Beauty and Babies
Two nights ago I ran across a story about Farrah Abraham, who set off a firestorm when she posted online that she had waxed and tweezed her 3-year-old daughter’s eyebrows because she had what Abraham described as a unibrow. The moment she admitted what she did, people called her insane, ignorant, and labeled her a “bad mother.” Farrah Abraham is known for her appearance on Teen Mom, a show that glorifies teenage motherhood and turns its participants into minor celebrities. Now as a mother myself, I could throw myself into the mix and condemn Abraham for falling victim to the rancid consumer culture that plagues motherhood, but I’ll refrain mainly because I, as well as most mothers, have acquiesced to the rampant consumerism that shapes our opinions, criticisms, and habits of mothering. In fact, when it comes to beauty and clothing, many mothers have become comfortable with our children mirroring adult fashion. There are many reasons for this, but seemingly since the 1950s middle-class mothers and daughters looking like twins or looking older/younger than they are reflects changing norms regarding girlhood and motherhood. Girlhood and motherhood have become increasingly sexualized, as the pressure to look older or younger has grown.
A few months ago, we posted the website, heelarious.com, on Nursing Clio’s Facebook site because we were shocked by some of the items offered. The byline for Heelarious is “Her First High Heels,” which refers to the baby shoes the company sells that resemble high heels. They also sell a bubble gum teether in the shape of credit card with “Ima Spender,” as the name of the card holder. What is striking about Heelarious is the publicity and praise it has received. “Move over Manolo and Jimmy Choo…baby girls can now get a jump start on the fashion world with their own high heels,” Matt Lauer from the Today Show happily remarked. Other individuals have given their stamp of approval including Diana Sawyer who exclaimed, “They’re squishy! They’re to dress your baby up when they’re going to fancy events, so they can have their own high heels.” I find the accolades of Heelarious amusing and condemnations regarding Abraham disturbing because the difference between the two is very remote. How is sticking a credit card shaped, bubble gum flavored teether in your kid’s mouth different from tweezing a toddler’s unibrow? One word: class. Abraham may come from a middle-class background, but her status as a teen mom places her well below middle-class status. Although teenage motherhood has gained more acceptance than it has in the past, it is a false seal of approval. The girls, like Abraham, who find themselves in the spotlight, are fodder for the public. Abraham’s moves are suspect and while she finds herself in the middle of a controversy (because “only” teenage mothers would make the decision to wax their toddlers eyebrows), scholars argue that she has obviously bought into sexualized culture that marks contemporary childhood. However, the loyal shoppers of Heelarious are just making sure their little ones reflect the height of fashion, right? No condemnation and outrage for buying a baby her first heels, just the quiet inputing of the numbers from the platinum AMEX on the site. Oh and by the way, if you notice in this particular picture right above, the baby also has her ears pierced. How is this okay, but tweezing is not? Is it because the pain with ear piercing is short lived, where pain is repeated everytime the unibrow grows back in? Or is it something else? In the end, whether it is removing a unibrow, piercing a baby’s ears, or purchasing a set of baby heels, we are introducing our daughters to a consumerism that explicitly as well as subtly shapes beauty norms.
Class and consumerism is of course not new. By the 1910s, retailers frequently addressed middle-class mothers and their children as consumers. Children represented a perfect opportunity to transform mothers and even prospective mothers into lifelong customers. In The Commodificaton of Childhood, scholar Dan Cook argues that as the children’s clothing industry emerged in the 1910s, the process transformed children into “legitimate, individualized, self-contained consumers”  Children’s departments begain to treat children as person-consumers, taking their desires seriously. As for clothing, Cook remarks that as sizes changed for children’s clothing, retaliers and manufactures during the 1920s and 1930s became concerned that clothing for younger girls, i.e. 6-8 year-olds, looked too similar to their older counterparts. Young girls were not to look like female teenagers with all that budding sexuality. Looking appropriate took on new meaning and the clothing industry looked for ways to produce girls clothing that was neither babyish or immodest. Yet, by the end of the 1950s and into the 1960s this seemed to change. Retailers encouraged girls to look more like their mothers and created dresses and dress patterns that allowed girls to look and feel like a grown woman.
Although Abraham received condemnation for waxing her daughter’s unibrow, what about the women who pierce their daughters ears or buy heels through Heelarious? Why does a baby girl need her first heels or a pair of stud earrings? Does it reflect the baby’s early and innate sense of fashion right out of the womb? If the child looks fashionable, then is it a positive reflection on us as mothers? Or in the end does putting on heels or some other foo foo outfit demonstrate an insecurity of our own aging or is it an acceptance that even babies, toddlers, and children are judged by their appearance?
1. Dan Thomas Cook, The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 3 and chapter 5.