Newsweek, which has been wavering between being a print publication or an online-only entity, has just published a long, absorbing article by Abigail Jones called “Sex and the single tween.” The title, of course, bounces off of Sex and the Single Girl, Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 then-provocative treatise championing the idea that women should pursue economic self-sufficiency and sexual pleasure without depending on marriage to supply those things. Brown’s book and its spiritual descendant, Sex and the City (both the epochal TV show and the book of essays by Candace Bushnell that inspired it), exemplify and promote what we might call don’t-call-me-a-feminist feminism — the kind of female self-empowerment and quest for gender parity made possible by the women’s movement, yet distancing itself from intellectual ideology and hard-core political struggle because, well, they’re not as much fun. What’s fascinating and unnerving about Jones’s article is how much it says not just about pre-adolescent girls but about the impact of social media, sexual norms, and consumer culture on the rest of us.
The tween years are a period of learning and acclimation, yet the lessons of gender and sexuality begin much earlier. Forty-five percent of 6- to 9-year-old girls use lip gloss or lipstick, 61 percent wear nail polish (up from 54 percent in 2008) and 42 percent use perfume or body spray, according to a 2013 study by Experian Marketing Services. Those numbers jump when girls hit their early teens: 65 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds use lipstick or lip gloss, 84 percent wear nail polish and 78 percent wear perfume. And according to a 2009 Newsweek article, girls ages 8 to 12 each spend approximately $7,170 on hair, face, hands and feet during their tween years. Among 8- to 11-year-old girls, 46 percent like to keep up with the latest fashions and 35 percent think it’s important to wear “cool” clothes, according to Experian.
This desire to dress up is learned from parents, older siblings, friends, toys, magazines, books, computer games, apps, social media platforms, Disney characters, parent-approved celebrities, parent-disapproved celebrities, pop music, shopping malls, advertisements, billboards and more.
Marketers have turned preteens into consumers, but parents are the enablers, buying their children those tablets, toys and clothes. (To be fair, many parents hand down older models and keep the upgrades for themselves.) When it comes to fashion, clothing is sold at every price point. By the time preteen girls are teenagers, Abercrombie & Fitch – or whatever clothing line they prefer – is more than a brand; it’s a part of their identity.
Ashley would likely do well at Applike Couture. “Most girls my age are trying to find the happy medium: not too scandalous but they’re also getting in with the culture. It’s really hard sometimes,” she says. “On the weekends, people wear short shorts and inappropriate tank tops. I have, too. It’s just like, hard trying to fit in. If you don’t, they’ll say, Why are you wearing that instead of this? It’s hard to subject yourself to that.”
Isabella Rose Taylor, 12, of Austin, Texas, grew so frustrated with the styles available to her that she designed and launched her own clothing line, which she describes as girly with boyish charm. “There is a gap between clothes that are too young and too old for tweens,” she says. “A lot of girls are trying to be sexy and revealing because they think that’s cool. It’s just so our entire universe, and it’s hard not to be influenced by that. But I think that we can change it. I really want to show girls that you can just be whatever you want. You can be yourself.”
Ruby disappears into her bedroom in search of the crop top. Her room is a confection of maturing girlhood with the pink walls, polkadot curtains, countless photographs, a snow globe collection and handmade collages dedicated to newly discovered writers. Ruby admires Tina Fey, and wants to be a journalist and a comedian when she grows up. She joined YouTube when she was 8 years old, was on Tumblr by 11, Instagram later that year, and Facebook when she was 13. She also uses Vine, SnapChat and We Heart It.
“There is not enough monitoring in the world for the technology we have today,” jokes Kendra’s mom, Erika, who wears a light-green sweater, her black hair pulled back into a ponytail.
“Our kids are probably mentally and cognitively better prepared, but I think they’re not emotionally prepared for the world,” says Kimberly, Ava’s mom. Ava has an iPad, an iPod and a Mac computer and is into Disney celebrities and pop music. “The disparity between the two makes them even more emotionally immature. At some point it’s gonna really throw them.… They’re mature in many, many ways, but at heart they’re still 8.”
When I first interviewed Buckingham four years ago, she explained that parents were the gatekeepers, helping girls navigate popular culture, make good decisions, recover from bad ones and hold onto what remains of an authentic childhood. Two months ago, she had something very different to say: “Before, if you wanted to find out about sex or something innocuous – history, travel, whatever – you had to ask your parents. Now, you just google it.… It’s the pervasiveness of technology,” she says. “Parents have lost their role as gatekeepers.”
“People have this general, nebulous idea of girls as this mass of pink, selfie-taking, Kardashian clones,” Gevinson says. “And not only do I think that a lot of girls aren’t like that, but I also think the girls who are like that are maybe smarter than people give them credit for. For as much as there are a lot of awful messages sent out to girls at the moment, I think that they are better equipped to deal with it.”
Censorship, she argues, isn’t the solution. “You’re not helping a young person teaching them abstinence in the same way that you don’t help them by making sure they never, ever come across anything bad online. If you’re gonna have sex, this is the safe way to do it. When you use the Internet and find things that could be potentially damaging, this is what you do.”
For tween girls, having sexual knowledge is not the same as being sexualized, and the girl who understands the difference probably has a strong support system. If preteen girls are more capable of navigating their world than adults realize – if their new playground is online, on apps and on smartphones – should parents let children plug and play?
“There’s a question in child development about whether all of this social media will change the way we think normal development should be,” says Selter. “Either one of two things will happen. We see that it doesn’t really affect it, or we’re going to have to rewrite some of the theories about social development and reconsider what social development will look like in the age of social media.
“The framework is lagging, and I think it will only begin to evolve as we have more data. Based on older models, we’ll end up with a lot of self-centered, narcissistic people who can’t tolerate it when things don’t go their way. I hope not, but the jury is still out on that one.
“I don’t know what the long-term effect will be on these kids,” says Selter. “I don’t think anyone does.”
These are issues and ideas I don’t think about all that much because I don’t have kids (an article like this reinforces my gratitude for that). But I don’t want to cocoon myself in a bubble of ignorance or avoidance because this is the world I live in, and I need to think about these things. Check out the article yourself here and let me know what you think.