"Excuse me, I'm looking for the department that used to be called 'Juniors', but isn't any more?"
That was me, at Macy's last weekend, catching the attention of a salesclerk by pointing toward the rather embarrassed new teen by my side.
"What I am looking for is someplace with clothes for... her..."
That would be my niece, who'd turned 13 a week or so before, and who marked the date by outgrowing the largest size at The Children's Place. Her mother -- my sister -- responded to this latest growth spurt with the kind of dismay that only someone who sees clothes shopping as akin to water-boarding can understand. Which is why I was invited to the mall.
I actually LIKE shopping, and while I have never done it as the mother of a daughter, I did raise two boys with definite opinions about what they would wear. Also, I used to be a girl. And, to close the deal, I'd read much of the literature in recent years about girls and body image -- the challenge of boosting their confidence, but not their sexuality; of helping them fit in, but not letting them sell out. I had this one down, I thought. I would swoop in and guide my whip smart, beautiful niece a few steps further along the path toward proud, self-actualized womanhood.
Not only that, it would be fun.
I had no idea what I was in for.
My first surprise was the lack of a Juniors department. We marched from Macy's, to Lord & Taylor to Target, my niece, my sister and I, and there wasn't a Junior to be found. The practical bridge between children's and young adult clothing had been replaced with neon and glitter realms, named with adjectives like "Style" and "Modern." The word "junior" apparently implies that one still has some growing up to do, which seems not to be what this age group wants to hear. (Interestingly, you can still search for "juniors" on the websites of all these stores. I presume this is because parents, ie. the ones with the credit cards, are fine with the idea that their daughters are not fully grown.)
Approaching the racks I summoned talents proudly honed over decades -- the ability to flip through hundreds of hangers and zero in on just the right item. Shopper's radar. Fashion focus. Whatever it was, I would share it with my niece, pass it down a generation, leave her thinking her Aunt Lisa was really cool. But I had never faced down prey like this before.
All the sweaters had holes in them. On purpose. The camisoles designed to go underneath that mesh had gossamer thin spaghetti straps, because bras are now supposed to be visible beneath. My niece, who knows what works for her, if not yet where to find it, liked some of the clothes, disliked most, and didn't love anything. And while her mother put up a brave front, she was deflating in front of me. "I don't think that's supposed to fall off one shoulder," she said, of a shirt that was clearly designed to do precisely that.
Enthusiasm flagging, we crowd sourced. Using a modern tool on a modern shopping trip I went to Facebook and asked: "Mothers of girls: I am at the mall with my 13 yo niece. Where to buy clothes!?? The last time I shopped for a teenage girl I WAS one, and there was something called the Juniors department. Help????"
The 75 responses to my plea fell into three categories. "Believe me, she knows where to go," was typical of the first. But no, this particular girl didn't. She was not yet one of those girls who prowl the mall, learning the nuances of every brand name, and forming clear opinions on what works for her and what doesn't. She might be a girl like that someday (though if my sister is any measure, that's unlikely) but that possibility was little help in the moment, because she needed clothes right now.
The second group reprimanded me -- gently but definitely -- for the phrasing of my question. "You asked 'mothers of daughters' " wrote Jason Sperber, a dad blogger who I had recently seen at a dad blogger conference, where we spent a lot of time talking about how fathers do everything with their children that mothers do. "Didn't we just go over this last weekend?"
He was right, of course, but I pled temporary insanity. "Point taken Jason," I answered. "But don't yell at me now. My brain is scrambled by migraine-inducing beats and I'm not thinking clearly."
The rest of the responses would have made a marketer grin. My Facebook friends threw brands my way like life preservers. H&M. Abercrombie. Aeropostale. American Eagle. The one mentioned the most was Forever 21, which may well be the perfect name, because younger or older, who doesn't want to be 21? (I'm talking to YOU woman my age in the dressing room next to us with an armload of tie-died pants.)
With this new North Star, we marched toward a two-story glass and chrome mecca, filled with purple leather jackets and kerchief sized skirts. Not everything was pink, which appealed to my young charge immediately. A few blouses weren't see-through, which appealed to her mother. There were things the girl was willing to try on, which thrilled us all.
We pulled several sizes of each chosen item off the shelves, because we had no idea which one our tall, thin, willowy girl would turn out to be. We learned that the smallest jeans in the store were too big in the waist, but, oddly, too tight in the calf; we decided that leggings and yoga pants would serve as her interim go-to and moved on to shirts. There were two that spoke to her, both cotton (not too scratchy), both short sleeved (not too warm) and both with stripes (not too thin ones, because those would make her look like she was in jail.)
She left happy and I left chagrined. So much for helping her toward womanhood. What I thought of as my chance to teach her how to keep her sense of self amid the mayhem turned into a reminder of how very loud the shouts of culture and conformity can be. Staying true to who you are, amid a sea of who you aren't, can be exhausting -- which more or less defines being a teen.
And next? She needs new shoes.