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.
But it wasn’t just a girl’s dress that looked like mommy’s, her undergarments could indeed mirror mommy’s lingerie:
I am trying to decide what disturbs me more with this picture, the Christmas Red bra and panties, the pose, or the fact that it is eerily similar to this:
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.
I know people who live in more affluent, white areas than I do, and I’ve heard of other women (older, more affluent) who bring their young daughters in for waxing/tweezing. A very large amount of the backlash is, as you’ve said, because of class issues. An affluent older woman in Florida or New York who takes her 3yo to a salon for a waxing/tweezing gets a pass that a younger poor woman gets for doing the same thing at home.
This isn’t really about BABIES–all babies– it’s about GIRLS.
And more to the point, I think this early “beautification” is less about consumerism and more about sexualizing female-bodied humans from birth.
Through these culturally accepted practices, girls are being groomed to comply with gender in the form stereotypical femininity. We learn that our value is in how we LOOK, not how we act or what we can DO. Females then internalize these messages so deeply that we begin to think they are natural and inevitable. It ultimately LIMITS the range of socially acceptable behavior available to females. And yes, of course, it SELLS. But it also reinforces the sex-based status quo of gender, including the inequality that unavoidably flows from gender’s traditional hierarchy of social importance.
I hate people that pierce their baby’s ears – sometimes even boys get one stud!
It’s not safe, puts their child’s health at risk (infections aren’t uncommon) and if they’re little hoop earrings, just because YOUR finger doesn’t fit in the hoop doesn’t mean the baby’s can’t – he/she could quite easily get it caught and then tug and then oops. Is that a severed earlobe?
It’s a form of bodily mutilation – it’s milder than a tattoo or a belly piercing or neck stretching equipment, but it’s bodily mutilation nonetheless and I firmly believe that children should make their own minds up about having their ear(s) pierced.
It’s important to look at the cultural impetus behind these things. Many cultures have pierced babies’ ears as a tradition. Little girls like to play dress up in their mothers’ clothes and to have similar type clothing of their own in order to emulate adults, without those clothes being just smaller versions of adult clothes. In Turkey, young women will start waxing after they get married. Any girl with body hair is considered a virgin, but once they start waxing, they will do it for life, as part of a community of women. But, when people start objectifying and sexualizing small children as part of their own identity, in order to train these girls to accept cultural stereotypes of women as ornaments or sexual objects, then it crosses the line of decency. You have to wonder what is wrong with a culture for whom this is the feminine ideal.
Agreed, @HistoryNerdGirl. My mom wouldn’t let me get my ears pierced until I was 12, and any additional piercings had to wait until I could sign the consent form myself. I’ve known people who pierce their baby girls’ ears because they don’t want them to be mistaken for boys. Because that would be terrible.
As a person from a culture in which piercing your newborn daughter’s ears is defacto, I can say that I don’t think it’s about sexualization so much as – girls wear earrings, end of story. I guess the logic is to do it when they are young to get it over with (??).
As I grew into myself and began to question things, I realized how completely invasive it is to (painfully) modify another person’s body without their consent. Still, I wouldn’t liken it to baby heels, because many children can and do choose to have pierced ears, not as a some sort of facsimile of adult behavior, rather as a ‘decoration’. Or even having their eyebrows waxed because to me, the message is – you are unattractive and need to be fixed/repaired.
Perhaps my lenses are rose colored….
Exactly, Jen! Wouldn’t it be terrible if a perfect stranger thought you baby was a boy, when she was really a girl! Or, probably worse, confused a boy for a girl! Heaven forbid! My policy was if I was going to have more than 17 seconds worth of interaction with said stranger, I would gently correct the confusion. Otherwise, who cares! My daughter was about 12 also when she first got her ears pierced. She had to be old enough to do the maintenance herself. Besides the fact that this gives her responsibility for the pierced ears, mom would have gotten a little queasy doing the cleaning and turning! 🙂
As for the waxing, I find it no better or worse than the heels or the piercing. It is just class/age (as in too young) bias against the mom.
[…] six throughout most of the 20th century, but in the past few decades, girls (and even babies, as I wrote about last year) are encouraged to look much older than they are at an earlier and earlier age. […]