In the aftermath of First Lady Michelle Obama’s trip to London and Italy, the already voluminous oeuvre dedicated to the style of her daughters, Sasha, 14 and Malia, soon to be 17, increased exponentially. As they accompanied their mother to various public events, they wore an array of lovely, age-appropriate, creative frocks. Nothing was especially edgy, tight or revealing. And in these official moments, when they stood alongside their mother and were, by default, informal representatives of this country, they were not a distraction.
But in the frenzy of our cultural obsession with transforming the barely-worth-mentioning into a scandal, a minor figure into a celebrity and famous people into icons, the Obama daughters have been elevated to trendsetters, style icons, role models and probably, somewhere out there in cyberspace, heroes — when, in fact, all they have done is to be seemingly well-adjusted, intelligent, pleasant teenagers.
Some of the admiring language has come from other teenagers. And it is always nice when contemporaries, particularly in the hormone-filled, mean-girl swamp of middle school, can muster a bit of admiration and good humor. But it is adults who seem to be reacting to the Obama daughters’ public style with unseemly exuberance.
It does no one any good to declare a teenage girl a style icon. Fashion can serve a lot of roles. It can be a tool for communication, an emblem of power, a statement about sexuality. But before it is any of those things, it is a pleasure. Girls — and boys — should be able to use it as an expression of creativity, a way of sussing out how they see themselves without being declared an icon and invested with the burden of representing something bigger and more universal than themselves. To be viewed as a style icon or influencer or trendsetter suggests that you have worked your way through fashion’s many options and found the one aesthetic philosophy that perfectly communicates who you are — or at least who you want to be. To give a teenager any of those labels is akin to thrusting them into adulthood too soon. After all, style icons are presumed to have the whole complicated, nuanced fashion rigamarole worked out. Icons don’t make mistakes. But every teenager should be able to have their dalliance with a mullet, acid-washed jeans, Laura Ashley prairie dresses, goth makeup or whatever fashion disaster of their era that will ultimately teach them a lesson about who they are.
The mouth-ajar admiration for the Obama daughters stands out because such coo-ing is typically reserved for celebrity infants — although that, too, has taken a turn beyond the creepy. Admirers have declared Prince George a trendsetter because adults — having seen him wearing baby Crocs — went racing out to buy them, not because they were suddenly made aware of something obscure and rare, but simply because Crocs, which they have stumbled across and ignored at Target, have now been worn by a royal infant. There is something de-humanizing in declaring a toddler a trendsetter. He is unformed, unknown — to us or to himself. Before he can develop and reveal a lively set of personality quirks, the public has used this blank slate of a child as a billboard for a list of products.
And there is that other celebrated baby: North West. Her parents, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, have thrust her into the glare of camera flashes: in the front rows of fashion shows and in her own fashion shoot for CR Fashion Book wearing a Chanel sweater and holding a little quilted Chanel handbag. The black and white CR portrait is adorable. And certainly her being given the fashion icon treatment is in no small measure due to her parents’ manipulations. But magazines such as Cosmopolitan go a step too far when they offer a how-to-dress-like North style guide. And to be clear, those instructions are aimed at women dressing themselves, not their own children. So in the process of truncating a toddler’s childhood, women are infantalized.
Our interest in celebrity offspring tends to wane in their prepubscent years. They’re not so cute then and our attention wanders. We are drawn back only if there is some incident of bad public behavior or if, like the Pinkett-Smith children, they start to build a professional resume.
The Obama daughters captivate because they are, for the most part, seen but not heard. Some curiosity is natural. Yet, one of them wears a simple dress from Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie as they descend the step of Air Force One with their parents and adults react with such admiration that one wonders: What were these observers expecting the girls to wear? Cropped halter tops? See-through dresses? Bandage skirts? Is every gush of praise, in fact, a sigh of relief that they avoided a teen sinkhole, a reality show trope or a racial stereotype?
Adults should not be disengaged from teen style. They should guide, counsel, encourage and, sometimes, simply say, “No, not on my watch.” But dubbing a teenager — or a child — a style icon, is our youth obsession writ large. It is the work of a comodified culture with an insatiable need to celebrit-ize. And as a result, we are selfishly declaring the young fully formed when they are only at the beginning of discovery.