My daughter Maya now 10, discovered fashion last year on her 9th birthday. In the year that’s past I’ve learned, “If you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” applies 1000% to trying to dress your girl child. Evidence: the perfectly fashionable in-my-eyes sleek, valore, black pants that sat lonely in the drawer, all year, unworn.
“Maya, those are really chic New York City style pants. Any classy lady would wear them out on the town for a fancy night out.”
“Mom, they’re too baggy for me.”
I observe the pants. They look snug. But in this generation of girl tweens, you don’t leave the house without pants that look like they’re painted on to the skin. Luckily for her, Maya’s got a petite body and she can pull off that fashion. I still don’t see how she pulls the jeans off.
Not wanting to see another generation of well-intentioned purchases languish in her bureau I finally succumb to her pleas.
“Mom, PLEASE take me to Justice.”
Now if you or your girls came of age before 2004, you probably think Justice refers to something the Supreme Court is supposed to mete out.
However if your parenting a girl tween now, you know that the real Justice is an apparel company born in ‘04 that’s marketed pitch perfect to today’s girl aged 8-12. You walk in the place and know they have buyers, designers, and architects born somewhere circa 2000 because they are so fully inside the mind, heart and psyche of the ten-year-old girl. From Justin Beber playing (too loud) through the speakers, to videos of ID (the hot boy band out of England – “They’re sooo Cute, mom”), to every imaginable accessory of belt, earrings, studded socks, to the full spectrum of neon colors of tops and skinny paintable – onable jeans.
Maya walks in and has arrived in heaven. She can’t believe her good fortune that her mom who hates shopping has taken an afternoon to drive 50 minutes to the nearest Justice for a spree. She’s in awe of the sheer numbers of colors and styles that she just loves. She’s in glee that she’ll be the number one fashionable gal in school tomorrow.
I fail to breath upon entry, but somehow survive the experience.
Maya has a twin brother Sam. Sam’s idea of fashion is a pair of soccer shorts and T-Shirt in the summer, blue jeans and flannel shirt in the winter. It takes me a total of 10 minutes to shop for him and he doesn’t care if he’s there or not, though likes to come so he can pick the color of the shirt.
Maya had her fashion rebellion on her 9th birthday. It took me about six months to figure out that I wasn’t going to win the “you can’t leave the house in that thing” argument and another six months to get over mourning the fact that this argument had come exactly four years earlier than I was ready for it.
In the book So Sexy So Soon, authors Diane Levin and Jean Kilbourne describe this wide -- and sad if you ask me -- cultural phenomenon we’re all witnessing. Girls are over-sexing way younger than we did. Developing sooner physically, (due to increasingly pervasive estrogen mimickers in the eco-system?) bombarded by images of sex in the media and on the Internet. Their bodies are ahead of what they’re ready to process emotionally and then the fashion peer pressure thing hits in about the 4th grade.
Maya being small in stature but huge in sensitivity did not miss a beat in catching this wave.
“Mom, I hate it when people think I’m a little kid. They mistake me for SEVEN.”
“Honey, that’s for about the first five seconds until you open your mouth and give them a political analysis of congressional gridlock. It doesn’t matter what you look like.”
“That’s just ‘cuz your from another planet mom. Planet ‘I never cared about what I looked like when I was your age.’ But kids do care and I want to fit in. I mean I don’t care about fitting in in some ways, but I do want to fit in when it comes to fashion. PLEASE take me to Justice!!”
So here we are in 10-year-old girl heaven amid the neon and blaring Justin Beber. At the spaghetti strap camisole carousel. With me barely breathing.
“Honey, you can’t wear those to school. It’s against the dress code.” (Thank God, school is backing me up on this one.)
“Yeah mom, but I like to wear them under everything.”
And on this point I concede. Indeed it’s one of the reasons we are here. Because Maya has worn her only cami, formerly white, for 350 of the past 365 days. My white flag is out. I surrender.
Thirty minutes later we walk out of Justice with five camis; aqua blue, neon pink, midnight black, deep navy and sunrise purple. Maya is ecstatic and now counts me as the greatest mom on Earth. “Thank you Mom!!!!” The sunbeam rays of her ear to ear smile melting my Grinch-of-the-mall heart.
But my head is still in dissonance. Because I work with environmental issues in the apparel industry, I know that each of those magnificent colors represents an array of equally magnificent poisons now flowing through the rivers of China. And the first washing of those ever-so-5th-grade fashionable T-shirts will flood our own water with a fair share of those poisons as well. (Newsflash to American consumers: the toxins don’t need a US passport to enter into our territory.) I’m viscerally aware of how the Chinese workers who so diligently make our clothes (and computers and iPhones and all manner of electronics for that matter) are intimately exposed to these poisons on a daily basis. They need the money and work at Justice or Adidas or Apple factories is by far the best way to earn it. Yet they have no clean water act, no EPA, no OSHA worker safety laws to protect them.
I also know that my girl is passionate about justice, the other kind. At six she came home and reported to me that she didn't want to be white anymore because of what we did to Black slaves, and she didn’t want to be American anymore because we were bombing innocents in Iraq. Her first grade teacher told us, “Maya thinks about things other kids her age just don’t. Don’t worry, they’ll catch up.” In second grade she started an (unsuccessful) campaign to raise pennies for peace in her elementary school to build schools for girls in Afghanistan. Unsuccessful because one influential mom in her class refused claiming, “We need the pennies here!” Maya was irate. “I don’t believe it! Don't’ they know that our pennies can buy pencils for kids that don’t have any! We have way more than we need here. Kids waste pennies on stuff all the time!”
Maya, the passionate advocate for justice, now addicted to Justice the eco-disaster store.
On the way home I decide to share my dilemma with her. She’s sophisticated enough to get it.
“So Maya, here’s the real reason I hate to shop at Justice. You know how I'm working with Nike to help them get rid of the poisons in their clothes?”
“And you know how those clothes are made in China.”
“Well, here’s the deal, each one of those beautiful colors are made with chemicals that poison the rivers and those workers in China.”
This is a low blow; I know it will get Maya in the gut.
“Wow, Mom, I didn’t know that,” Maya says concerned now.
“At the same time, I know how passionate you are about your clothes, and I know how happy they make you. So I’m caught in a dilemma. What do you think we should do?”
From time to time, I remember the wisdom of one of my mom friends; when it’s a moral issue, ask the kids how they would solve it. They’ll “own” the solution and you won’t come off preachy. Most of the time they come up with more creative and challenging ideas than you ever would. Here comes one now:
“I think we need a dress code at school Mom.”
Wow. I didn’t see that one coming. Maya leapt from social justice, to peer pressure, to new school policy in the span of a heartbeat.
“But DON'T say I suggested it!!!! My classmates would kill me.”
Justice for Justice. The ten year-old way.