Tuesday, July 24, 2007


I've had a rather unusual day in the sense that I went clothes shopping (yes, shopping) with DS, 14, and my Danish exchange son, who is 19. It's unusual that either of my boys would want to go clothes shopping, and fairly unusual that DS would have voluntarily gone to the mall, but since his beloved Danish "brother" is returning to Denmark tomorrow night, I think he just wants any chance he can have to hang out with him.

Danish bro also hates shopping, but he likes girls, and he likes to look his best (which is quite easy for him ;-), and clothes are much cheaper here than in Denmark, so a trip to the mall made sense. I also hate shopping, but I like time with my boys.

So K (Danish son) and I, over the span of 2.5 hours went to Buckle, Hot Topic, Aeropostale, Express, Hollister, American Eagle, and Abercrombie. K is not used to so many choices being in one place (during his entire exchange year here he visited the mall only twice, each time with a specific goal in mind - easy in/easy out) and we decided to "skim" through the stores, see what looked interesting and would fit his shopping list, and return to the stores where he saw things he both wanted and could afford.

We both found it fascinating that the music that was blaring in a particular store would also herald the kind of clothing/level of coolness that store contained. And in the end, most of the purchases came from Express and Hollister.

Express was empty. K was the only male shopping there; a few other college girls sauntered in and out, looking mostly at jeans.

Hollister, directly across the way, was hopping. Duos of friends, both male and female, crowded around various tables, a couple of other mother/son pairs browsed the jeans, tees and hoodies, and several mother/daughter groups hovered near the center room. Hollister sells the California image, bursting with health and sunshine, and enticing Americans and non-Americans alike.

At this point in our excursion, I had listened to punk, techno and now alternative rock, all at piercing decibels, and it's hot enough in Michigan that even the air conditioning wasn't staving away the heat. K was tired, although happy with his purchases, DS was sitting just outside the store, and being as patient as was humanly possible, and I was ready to be anywhere that had daylight and silence.

In the midst of this orgy of sunny California styling, I saw her. She was standing near the leather chairs where two of her friends were sprawled, while her mother paid for purchases nearby. All three girls were 12, maybe 13, at the most. She was wearing a jeans miniskirt that barely covered her crotch and a long, tight tee that would have shown her ribs, if it hadn't been designed to look distressed. Her long legs ended in sky blue flip flops. Her tightly curled ash-blonde hair was pulled back in a bun and her toes angled out in the way that dancers' toes do, when at rest. Her spine was ruler straight.

But like the other telltale signs of a dancer, she had this one: her thighs were thin enough for me to encompass in a fist. Her elbows, jutted out, appearing painful and about to burst through the skin. Her eyes were sunken, hollow, and lit up only when taking her newly purchased clothing from her mother. Her face was unnaturally long, and each vertebra in her neck stuck out in relief.

This was clearly one sick child. And no, I don't think she was just naturally skinny - she was pale, and while she moved gracefully, she didn't seem to have the energy that her two, more fully-fleshed, friends did. Her mother was overweight, although not obese. Clothing, make-up, appearance was clearly important to both mother and daughter, and much conversation between the friends and the mom concerned how wonderful they would all look in their new purchases. Much fuss, especially was made about the fact that the young dancer was skinny enough to wear "anything."

The mother was obviously treating these girls to a very special day. There were exclamations of thanks from all three girls and the mother was given several, obviously loving, hugs for purchases and gifts. The relationship between mother and daughter seemed warm and close.

And I felt so for both the mother and the daughter. And I also wondered whether feeding this child's obsession with her looks by a shopping trip was the best idea. And I also felt that if I were in the mother's shoes, any time I saw my child appearing happy and childlike again would be an excursion worth making or an activity worth doing. I'm sure it's unbearably complicated and who am I to judge?

So I hope that this child is getting the help she needs and that the mother is getting the support and love she needs to get through all this. And that they both make it through. And I abhor this obsession we have in our culture with beauty and thinness and young girls never feeling they can be good enough. And that we don't do enough to help our young girls to stay healthy.

It's just plain sad.


anno said...

It is sad. And one big reason m. & I buy from catalogs rather than travel to the mall. I hope you found daylight and fresh air soon... and soon recovered.

Jen said...

I did. It was good to have that time with K and C, though. It was one of the more delightful shopping trips I've ever had. My heart just went out to that little girl, though.

Yvonne said...

That made my eyes well up and my heart hurt. I hope the loving, warm relationship can conquer this illness.

Marianne Arkins said...

Don't get me started.

My DD is NOT skinny -- and probably never will be. She is, like me, cursed with big bones and even if she lost weight down to her skeleton would never be "model thin".

My in-laws obsess over weight. My SIL tells DD "He who indulges, bulges."

My 8 y.o. DD asked me the other day if I thought she was fat.

She's EIGHT YEARS-OLD. She is not fat. She should also NOT be obsessing over this.


jennifer said...

I know exactly what you mean. I always wanted a daughter, but fate instead blessed me with my boys. Sometimes I think that raising a girl must be harder, and that truly is something to be sad about.

Rebecca said...

it's tragic - and that whole thing - 'you can wear anything because you're thin' is dreadful - it is so APPROVED of to be thin - kinda as if it's a virtue (rather than the unhealthy obsession that it so often is)

Great post.

Jen said...

Marianne, bravo for your letting your daughter be who she is. And shame on your SIL. I am like your daughter and got that pressure all through childhood from my parents. It was a major drag.

Jennifer, I agree, I DO think it's easier raising boys and I DO think that's sad.

Rebecca and Yvonne, yes, it's heartbreaking. I think we moms need to stand together and just help our girls to be strong, healthy kids.

Unknown said...

Pity these poor image obsessed people, victims of consumerism and subscribers to the worst of materialism.

Your portrait of this young women is painful and spot on. Bravo to you for raising this issue.

Anonymous said...

This is something I truly fear for my daughter - that she wouldn't feel comfortable in her own skin. That she'd be so unhappy just inside herself that she'd damage herself to feel better. I can remember the pressure I felt about my appearance when I was younger. In high school, I wasn't overweight (I am now), but one year when I got mono and dropped 16 pounds, the reaction I got when I returned to school was amazing. Everyone raved about how great I looked. I got attention from boys who didn't notice me so much before. I fought with all I could to try and keep that weight off, but it was too much. I was underweight. It's sad to think people found me more attractive looking sickly.

Even at 3 years-old, I try to be aware of the messages my daughter gets about her appearance. It's easy to set the stage - she's a cute girl and people tell her. I can see how over time, she might start equating how she looks with her worth. I try to be cautious and make sure I tell her I love her because of who she is.

Oh! I can understand the exchange student shopping spree. We had a german exchange student living with us during my senior year. Jeans were so much cheaper here, she bought a bunch for herself and her friends and shipped them through the mail (she ran out of room in her luggage!).

Now, I'm stopping before this becomes a book!

Anonymous said...

Geez...I forgot to link up my name in the comment up there. Just so you're not wondering...who the heck is this Leslie chick? It's me. From My Mommy's Place. You can just call me Queen of Comment Faux Pas.

Jenn in Holland said...

Oh, if this issue isn't constantly in the forefront of my mind as we enter the teen years with a daughter. What a rough world we have created for ourselves and our children which batters self esteem and places such value on how we look. It breaks my heart to hear young girls lament their little bellies or their beautiful round faces. Being thin and perfect is just not the ideal to chase, but really, how do you effectively do battle? That enemy is EVERYWHERE

Jami said...

With a six-year-old daughter, I am totally cognizant of the pressures that young women and girls today face with regard to their appearance. My daughter, however, has already had to deal with the reality of her body being different: because of an accident, she lost 2 toes on one foot and has several large scars on her legs. Hopefully, the lessons she's learned in handling these differences (and handling them VERY well!) will give her the strength and pride in herself to handle the pressures our society exerts - especially on women - to look JUST SO.

And on another note, while you are probably right about the girl at the mall, there is also a possibility that she was physically ill. I briefly worked at a cancer hospital and saw too many sick kids or kids on chemo who looked a lot like the girl you described. Maybe her mother was simply trying to inject a little normalcy into her life.

Jen said...

Leslie and Jenn, just from seeing the way you write about your children, I don't think you'll have any worries, there, although you're right, our poor girls need so much nurturing in this area.

Jami, you bring up some very good points. I wondered about her being sick, and that may have been what was going on. I think I threw in my "dancer" prejudices having had my Swedish dancer "daughter" who spent so many hours talking with me about eating disorders. My sister, who had a lot of pressure to be beautiful, also had an enormous scar on her leg from a melanoma operation - similar scarring to your daughter. She carried it into adulthood with aplomb. It sounds like your daughter is well on her way to that, as well. And I'm sure that speaks to your parenting, too ;-)