"These kids are growing up so fast."
It's easy to dismiss the phrase when hearing it from an older family member or friend. We laugh at it and move on, quickly forgetting about it. However, I don't think we should be brushing aside this simple remark; there may be larger issues at play here.
Teenagers do look and act older than they did in previous generations. Looking back at some of the famous me at 13 vs. 13 year olds now memes on Twitter is proof enough of this. So, why is that? What happened in the decade before now that resulted in this rapid cultural change? This article will examine those questions and more, as well as offer explanations as to who the main culprit may be.
The "Awkward Teenage" Phase
13 year olds now vs me at 13 pic.twitter.com/9c8sRWTr4w— Jade 💜🖤⭐ (@KittyKat3801) August 4, 2019
One common piece of advice I used to get when going through the most grueling parts of my teenage years was that this was just an "awkward phase." Apparently, it was normal to dress a little weirdly and have so much acne. But there is no trace of that awkwardness in present-day teens anymore.
Just scroll through any teenager's Instagram and you'll see picture-perfect photos. You'll see kids posting about the amazing vacation they went on, or pictures of the latest party they've attended. Where are the cringey photos? The failed attempts at makeup? Proof of a time in one's life when they were still discovering their own identity and fashion sense? It's gone, it's nonexistent, and that's a problem.
The teenage years are supposed to be a time of experimentation! A reminder that it's okay to look a little imperfect, because everyone goes through this tricky transitional period in their lives. However, with the rise of social media and other influences previous generations weren't exposed to, teens only seem to be ignoring this and copying the behavior of "perfect" influencers online.
Social Media's Influence
Teens have unrestricted access to the internet and are constantly exposed to new information daily. So, when they see an Instagram influencer posting pictures of her flawless skin and perfect lifestyle, what do teens do? They mimic that behavior because they have a model, an example of what's "cool" and "trendy." An example of what to follow.
Am I saying social media are the root of all evil and the sole cause of this? No, of course not. I actually think it's great that teenagers have a fun way to share their interests and connect with others online. But instead of experimentation and discovery, teens are pressing "skip" through the trials and errors of adolescence. They immediately want to appear grown-up, just like their favorite influencers, and as a result completely miss the point of those formative years.
Teens in Media
When you Google "teen shows," some of the most common ones to pop up are Euphoria, Riverdale, and The Vampire Diaries. Notice a pattern here? If not, let me spell it out for you: all the actors in these shows aren't really teenagers.
You may be wondering why this is a big deal. Well, these shows are marketed towards teenagers, and depict people in high school. Teens (or even pre-teens) may watch them and internalize the actors' appearances, thinking that they should look the same way at this age. That doesn't sound too harmful on its own, but when it's discovered that these actors are in their mid-twenties or thirties, the negative impacts are clear.
The teenage years are awkward and messy. Braces and acne are a common sight just walking through the halls of any high school. So why does the media depict these "teens" as having perfect teeth, clear skin, and model-worthy bodies?
This may explain why teenagers don't look like they used to in previous generations. Nowadays, with the influence of current pop culture and social media, young people feel pressured to achieve the same effortless beauty all the "teens" in their favorite shows do. There's no room for braces and acne when the physique of a woman in her twenties is what's normalized as being a "teenage body."
How Companies Are Responding
Shopping for clothes as a teenager has never been an easy experience. It's hard to find a look that balances the line between young and old, childish and mature. This is why stores like Claire's and Abercrombie & Fitch worked so well; they were specifically targeted towards pre-teen and teenage consumers.
Now, though, the landscape has changed. Seventeen magazine cited Pacsun and Urban Outfitters as some of the best places to shop. These stores target customers of ages 12 through 24 and 18 through 30, respectively. Their motives are clear: broaden their target demographic, don't just focus on young adults. Start targeting teenagers. This isn't bad on its own, but it meshes teenage fashion with clothes meant for older adults whilst slowly pushing away the former staples of teen couture.
Justice has closed down all of its stores. Claire's, though still managing to keep stores open, had to file for bankruptcy in 2018. There's no denying that our current culture impacts the stores that were once the go-to places for the coolest new clothes and accessories. As times change, so do these businesses, with many of them being left behind.
Why the Pressure?
I think the main thing people are wondering is why teenagers are looking and acting so much older. Where this sudden pressure is coming from, it's hard to say for sure.
It's most likely a number of things: the media we consume, the TV shows and movies targeted towards this age group, the way companies are trying to broaden their demographic to include a wider age range. Regardless of what the cause is, the result leaves us with nothing but disappointment at the lost charm of an era. The phrase "let kids be kids" has been forgotten.
As a teenager myself, I feel sort of sad that this is what I have to grow up around. Long gone are the days where teens could post bad selfies and come to school with frizzy hair. Now it feels like everyone's born with the makeup skills of a professional, the fashion sense of a supermodel, and effortlessly clear skin.
There's no room for flaws, for anything less than perfect, because we are pushed to ignore that. We're encouraged to hush about the awkward growing pains we experience, simply because growing up means imperfection. Growing up means pain. And that's certainly not something society or influencers online want to acknowledge, let alone address.
We need to just let teens be teens. Let them go through their bad hair days and acne-ridden faces. Let them cycle through their emo phases as they discover their fashion sense. Let them practice amateur makeup and not be shamed if the rest of the girls in their grade look like movie-stars. The teenage years are about growing, and we must embrace that before we begin to change what these formative years mean.