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Growing up, my sense of my own beauty was either extremely confident or somewhat delusional, depending on how you look at it. Boys at school compared my eyebrows to caterpillars and my frizzy curly hair to a cocker spaniel's fur, but my mom insisted they were "just intimidated by my beauty." I took this as the truth. I would just have to bide my time amongst these plebeians who simply did not get it, hoping that one day someone would come along and acknowledge me for the queen that I was.
The "Girl Gets Discovered At The Mall" trope used to be a mainstay in sitcom plots, but recently seems to be disappearing in a world where teens are becoming increasingly less likely to loiter at the mall.
My actual effortless lifestyle, which involved eating as many Pepperidge Farm cookies as I pleased, did not align with Abercrombie's vision of an effortless lifestyle.
But in 2006, the year I transitioned from a Christian school where my class totaled 17 people to a public junior high of thousands of students, the mall was at its peak. Teens flocked to stores like Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch to grab fistfuls of tiny camisoles, distressed micro mini denim skirts, and racist graphic tees. If you resembled one of the kids on Laguna Beach, there was a chance you could get scouted to work at one of these stores, or even better, appear as a nearly naked model on one of their shopping bags.
This was the closest thing I'd ever heard to being "discovered" in real life. While many teens toiled away in minimum wage purgatory, scooping ice cream or delivering pizza, a chosen few could call themselves "models" by virtue of being hot people who could also fold piles of ribbed henleys.
It was through my older sister that I was first exposed to these stores. When a Hollister first opened, not in our mall, but the fancy mall a 45-minute drive away, she insisted we make a pilgrimage. The most fascinating, though also appalling, quality of shopping at Hollister is the way it makes you feel like you've stumbled into a bad college party to which no one invited you. Like Abercrombie, it's dimly lit and smells like the kind of musky cologne that a boy who is trying to hide something would wear. Bored-looking hot people stand around avoiding eye contact with you. The facade of the store mimics an actual beach shack and features a faux front porch with two chairs that are meant for decorative purposes, but are occupied at all times by exhausted parents. My mom is partially blind, so the dim lighting of Hollister was an actual safety hazard for her, and we'd wait in these chairs as my sister shopped.
"We should set up a business outside of Hollister where we draw clothes on the naked people on the bags so the store feels more family-friendly," my mom joked.
As oversized posters of these seemingly effortless beautiful Californian teens gazed upon me, I watched my family get into incredibly effortful arguments over whether $34.50 was an appropriate price to pay for a baby tee.
Before entering junior high, I was a devout Avril Lavigne fan, which meant these stores had never appealed to me. I'd seen the video for "Complicated." I knew the truth about the mall. I accessorized my parochial uniform of khakis and cross-embellished polo shirts with black jelly bracelets and novelty knee socks.
"Do you even know what those bracelets mean?" my sister asked my mom when I'd begged for them in the middle of Claire's. She was referring to the barrage of news stories that insisted teens were using jelly bracelets to play weird sex games. Each color represented a different act, black meaning intercourse. I held too much faith in Claire's to believe they'd ever sell me something so shameful. To me, Claire's held all the novelty jewelry and anti-establishment-while-still-being-an-establishment prowess of Hot Topic or Spencer's, minus the intimidation of teenage boys in bondage pants.
Brandy Melville's ideal customer appears to be white, thin, and looking off wistfully into the distance.
But when it came time to start public school, I decided it was high time I start cosplaying as a normie. I entered into the depths of Abercrombie and Hollister for the first time, rifling through the sale section hoping to achieve makeover-montage levels of transformation that would bring me an abundance of new friends. I thought maybe someone would tap me on the shoulder and ask if I'd want to work at one of those stores. I'd smile as I politely revealed the truth: "Oh, sorry, I'm actually only 13, if you can believe it!"
This never happened. Instead, each pair of extra-low-cut skinny jeans I tried on felt like a personal insult to my love handle-y body. (People take high-waisted jeans for granted these days.) I soon realized I could not attempt to wear any of the clingy jersey shirts that Abercrombie sold without the aid of a control top camisole. No seventh grader should feel the need to wear control top anything. My actual effortless lifestyle, which involved eating as many Pepperidge Farm cookies as I pleased, did not align with Abercrombie's vision of an effortless lifestyle.
I started to hear Avril Lavigne in my ears. Take off all your preppy clothes. You know you're not fooling anyone.
Honestly, I'd forgotten about my brief desire to be accepted by these retailers until I was recently, at age 21, browsing at Brandy Melville, the newest aspirational teen dream wonderland. Imagine if Justgirlythings opened a retail store that specialized in crop tops and denim cutoffs and you have Brandy Melville. The brand relies on scouting girls on Instagram to model and provide market research. Like those of the stores that came before it, Brandy Melville's ideal customer appears to be white, thin, and looking off wistfully into the distance. Unlike Abercrombie and Hollister, the clothes at Brandy Melville only come one size, which roughly translates to a small.
"They're too tiny!" a teen girl complained to her mom as she emerged from a dressing room in a pair of plaid pants.
"Well, why don't you try on the next size?"
"No, you don't get it! There is no next size," she whined. Browsing a few feet away, I saw visions of my teen self attempting to squeeze into pants like sausage casings.
This was one of the most extreme instances of validation I've ever experienced.
In another area of the store, an employee approached a tall modelesque woman who was definitely not a teen. "We love your look!" she told the woman, while snapping a picture of her on an iPhone. "What's your Instagram handle?"
The girls surrounding this scene all started to gape. It reminded me of being 15 and watching TV, wondering why I didn't look like those teens, only to realize later it's because they're 26-year-old, highly manicured actors.
This interaction freaked me out, but, to be honest, Brandy Melville sells an impressive selection of quality crop tops and I wanted to buy one. As I paid for my $11 black jersey halter top, a girl besides the cashier approached me. "Where are you from?" she asked.
"Um, I live here."
"How old are you?"
Suddenly, I was thirteen and feeling like they were going to kick me out for even thinking I could set foot in this store. "Uh...21."
"Would you be interested in working here part-time? We love your look."
"Maaaaaybe?" I replied.
This was one of the most extreme instances of validation I've ever experienced. I felt like Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed, when she goes back to high school and becomes accepted by the popular girls. For a brief instant, I started calculating in my head whether I could fit in a glamorous career at Brandy Melville with my two other jobs.
In a world where it's so easy to hate your own body, commodifying effortless hotness will always be a successful marketing ploy.
For all Brandy knew, I might make a terrible employee who had no idea how to fold sweaters and would eventually light all the driftwood decor on fire. But that didn't matter because of my look! My casual, effortless look that I now achieve as an adult woman by devoting hours to straightening and styling my hair, doing Youtube Pilates videos, and applying foundation to hide my acne and contour my face.
I didn't take the job, of course. I couldn't bring myself to do it. So why am I telling you about it? Have I just found a way to brag on the internet that some girl at Brandy Melville thought I was cute? Well, maybe. But also, being recruited by an image-obsessed teen brand made me realize just how insidious the whole concept really is.
In order to fit into the conventional ideal of a cool teen, I had to become an adult. They wouldn't have looked twice at me when I was an actual teen, desperate for a part-time job because the only thing I could afford to actually buy at the mall was an Auntie Anne's pretzel.
Despite my traitorous allegiance to Brandy Melville's affordable crop tops, I wish the concept of the unachievable teen lifestyle store would die as slow and painful a death as the mall itself is currently experiencing. But in a world where it's so easy to hate your own body, commodifying effortless hotness will always be a successful marketing ploy. I don't want to be part of a machine that makes money off of the insecurity of teen girls. And frankly, if I were going to do that, I'd much rather be hawking controversial sex bracelets at Claire's.