By Lily Bourne
A five-year-old wearing Lululemon, a group of middle schoolers running around in SHEIN-procured crop tops, a younger sister providing makeup tips parroted straight from her TikTok For You Page. The noticeable increase in “maturity” in the way young girls present themselves may seem an irrelevant, inevitable response to changes in society and culture, but for some—like a concerned older sister, perhaps—it represents a strong worry for new generations. The phrase “they grow up so fast” used to be a positive adage, dropped in by an onlooking grandparent after a kid’s first day of school, revering times when their children were mere toddlers waddling around, expressing bittersweet feelings toward their newfound maturity. Now, it refers to an unsettling sense of “maturity” found in many girls as they discover the wonders of consumerism from an increasingly early age. Why is this a problem? Social media and multinational corporations target this specific demographic, enforcing the illusion of girls “growing up faster” by profiting off of insecurities and easily influenced young minds.
As many are becoming aware, TikTok and Instagram have an incredibly strong influence over younger generations. Far more than any parent, teacher, or older mentor can understand, social media has shaped the lives of all young users from the moment they open their first post. By creating a level playing field–where all members have access to the same videos and information—content-sharing platforms allow their consumers to connect to the larger hive mind of what is considered important at the time. Thus, easily influenced young people come to find solace in the sameness of social media. They can see exactly what’s trendy, what clothes they should wear, what music they should listen to, what activities they should do. These algorithms routinely recommend more mature-themed products–revealing clothing, heavier makeup, and intense skincare regimens–and at the core of every video is the same message: “buy this product and you will fit in”. Every single decision children make can be dictated by a simple search and a perfectly curated set of posts. How convenient, right? Well, unsurprisingly, businesses take advantage of this reliance. While get-ready-with-me videos and hauls may seem innocent, they result in an influx of mindless purchases. After all, the goal of these content creators is to make money too. Even if the little seven-year-olds purchasing $50 concealer really do just love makeup, they are inevitably falling into a trap set by executives who know exactly what they’re doing. Did little girls one day decide to wear crop tops and makeup out of nowhere? Again, no. This shift in self-presentation stems directly from increased social media use, and to that extent, increased access to the almost propaganda-like whims of big businesses.
Let’s be honest. Is the real goal of SHEIN, Forever 21, Amazon, and the thousands of other fast fashion brands to “empower everyone to explore and express their individuality?” No. Fast fashion brands have one purpose, and that is to generate profit. When faced with their choice of any specific group in the world to cater to, these companies have found the jackpot. Thriving off of peer validation and worryingly susceptible to influence from outside sources, young girls are the perfect target for big businesses looking to make money. Purposefully, fast fashion brands focus on cheap prices and endless options to provide an exciting and engaging experience for their consumers. If you think a kid in a candy store sounds thrilled, you should see that same kid on Amazon for the first time. The intentions of these companies are clear, but that does not make them any less effective. Fast fashion brands’ profits are insanely high, and young girls will continue to buy their products so long as they continue to provide the validation of others. TikTok and Instagrams’ algorithms create waves of “microtrends”, which are often associated with certain popular products or “aesthetics”. While these trends will realistically only last for a few months, or even weeks, purchasing the newest viral product might make the difference between fitting in with peers or being isolated from the extremely interconnected world of girlhood.
While one or two new products realistically won’t make a difference in one girl’s life, the idea of “growing up fast” will. The biggest consequence of falsely perceived maturity in young girls isn’t easy to talk about, nor is it a simple problem to fix. Adults with harmful intentions can and will misinterpret a shift in appearance for an actual increase in mental development. It doesn’t matter whether these adults truly believe some children have reached an appropriate level of experience to where it is acceptable to disregard actual age or not. Individuals will continue to use the excuse that “she acts mature for her age” to justify taking advantage of young girls. This poses a deeply troubling dilemma for many concerned parents, siblings, and friends. Obviously, maturity is not found in revealing clothes or extra makeup, and shouldn’t be expected of such a vulnerable demographic. But should we be discouraging our young girls from trying out these forms of self expression simply to shield them from the awful people in the world? Realistically, is it doing more harm than good to isolate them from the trends and ideas that help them relate to their friends? These questions have no easy answer, but one thing is clear. Young girls aren’t growing up too fast. They’re simply victims of the consumerist cycle we all face but to an even more staggering degree. While the situation may not be rectifiable, it is important to understand the significance of such a shift in our culture as new generations are damaged more and more by profit-hungry corporations.