many schools, the most expensive designer goods, such as those by Chanel or Louis Vuitton, have the highest social ranking among girls. But popular teen brands such as American Eagle, Abercrombie & Fitch and Aeropostale are also important. Miss Gilker says Hollister and Roxy are big logos at her school.
But even the wrong color can bring put-downs, Miss Gilker notes. When she wears pink, she says, "I get the snarky 'Nice clothes!' when people walk by in the halls." Her mom, Karin Gilker, who is 44, says she has tried to explain to her daughter that she should ignore such comments and wear what she likes. She also has tried explaining that "pink looks wonderful on her -- she's a blonde -- and she looks really good in it."
Several new programs are trying to help parents, teachers and girls cope with bullying. In Maine, a nonprofit called Hardy Girls Healthy Women has developed a curriculum that has caught on at a number of junior high schools and is being adopted in after-school programs in Florida, Ohio, New York and other states. The program encourages young girls to build coalitions and gets them to look more closely at the messages they get from the media, including those about fashion and clothing.
In June, a national conference on "Relational Aggression, Mean Girls and Other Forms of Bullying" in Las Vegas drew more than 800 teachers, educators and counselors. Many of the sessions focused on the role the media plays in putting social pressure on girls regarding fashion and appearance.
Susan Bowman, vice president of Developmental Resources, a Chapin, S.C., educational consulting firm that put on the conference, told the audience that for many girls, the answer to the question "What do I wear?" seems to define who they are. In 2005, Developmental Resources began holding a series of "Mean Girls" workshops for educators around the country. The workshops, she says, explore why fashion is such an important part of a girl's identity, and how that, in turn, "creates even more social pressure on the 'have nots.' "
Some psychologists believe that fashion bullying is happening at younger and younger ages. Megan Flynn, director of children's services at Westchester Jewish Community Services, says she has recently begun using an anti-bullying program with girls in the fifth and sixth grades, as well as with older students. The program, she says, provides "a process where they can take a closer look at the messages they get" in the media.
Aryana's mom, Ava McPike, feels it is important that Aryana not be pressured to conform to the dressed-down standard at her school. She believes that generally other people favor those who "look good -- the cute kids," says Ms. McPike, who drives to Neiman Marcus in St. Louis, Mo., with her daughter to help pick out clothes. But Ms. McPike does give in every now and then. She recently bought two Ralph Lauren dresses, in pink and green, and her daughter rejected them, because, her mom suspects, they wouldn't pass muster with her classmates.
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