Attack of the Klones: why do so many women look the same?
There was a time, says Emily Hourican, when teens had to work to find a look, to seek out the components of an individual style. Nowadays, increasingly, it seems as if teenagers are rebelling against individuality. So why do so many young women now all look the same?
'What's the difference between the shades?' I asked the chemist, about the array of fake tan on the shelf in front of me (I have a wedding to go to. In Brazil. Do not judge me). "There's a light, and a medium shade," she replied. "And this?" I asked, about a third option. "I wouldn't," she said, "that's the Mount Anville Mahogany."
Apparently, round here, the Mounties are famous for favouring a particularly deep tan. The local salons know this. They too offer 'light', 'medium' and 'Mount Anville' shades.
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I didn't go for it. Not at my age. Probably not at any age. But it did set me thinking: is that why so many young women now look the same? This individualised, almost personalised shade of bottle-brown? Partly, obviously, but it's not just that. It's the eyebrows - so thick, they look like caterpillars - the uniformly long hair, and of course, the clothes: high-cut denim shorts with crop-tops; or black leggings with cut-off sweatshirts; tight, high-waisted jeans with more cut-off sweatshirts.
I live at a kind of Venn-diagram-intersection of three or four south Co Dublin private girls' schools, so have ample opportunity to observe (this is not creepy, this is anthropological). And obviously, because I am now middle-aged (and a busybody), I cannot help comparing the girls and young women of now, with me and my pals back when we were that age - from 15 or so, up to about 18 or 19.
These days, the girls all look amazing. But they also look years older than they are, and - and this is the worst of it - identical.
It's not just a local, private-school thing. Anywhere I go, teenage girls are variations on the same theme. The clothes may be Penneys rather than Hollister, the tan may be high-street chainstore rather than branded, the eyebrows may be home-done rather than salon done, but the basic look is the same. They are working off the same blueprint. The result? I've never known a time of such uniformity. And never is it more apparent than during festival season.
Kate Moss did Glastonbury in tiny denim shorts and Hunter wellies well over a decade ago, and that is still the go-to look for at least 50pc of girls at festivals. Most of the other 50pc are doing the floaty summer-of-love dress with biker boots, a la boho-era Sienna Miller, with perhaps the odd nod to Alexa Chung (preppy) and Kylie Jenner (culturally inappropriate) here and there.
That sounds as if I'm sneering or criticising. I'm not. If anything, this is a lament for the alterno-culture of my own youth. Back then, we had to work hard to find anything - music, fashion, art, books - that wasn't mainstream, but it was entirely do-able. Instead of going to Topshop, you could trawl the fleamarkets and vintage shops, the Army & Navy stores, Salvation Army outlets. You could find indie record shops where the overly passionate owner would enthuse for as long as you let him (mostly, they were hims...) about a band or artist no one you knew had ever heard of. You could find graphic novels in second-hand bookshops that you'd never heard of but liked the look of. It was work, but it was possible. You could put together an entire look and approach all your own.
Now, it is increasingly difficult for teenagers to find anything that hasn't been co-opted, commodified, and sold back to them. They are, by dint of age and cerebral development, the absolute perfect marketing target.
Plenty of science shows that susceptibility to peer pressure in adolescence follows an inverted U-shaped curve - it increases during early adolescence, peaking around age 14, and declines thereafter.
The pressure is two-fold, both external and internal. As they hit 12/13, social groups begin to dominate over the home environment, the kids homogenise and hang together more, while at the same time, the urge to fit in grows stronger. Acceptance becomes more important. Adolescents want to conform and blend. They are highly conscious of standing out, and prefer to take colour from their surroundings. And, the science suggests, girls are more exposed than boys.
Frontiers in Psychology, the largest journal of its kind, publishing peer-reviewed research across the psychological sciences, recently published a study that suggests that, while peer pressure around conformity to gender roles intensifies during adolescence for both boys and girls, a variety of factors increase pressures on girls' behaviour in particular. Most notably, they found that "the leniency given to girls to be tomboys [is] replaced with stricter gender norms and a pressure to exhibit feminine behaviours and interests within a heterosexual dating environment." Being 'attractive' to boys is suddenly paramount. And, at that age, 'attractive' seems to come with a very narrow definition.
How easy it must have been for the big brands to monetise and commercialise this. Teenagers are sitting ducks, really, when you think about it: a pool of people who herd together for protection, acting out defined, gender-based roles. They are ripe and ready to be picked off as a collective, rather than a time-consuming one-by-one approach. Consumerism got lucky there. The teenagers have roped themselves together, just like they always did, so that now all the brands and multinationals need to do is fire the shots.
The result of this understanding, coupled with the forward-thrust of capitalism (more, always more), and the ever-increasing reach of consumerism, is that now, even 'alterno' is sold in bulk via Penneys and boohoo.com. You can buy your entire look, curated from head to toe, in any of a zillion possible incarnations. Want boho chick? Biker girl? Indie queen? Hipster girl? Skater girl? Intellectual warrior? It's all there, laid out for you, with suggestions of headbands, beads, bracelets, bags, hairstyles, to go with it. You just have to click and pay, put it all on as directed, and hey presto - you're channelling 1960s Marianne Faithfull or 1970s Farrah Fawcett or Stevie Nicks, all probably without actually knowing who Marianne Faithfull or Stevie Nicks are, because you haven't done your research.
In my day, we cared about provenance. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, there was no way you would get away with wearing, say, a Joni Mitchell T-shirt, without owning the albums and claiming an intimate connection with her music. Now, I see five-year-olds in Metallica tops. It's retro, it's cute, but it's also fake. Once upon a time, your personal style (such as it was), operated as a kind of secret code. If you met someone else with the same type of jeans, the same laces in their Doc Martens, you knew they shared at least some of your interests. Now, all you know is that they know how to find their way round a one-stop-shop clothing website.
"Who are the Ramones?" I asked a friend's 12-year-old daughter recently. She was wearing a T-shirt with artfully frayed neck and sleeves, an image of Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee, and 'Sheena is a punk rocker' scrawled across it in blood-red. She looked at me in surprise. "Some band." She all but added, 'Duh' at the end.
And again, this is not a sneer. It's a shame - for me, anyway. Most likely, those I am commiserating with couldn't give a hoot. They've got the look, who cares how?
One Dark Turn
But, underneath all this conformity, and the relentless marketing that chases our teenagers, following them into their bedrooms and beyond; that pitches samey as something desirable, and offers 'unique' as a label to millions, there is a darker edge.
Because just as social media can follow them and show them what they should look like - this athleisure gear, these eyebrows, that tan - so too can it take their fails and distribute these to the wider world, for the wider world to look at and judge via likes withheld, thumbs-down given and cutting comments posted.
We all talk about echo chambers these days. In the adult world, ours is bad, because it reflects our own views back at us and does not challenge these. But theirs - the young people's - is much worse. It's a kind of wall-of-sound chamber, where the reverberations are endless and deafening, bouncing off the edges of their existence: Insta, Snapchat, WhatsApp, playing them the same narrative over and over. If the narrative is one their peers approve of - great: 'OMG u luk so hot' and so on, to the power of 100. But when it's not, when the thing on which they are most judged - their appearance - is a fail, then the reverberations are far less pleasant. In fact, they can be overwhelmingly awful.
Imagine living in the amplified world of today, where a bad day at school comes home with you and up to bed with you and lies beside you. Where jeers and hostility come in through the cracks of your front door and follow you around, and where everyone you know can hear them just as loudly as you do. Can repeat them to you and to each other until it must feel like there isn't a person in the world who doesn't know you looked crap in those trousers.
Imagine how badly you would want a place to hide, and how hiding in plain sight would quickly seem the best option. No wonder the mahogany tan and crazy eyebrows feel like a good choice - they are the safe choice; the same choice.
Now, it is vital not to simplify the issues of mental health, body image and body dysmorphia. Yes, there is a rise in eating disorders, mental-health issues and self-harm, particularly among young women and girls, especially those of the middle class. No, this is not the fault of social media, any more than it was the fault of photos of catwalk models with knees that knocked together when I was 15 or 16.
But... there is a but. "Social media is not the cause of mental-health issues," says Harriet Parsons, psychotherapist, and training and development manager for Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland. "But for those who are vulnerable already, it creates the perfect environment for them to beat themselves up. It is no longer a monthly or even weekly fashion magazine that they are looking at. Platforms like Instagram deliver constant doses, straight into their phone. The images of 'perfection' are relentless; it's all day, every day, so that teenagers now are exposed to far more of the 'ideal' than we were."
And this, for those with a tendency to be anxious, perfectionist, high achievers, particularly where they feel the need for external validation, is a disaster. Where, pre-social media, we might have looked for this validation from our friends and immediate peer group - who at least knew us, cared something for us, and were therefore somewhat invested in our reaction to their response - now, it's the whole world, a world full of sometimes malicious strangers that the teens are turning to for reassurance. "They are putting it out there to the world," says Harriet, "and leaving themselves very exposed."
The already vulnerable are also, she points out, "by their personalities, the type to hone in on the one negative comment and obsess over that. This undermines their sense of self, in those for whom the sense of self wasn't very strong to begin with."
This underdeveloped sense of self is a growing issue, as ever-younger kids are becoming very conscious of body type - something to correlates with access to smartphones at younger ages (these are now an accepted First Holy Communion gift). "The age of onset for anorexia has dropped," Harriet points out, "from 15-24, to 13-18. And there are many more young men and boys being diagnosed."
Into the sea of conformity, there are, however, drops of swirling ink beginning to colour the waters. The rise in body positivity as a movement is definitely a thing; many clothing websites now advertise their wares on 'normal' women, with an array of sizes and shapes instead of the tyrannous size-zero of the early 2000s. There is a growing savvyness around digital enhancement of photos and corresponding cynicism about the 'perfection' portrayed. All this is good, but could be better. So how do we help to speed them on their way? By encouraging them to have real friends rather than online acquaintances, by championing individuality over samey, and the truly authentic over a branded facsimile - and by gently laughing at the mahogany tan on milk-bottle-white skin, while waiting for them to grow out of it.
Finding their tribe
Pick a type, any type, as long as it's one of these:
You would think Kate Moss as style icon would have a sell-by date, but it seems not. Moss, pictured below, is still enduringly popular with the kids, especially in her festival-going, denim-shorts-and-parka-wearing early-2000s incarnation. Still the go-to for teens in muddy fields everywhere.
The gender-neutral approach. Loose, layered, monochrome are the bywords here. Think David Bowie in the pre-Ziggy, Hunky Dory years, where he seemed to look to Katherine Hepburn for inspo; or Jaden Smith, pictured above, now.
The high-maintenance look is pretty much a Kardashian preserve. This is where the outrageous brows and overlong hair with flawless make-up and body-con clothing comes into its own. Kim does it well, Khloe, pictured above, does it better.
Floaty, pretty, feminine, a bit retro, a lot Riviera; perfect for summertime. It's Brigitte Bardot in the late 1960s, Stevie Nicks a few years later, and the Olsen twins, pictured above, now.
As always, this involves a lot of black, a lot of sleeveless, a lot of rips, leather cuffs and low-slung jeans. It started with Avril Lavigne but the baton has passed to Billie Eilish, pictured above.
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