Having the Wrong Look (originally entitled “Mirror, Mirror; Beautiful Teens”) Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx/Riverdale Family

I made a deal with my daughter that, once she was a senior in high school and was accepted to college, she could get a job to earn some spending money. She decided to apply to the local outlet of one of the most popular chains selling teen clothing.

I agreed to call and set up the interview for her, since she was in school during all normal business hours. The manager said, “Let her come in, and I will take a look at her.”

I thought that was an odd comment.

In the drive over to the store, I reminded my daughter to highlight her relevant experience. She nodded, focusing more on the meticulous application of blue metallic eyeshadow, and complaining that she didn’t have enough time to work on her hair or get enough sun.

Of course, I told her that she looked just fine.

She insisted that the store “really cared” about how she looked. Although I understood that personal appearance matters, I was not in the least concerned. After all, she is a pretty, petite teenager and a size zero, fitting well into all the latest skimpy styles marketed to teens. She disappeared into the store, three-page application and resume in hand.

‘Look policy’

When she returned moments later, she was frustrated, understanding that the referral to an affiliated store meant that she did not fit the bill here. It seems that this chain had an actual “look policy,” only hiring teens who fit its ideal image. The application asked the applicant to report how many varsity sports she plays, and includes modeling contract information. One might think that the public is apathetic about the physical beauty of the kid who pulls the requested size sweater from the shelf. Apparently, this company is banking on beauty.

Another well-known teen shopping destination has been known to circulate memos to staff with regard to overall physical appearance for prospective employees, including the policing of eyebrows, hair, and makeup, purportedly rejecting applicants based on their standards for overall physical appearance, including weight.

Professor Daniel S. Hamermesh, from the University of Texas, explores the phenomenon of “lookism” (judging people based on their appearance alone) in his latest book, “Beauty Pays.” In it, he recognizes the existence of discrimination based on appearance in the job market and the fact that beauty sells. He grapples with the complex question of whether or not discrimination of this type should be protected by law.

Impact on teens

I have always been a proponent of talking out issues with my children. Luckily, my daughter has a strong self-image and did not seem to be as disturbed by the lookist policy she knew to be in place, as she was with the inconvenience of continuing her job search. But, not all teens would feel that way.

When I spoke with her by phone, Dr. Susan Bartell, child psychologist and author of “Dr. Susan’s Girls-Only Weight Loss Guide,” told me that, if retailers’ “lookist policies” are part of a growing trend, then “they can make kids feel that what they look like is more important [than it should be], and push kids to feel inadequate and do things they are not comfortable with, such as [extreme] dieting or wearing clothing that is not comfortable.”

Still, according to “So Sexy, So Soon,” a 2008 book by Dr. Diane E. Levin and Dr. Jean Kilbourne, exposure to sexualized images and fashion, among other things, “[can make] girls think of and treat their own bodies as sexualized objects.” Aspiring to fit within the parameters of some stores’ idealized images is no different. Sexuality is linked to the very nature of the clothing marketed to teens and the provocative style of the advertising.

When I spoke by phone with Alissa Quart, author of “Branded — The Buying and Selling of Teenagers,” she told me that the store my daughter applied to — and others like it — intentionally “want there to be a confusion.” Since teens begin to feel strong allegiances to a particular store or manufacturer, and the salespeople begin “to resemble the store,” the confusion ensues as the teens begin to feel as if the salespeople are their friends. According to Quart, their goal is “to sell a total atmosphere” where the salespeople all look a certain way.

“Things get all muddled,” she explains, “as there is confusion between the teen-tween consumers’ emotional life and consumption.”

It seems as if the stores can get away with this because of what Quart refers to as the “hierarchy that the stores are held in in adolescent culture.” Teens and tweens tend to identify themselves with the store or brand of choice, referring to themselves as a “Store A person” or a “Store B person,” for example. She also told me that an issue arises “when people become objects and objectify others and themselves.”

Valuing the ‘whole person’

Now the question becomes: what can we — or should we — do about this phenomenon?

My daughter was unscathed by her experience, recognizing after the store interviews that she did not have the look they wanted. Secure with her own self-esteem, she moved on and obtained gainful employment elsewhere. Unfortunately, not all teens or tweens would react in the same way.

Quart agreed that most parents want to protect their children from this type of discrimination and from the “pervasive commercialism” that has made these stores so significant in our youth culture. She would recommend an open-ended conversation, questioning the norms.

Still, “you do not want your child to be totally alienated from their social group,” she adds.

Bartell said she would recommend an age-appropriate, ongoing conversation, initiated when the opportunity presents itself, starting as young as age 4. She told me that such opportunities will arise often, whether they come from the TV or are passing comments by a child or another adult about how someone is dressed or how she looks.

She would advise parents to focus on talking with their own children about the inner qualities they should value in people, and cautions them to model good behavior by not being critical of other people’s looks. Parents should help the children empathize by asking them how they would feel if others judged them by their looks or criticized their appearance. They should understand the importance of “valuing the whole person” and should know not “to judge a book by its cover.”

On one end of the spectrum, upon recognizing the unfairness of such policies, some would tell young people to “just deal with it, because that is the way the world is.” On the other end of the spectrum, others would counsel their children to take action and boycott stores with discriminatory hiring practices, or even take action to try to alter unfair hiring practices.

I agree with Bartell and believe that parents should take the most essential step of talking with children when they identify or witness such an unjust situation.

It is the parent’s job to share her feelings about right and wrong with her kids, and guide them to act in a way that she feels would be appropriate.

As parents, we will never be able to shield our children from all unfair merchandising situations, marketing ploys, or unjust employment rejections. What we can do is educate them and try to give them the tools to deal with those injustices.

Risa C. Doherty is an attorney and freelance writer from East Hills, NY.

Copyright 2011 by Risa C. Doherty

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