IN DEFENSE OF THE AWKWARD STAGE
January 26, 2023
Billie Miró Breskin
For a few years during lower school, I wore nothing but graphic tees, navy flared yoga pants, and Uggs. Knee-high converse occasionally made an appearance, and I loved my plastic charm bracelet from Gap Kids. All I cared about was being comfortable—being able to do cartwheels with my friends at recess. A couple years later, inspired by the black-and-white movies my family watched on the weekends, I showed up to my first day of seventh grade in a white blouse, saddle heels, high-waisted midi skirt, and a hat. In an effort to look more like those glamorous film stars of the 40s, I shaved my eyebrows down to thin lines and harshly penciled them in. I looked like I was wearing a costume, and the makeup was comically bad.
Looking back on those years of ill-advised style choices, my first instinct is to cringe at myself. I can easily criticize myself for trying too hard, or not hard enough. I think of the outfits I put together and roll my eyes at just how little they suited me, or how impractical they were. Then I remember: I was just a kid, and the job of a kid is not to be stylish or appeal to a certain aesthetic, but simply to be a child. I experimented with how I dressed because it was fun and I could (a privilege in and of itself). I wouldn’t dress how I did back then today, and that’s fine. My 12-year-old self had no obligation to appeal to my present self when it comes to how I looked, nor should she have.
I got some snide comments about both style phases described above, and those were part of what pushed me to change things up. It took a long time for me to begin dressing for myself in a meaningful way, in large part because, like most kids, I was conscious of what other people thought of my appearance. Reflecting back, I am ultimately so grateful that my younger self went through those phases. They were awkward, sure, but they also represented what I valued and what I aspired to at the time. Through dress, I could experiment with representing who I was and how I felt. It took years until I felt as confident and comfortable getting dressed each morning as I did throwing on my yoga pants and Uggs.
These all-important awkward phases, however, seem to be dying out. The advent of digital media (from which my childhood was generally free) has already begun to have serious effects on child development. Many children have access to social media at earlier and earlier stages, as opposed to previous generations, who were either adults or in their teens by the time apps like Instagram and Snapchat took off (let alone TikTok). Today, instead of just using film and book characters for inspiration, tweens (and younger) can have a shopping list—courtesy of an influencer— at their fingertips. There are countless pages dedicated to cataloging celebrities' wardrobes on Instagram, which defeats the role of inspiration in cultivating personal style, replacing it with a simple copy-and-paste. The YouTube makeup tutorial has become a perfected art, and a multitude of “core” aesthetics urge social media users to pick a style—and an identity to match.
This change has not gone unnoticed. Videos like this one amass millions of views, in which users show an example of what some young teenagers look like now vs. what they looked like at the time. The current teens in these videos are often in crop tops and jeans, hair and makeup perfectly done, doing popular TikTok dances. The teens of the past usually appear, in contrast, as immature and messy, engaging in an now-embarrassing activity. These videos are humorous, but also show the disparity between what childhood looks like in the age of social media. Comments on these videos are often a mix of levity and concern, wondering about the implications of these teens (who are overwhelmingly girls) looking more and more like adults.
This is not to say that the practice of attempting to dress older or use makeup didn’t exist ten years ago—of course it did. However, that practice has become even more normalized and expedited, resulting in serious implications for the wellbeing of these children, particularly as girls are already frequently sexualized. The continued sexual objectification of minors is far more grave than that of the loss of the awkward phase, but they are correlated. By being influenced out of childhood experimentation, mistakes, and cringey choices, kids are denied the benefits of this form of play.
When speaking to my friends about their respective phases, they laughed at themselves, embarrassed but nostalgic. One described wearing sportswear to prove she wasn’t like the other girls. Another admitted to a ‘cat girl’ phase. These periods in our lives were necessary in getting where we are today, both in our personal styles and in who we are. I’m glad I looked weird and glad I looked bad because those phases represent moments of agency and self-determination. I chose how I wanted to look, however strange that look was, and I chose to have fun and play with my appearance. I can only hope that the means of self-expression through playful dressing isn’t entirely lost as we move into a more and more digital world.