'Male' Doesn't Rhyme With 'Sale'

(By James M. Thresher -- The Washington Post)
By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 5, 2007

When Beth Lewis takes her three sons shopping, it's a quick trip.

Her youngest, 13-year-old Eric Mendelson, will head for the shoe section to pick up a new pair of sneakers. David, 15, might look for basketball shorts, and Michael, 17, a shirt that, in his words, is nothing fancy, "just comfortable and looks good."

All three will have specific style and fit in mind. If they don't find what they want, they won't hang around looking at other items. "It takes less to satisfy boys than girls," says Lewis, a personal trainer in Olney.

Her observation was borne out in a recent shopping expedition for teens organized by Washington Post business reporters and editors. Sixty-one teens descended on Tysons Corner Center: 60 girls and one boy, and he spent only a short while there.

Shopping, to adolescent males, is simply not the rich experience it is to females. They go to the mall less frequently and don't stay as long when they go, according to a 2007 survey by the youth research company TRU. They spend less than half what girls do on on apparel, shoes and accessories, a survey by retail services firm Piper Jaffray found. And as Lewis's sons demonstrate, they target-shop, a trait that continues into manhood, according to family therapist Michael Gurian.

"Males hunt when they shop," says the author of "The Minds of Boys" and "The Wonder of Girls." "They'll target a wrench and on the way out maybe pick up a hammer. Females gather. They'll say, 'I need a shirt, but first I'll go into this section of the store and look around.' "

Many girls love shopping as an excuse to hang out with friends, but it's more than that, Gurian says. Because of the way their brains are wired, they tend to be more sensitive to both shades of color and the feel of things. They can tell the difference between lavender and violet when a boy will only see purple; they'll run their fingers over different textures of fabric, contrasting a silk blouse, for example, with a more ordinary rayon.

"Say, a boy walks into Nordstrom with his girlfriend and she says, 'Touch this. Isn't it great?' " He's likely to say, 'Yeah, I guess,' " says Gurian. "He's not going to get much out of it."

William Pollack, a psychologist and director of the Centers for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital in Boston, suggests there's more than biology at work. There's also "the boy code." While young men take more interest in looks than they did when he first coined the phrase 10 years ago, they still believe they're not supposed to, he says. Not yet secure in their masculinity, they're afraid that if they dress up, people will wonder whether they're gay.

"It's still considered a girly thing," Pollack says. "Boys have to dress down, to look as rough-and-tumble and distressed as possible. They'll wear whatever they've got in their closet until it wears out."

This is true even of boys who work out, he says. It may be cool to have ripped abs, but you're not supposed to care what you put over them unless it conveys strength and power: the shorts and jerseys of the athlete or the gangsta's baggy pants and oversize T-shirts.

And labels are not as important as who's wearing what. A boy will follow the whim of his posse or a favorite buddy. Which is how David Mendelson came to favor basketball shorts worn low on his hips and tank tops that fell just past his waist. He spotted the combination on his friend Dean, who had picked it up from another guy named Wally. Now most of his friends dress like he does, he says, their identity the group identity.

When boys shop, it tends to be for electronic items, games and game consoles, according to Samantha Skey, an executive vice president at Alloy Media+Marketing. It's not that they don't pay attention to clothes, they just don't like shopping for them. This may be why only six young men volunteered for The Post project and only one -- Adam Rothe, a 13-year-old from Burke -- showed up.

Adam purchased a $100 pair of white Nikes, grabbed something to eat and left. He wasn't surprised that other guys took a pass. "Girls may go together to 15 different stores for one pair of jeans," he says. "I've never gone to the mall with other guy friends."


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