AMY LAWSON’S BEDROOM WALLS AT LIGHT BLUE. At least, they were. Now they’re plastered with 200 pictures of the Backstreet Boys. “I love the Backstreet Boys,” she declares passionately. “I don’t care if they’re gay.” (Amy and her friends often explain that gay does not mean, you know, gay. It’s just a generic insult.) She becomes indignant. “The other day, I was watching the Backstreet Boys on The View and they cut it off because they had ‘breaking news.'” She shakes her head disgustedly. “There was a stabbing or something. Dude, you can’t wait two minutes to tell me that?”
Amy lives in the blue-collar town of Norwich, Connecticut, where her parents own a small business, Colchester Quik Print. Asked to describe herself, she hesitates. “I guess I would be … strawberry blond and chubby. And short. Definitely short.” She is actually of completely normal weight, has a sunny, frequent smile and usually wears her hair back in a ponytail. Amy has already ordered college catalogs – Notre Dame, UNC-Charlotte, Yale. Her most pressing worry, she says, is “the future, and I don’t mean Star Trek kind of crap. There are people in my classes who are ranked higher than me. I’m just scared I’m going to fall through the cracks.” Growing up, she says, is frightening. “I just don’t want to do my own taxes,” she shudders. “I see my mom doing her taxes, and I just don’t think I can sit down and concentrate on all those numbers.”
Amy explains that although she has dated, sex is not an option. “The responsibility,” she says. “The consequences. Pregnancy. STDs. AIDS. Oh, God, just everything. And what if you have sex with someone and they never speak to you again? What does that do to you emotionally?”
On weekends, Amy moves from one controlled environment to another, like most of her friends in Norwich: the mall, the movies, fast-food joints like Friendly’s, the nearby casino where they have a club for kids. Amy has been riding her bike around the neighborhood lately. “You don’t see a lot of that anymore,” she says, shrugging. “It’s like, ‘It’s a nice day, let’s go to the mall.'” Mohegan Park is nearby, too. “I think it’s a pond,” she says. “Or a lake. I don’t know. It’s a body of water. The only people that go there are parents with little, little kids. There used to be a zoo there, but now it’s gone; I don’t know why.” She buries her head in her hands. “This is sick! I don’t know anything about my town. Look, I really do have a clue.”
In many ways, Amy’s life is easy. She does not want for anything, except maybe a separate phone line. She has not lived through a major war. She will not have to fight the feminist battles that her mother did. She takes for granted that she will one day be a journalist. “Anything guys have an opportunity to do, girls can do,” she says, citing the example of women’s sports. She is not a feminist, exactly, but she’s supportive of the cause. “There’s not much we need to really fight for or argue for,” she says. “I think generations before us have done more work than we have – they worked for everything we wanted, and it’s the same things we want.”
The main difference between Amy and her generational predecessors is that Amy resembles nothing so much as a miniature adult. She wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to get ready for school. A typical day is classes, then a meeting and some ad sales for the school paper, then a few hours of homework. Then bed. “Sometimes I get stressed, but I can handle it,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m about ready to jump, you can look on my books and you can tell when it’s Friday, because I’m writing ‘down time’ on the covers.”
Stress? Down time? Intense worry is a right of passage of adolescence. Why am I so gangly/horny/zit-riddled/awkward? But Amy is part of a generation that carries around much heavier concerns: money, AIDS, social diseases, lack of time. The adult world holds no mystery for them – through the electronic media, kids are directly plugged into the outside world, and their homes no longer provide that necessary buffer. They know all about sex, for instance, but are often reluctant to try it. They are all too aware of the risks, which makes them slightly fearful. They are part of a generation that knows more but does less.
When they are not in school, most spend their waking hours with one form or another of electronic equipment, sometimes simultaneously: the Internet, the TV, the VCR, the stereo, the phone. Very few books adorn the rooms of Amy and her friends, save for the stray Mary Higgins Clark. The hum of electronic equipment has replaced the teenage standby of daydreaming.
“I always have something going, like my TV,” says Kaitlin Twomey. “Something. I hate silence.”
“I don’t spend a lot of time in my room,” says Sara Franklin. “I couldn’t; I’d go out of my mind. If I’m in my room, I put on music, and I read a magazine. Just being in my room for that long, I need to interact.”
Here’s hoping you like teens. By the year 2010, their ranks will swell to 35 million, the largest number in our nation’s history. Currently, there are 31 million of them, and everybody – advertisers, Hollywood, the WB – wants their Benjamins. Adolescent girls alone spend $60 billion annually. Most experts agree that the success of Titanic was the first major indication of teen girls’ economic muscle: They accounted for an estimated thirty to forty percent of Titanic‘s $580 million U.S. gross. These girls see more movies than almost anyone and buy more CDs than their male counterparts. Sophisticated and informed consumers, girls are also intensely brand-loyal – witness the success of the beloved clothing and housewares company Delia*s, whose revenues rocketed from $5 million in 1995 to around $190 mil this year. Creatures of habit, they dearly love ritual, particularly going to the mall: According to the New York Times, the average teenager goes shopping fifty-four times a year. There are fifty-two weeks in a year, mind you.
I spent the last year and a half visiting and corresponding with twelve girls from the middle-class town of Norwich, Connecticut, to see them in action. When I first got to know them, the girls were all in junior high. They were high achievers in school, curious, lively and endearingly eager to please. They handed over their journals and their wallets (three typical examples: $107, $200 and $80, harvested mostly from parents or baby-sitting at $4 an hour), opened their closets for inspection and offered up notes passed in school. Together, we roamed the Crystal Mall, ate sundaes at Friendly’s, played miniature golf at Putt’s Up Doc, drank gallons of growth-stunting coffee at the Liberty Tree cafe and spent lots of time in their rooms.
Sometimes, aspects of the girls’ lives were highly familiar – the merciless pressure to conform, for instance. (Most of them weren’t fully aware of how pervasive it was, as they blithely chatted about celebrating individuality while wearing the same flared jeans and Adidas shell-toe sneakers, their hair tied up in buns.) What’s also familiar is the girls’ abject fear of offending. This extends to their speech, which has a noncommittal, nonconfrontational, questioning intonation. Upspeak, if you will. “I don’t have a headgear, but before this?” says Kalyn. “My bottom jaw? Was undeveloped? So they put these two metal bars in my mouth? I swear, I could barely even talk.” Reassuringly, they love animals, clothes, talking on the phone and, of course, hot guys.
These girls, for the first time in American history, wield tangible power in dictating popular culture, and they are confident consumers, secure in their opinions. A cottage industry has sprung up around the study of these young’uns, because what they dig will eventually make its way, in diluted form, to the forty-year-olds. This is the first generation, as well, to grow up with true images of female empowerment. If you ask the Norwich girls what they want to be when they grow up, they say a surgeon, a veterinarian, a marine biologist, a professional soccer player. It never occurs to them that they can’t.
“Right now we’re totally in the age of the female,” says Todd Cunningham, senior vice president of research at MTV. “The whole girl-power thing is huge. In fact, a lot of teen boys feel quite disenfranchised because they don’t have as many role models,” he says.
There are five generations right now who consider themselves young,” says Marian Salzman, a trend consultant at Young & Rubicam. “The idea of ‘how old is old’ has changed,” she explains. “Old used to be fifty, for sure. Today, it still feels old, but it’s not, really.” Salzman studies the habits of global youth, “but the biggest problem is, what becomes ‘not youth’ at this point?”
“There’s a lot of generational blurring,” says Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group, a trends-research company. “Look at someone like Goldie Hawn, who’s in her fifties. You’re seeing a lot of people in their fifties wearing jeans and sneakers and chewing gum, doing really youthful things that you used to leave behind when you’d gotten married and become an adult.”
Consequently, many of the girls do not see their parents as out of touch – they think of their folks as being on the same team. They listen to the same music (Sara Franklin’s mom, Nancy, is a major Aerosmith fan), they wear the same jeans, they watch the same TV shows.
“My mom and I watch certain shows together, like Party of Five and Dawson’s Creek,” says Lindsay Aimar. “When I have to baby-sit or something, my mom watches Dawson’s Creek on her own.”
“I love to be around my parents,” says Jolanda. “I get along with them real well.”
The girls speak sentimentally of family rituals. “We have what we call snack suppers,” says Samantha Little. “We put a fire in the fireplace, put the table up close to the TV, and we’ll eat, like, nachos and little snacks like Bagel Bites.”
“During the summer, we tape Days of Our Lives and watch it during dinner,” says Sara Franklin.
“It just continues to amaze me how much kids that age really, really love their parents,” says MTV’s Cunningham. “They are their heroes. I never would have called my parents my heroes. It was all about being away from them. To them, their parents are cool, they’re the MTV generation. They’re listening to the same music as the kids are, watching the same TV shows, wearing the same clothes.”
“Helen gets mad when I borrow her clothing,” says Helen Strong’s mom, Wendy, who is thirty-four. “I steal her clothes all the time.” She laughs. “Most of the time I don’t get caught – I put them back before she gets home.”
Nancy Franklin and her daughter Sara went to see Aerosmith together. “I saw them twenty years ago, but what the hell,” says Nancy.
Often, the girls’ mothers are their complete confidantes. The mother-daughter boundaries are much more nebulous than they were a generation ago. “Oh, I tell my mother everything,” says Kristine Callender.
“If I was to talk to my mom about having my period, she would have a heart attack,” says Wendy Strong. “Now Helen writes it on the calendar and tells me all about it. She tells us a lot. I mean, would you ever have told your parents about the first boy you kissed?”
AMY LAWSON AND I ARE OFF TO Mohegan Sun, a casino in nearby Uncasville that employs a goodly number of Norwich citizens. Amy wears her flared jeans for the occasion and a sky-blue top with clouds on it, and carries a light-blue vinyl purse by Whatever, which contains Natural Glow cherry lip gloss, a wallet and Love’s Wildflowers cologne.
“This has been here for a few years,” she says as we step dazedly into the darkness of the casino. Amy and her friends come here every other month and descend upon the game room – unsupervised teens aren’t allowed in the casino. “There’s an arcade called Kid’s Quest that I go to. If somebody wanted to go to the casino on vacation and have the kids watched, there’s a whole thing going on in there.” Mohegan Sun has a seasonal theme. Apparently we are in winter. “They have concerts and stuff here, too,” she says as we pass a poster heralding the arrival of Steve and Eydie, and then we are at Kid’s Quest.
The room is bright with artificial light. There is not a clock in sight, nor are there any windows, just like in the casino. Everywhere are glazed-eyed, gray-faced kids hunched over video games. Occasionally, a cheer goes up. The kids’ grim faces precisely mirror those of their septuagenarian counterparts in the casino: strap a tiny hip pack on them and they’re ready to hit the Seasons Buffet.
Mohegan Sun is one of the biggest economic powerhouses in this largely blue-collar area and marks the latest crest in Norwich’s boom-or-bust economic cycle. In the late 1800s and the early part of this century, the town was supported largely by several large cotton and wool mills. After World War II, the textile industry died out, and Thermos and United Nuclear came in. “They helped take up the slack,” says Dale Plummer, the town historian, “along with Electric Boat, who makes submarines. That did very well through the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, at the height of the Cold War, Electric Boat employed 25,000 people. Nowadays that number has dwindled to 7,000 or 8,000. Thermos, meanwhile, packed up in 1986. Foxwoods, a casino owned by the Mashantucket Pequot tribe, came to town in 1992, followed by Mohegan Sun. Together, they employ some 15,000 people. “It’s been good economically, but it hasn’t enhanced a lot of other things,” says Nancy Franklin. “Gambling your grocery money? But the flip side is, when we lost Electric Boat, people were picked up by the casinos, which offered insurance and paid vacations.”
The population of Norwich peaked at 42,000 in 1970 and now is holding at about 35,000. Many traditional industries in the area have closed down. Although the casinos have provided employment, there has been an exodus of skilled and semi-skilled labor from the area. In a casino, you make $7.50 an hour, instead of, say, $15 an hour at Electric Boat. A lot of people in this town are working all the time. Many folks, Plummer says, work two jobs. “The average income in 1995 here was $23,179,” he says, “compared to an average of $30,000 in Connecticut. So we are one of the poorest towns in the state. Things are going well with the casinos, but their life expectancy is not that long. We’re in a great position between Boston and New York, but what if a competing casino springs up in Rhode Island? What then?”
Norwich is actually in sync with the national mood – economically healthy for the time being, but there lurks the feeling that all could end at any minute. Certainly, these kids feel provided for and do not worry the way their folks do. Many of them have TVs and stereos in their rooms, all of them got loads of new clothes for the school year, and all of them get handouts from their folks when they ask.
“We have to keep our children happy,” sighs Wendy Strong, a receptionist at an animal hospital. “Most of the time, she asks for money and I’ll give it to her. She helps around the house.”
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is currently building a research facility in nearby New London. “They have this new drug,” Plummer says dryly, referring to Viagra. “That’s a good sign, and an employer that pays very well.” He pauses. “Of course, those are primarily jobs for those with a high level of education. The real difficulty is that you need diversification that puts money into the local economy and pays people enough to afford rents. We have a lot of houses for sale.” He laughs. “Wanna buy something cheap?”
AMY’S PARENTS, BRYAN AND Robin Lawson, grew up in Norwich. They met in high school and married a few years later. They are proud of their town, but they don’t think that Amy is necessarily growing up in the same town they did.
ROBIN: I used to run around in the park with neighborhood kids. It doesn’t seem like kids do that anymore. We just did a lot of hanging out on local playgrounds. Just behind where I grew up, one street over, there was this little brook near this older lady’s house, where my sister and I would go and sit and talk, admire the little dinky fish that were swimming through. You know what’s ironic now? If I had a kid sitting in my back yard right now, I’d be pitchin’ a bitch. I’d tell them to get off my property. Which is sad but true.
BRYAN: In our neighborhood, there’s eight kids, all in the seventh or eighth grade, and they never hang around together. Back when we were kids, one parent would yell out the door and everyone would scatter for supper.
ROBIN: What’s more, our kids will bounce from one friend this week to another friend. There’s not the bonds that we developed as kids [sighs]. And it bugs me when they say that there’s nothing to do, when there is so much. Just school alone – there is so much available to kids now that they could be at school twenty-four hours a day if they wanted. And still, they want you to find something for them to do. It’s like making their own recreation, where your parents would have thrown you outside in the snow and said, “Go find something to slide on.” When you send them off on their own, sometimes they don’t know their ass from their elbow.
BRYAN: We don’t want the computer in the house, because we don’t want the girls vegetating in front of the computer all day, so they go to the library to do that. We’re trying to get them to do more things like we did.
ROBIN: I don’t know what you do to entertain them anymore. It seems like you have to go somewhere and spend money.
BRYAN: I definitely wouldn’t want to grow up as a kid now. Not this way.
SAMANTHA LITTLE KEPT A FOOD diary for two weeks. An excerpt follows.
• SUNDAY: Doritos, Ham’n Cheese Hot Pocket, Diet Pepsi, turkey sandwich, three Milano cookies, pickle, glass of lemonade, cherry push pop, pasta, bread, Nerds candy.
• TUESDAY: Fruity Pebbles, soft-shell taco, nachos, hot dog, fries, freeze pop, microwave soup.
• SATURDAY: Grapefruit, broccoli-and-cheese soup, nachos, grilled cheese, coffee sundae, Spaghetti O’s, candy apple, caramel candy, Ham’n Cheese Hot Pocket.
I EAT DINNER AT HOME MAYBE three days out of seven,” says Sam, who, against staggering nutritional odds, is clear-skinned and thin. “I just eat snacks when I feel like it. We all have different schedules. My mom gets home at, like, eight; my dad gets home late now because he’s a football coach. Nobody really eats at home.”
“I memorized the Domino’s phone number,” says Jessie Feeney.
“She loves it!” confirms Sam. “It is so true. It is so true.”
“We never have dinner together,” says Kristine. “Only if it’s a holiday or someone’s birthday.”
“I think dinners are just a meeting place: a warm, cozy place,” says Nancy Franklin. “You yak it up, talk about what’s bothering you. That’s what bothers me now – it’s on the run; they’re getting older.”
“If my mom gets home early enough, she’ll cook dinner,” says Lindsay. “But she mostly works late. I’m here by myself a lot, but I don’t mind.” Lindsay’s folks are divorced. Despite the fact that the national divorce rate is nearly fifty percent, Lindsay is an anomaly among her friends.
She is giving a tour of her bedroom. “I, like, live in my room, practically,” she says, and it is easy to see why. It is girlie and cozy. A Matchbox 20 video is playing on her TV, which has been set to MTV all morning. “It’s three ay-em and ah’m feelin’ lone-leh,” wails Rob Thomas. Christmas lights are strung around the room. Hanson photos cover the wall near the stereo, along with an official certificate to the Bonne Bell Lip Smackers club. Candles, vanilla perfume, a lava lamp and a glittery purse crowd her dresser.
She flings open her closet door to retrieve her journals and flips through one of them. “To Drink or Not?” reads one headline. She decided not to, by the way. No one drinks in the group she hangs around, so there is no pressure. “There’s, like, the bad people who drink, and I would say I hang out with the good people. Plus, it’s hard to get, even if we wanted to. You have to know an older kid.” Lindsay is curious about being drunk, but not curious enough to try it, she says.
Lindsay, although she is too modest to say it herself, is a very popular girl. The phone (“It’s cordless,” she points out) has rung three times in half an hour. “Everybody knows me as a talker,” says the sunny blond cheerleader, flopping on her blue-flowered bed. “I was voted Most Cheerful.”
Tonight, Lindsay is making her own dinner, then going to a baseball game. In the fridge there is leftover chicken that her mom made, but Lindsay isn’t into it. “If I eat meat, I’ll picture the animal that I ate, like, say, a cow, inside my stomach, eating me alive,” she says with a shudder. “I just can’t do it.”
AN ELECTRONIC INVENTORY OF Kaitlin Twomey’s house, which has four residents:
• Five phones
• Two CD players
• One stereo
• Seven TVs
• One desktop computer
• Three laptops (“I’m writing my autobiography on one,” Kaitlin says.)
• One beeper
• Three VCRs
• Nintendo, PlayStation, Super Nintendo, Sega
Family Time, in general, is in critical jeopardy,” says acclaimed Nebraska psychologist Mary Pipher, author of the bestselling 1994 book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls and 1996’s The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families. Pipher is alarmed by the way family members are isolated from each other in their own homes, as each member heads off to a different room with the electronic equipment of his choice. No one, she writes, is truly interacting. In Reviving Ophelia, Pipher offers a sobering statistic: The average mother talks a mere seven minutes a day to her teenager; the average father, only five minutes.
What do you do as a family? I ask Kalyn Walton. “Well, we all have dinner, and then my dad will be working on something, my mom will be doing something else. Right now she’s going to school, so she works really hard. My brother’s doing Nintendo, and I’ll be on the phone. We don’t play, like, Scrabble.”
“In the Fifties, when television came in, it changed the world forever in very important ways,” says Pipher. “That’s when people went from relying on their family members and their neighbors for entertainment and stimulation to relying on a box. Now it’s gotten much worse because it’s not only TV sets – it’s video games and CD players and seven TVs and computers.
“One of the things that’s happening everywhere,” Pipher adds, “is that churches are actually having ‘family meals’ classes, where they have a whole generation of young parents who never had family meals themselves. They don’t know how to do it. And they want to. They’ve heard it’s a good idea, but they don’t know how. They don’t know how to cook. They don’t know how to set a table. They don’t know how to sit down with the TV off and talk to their kids.”
AGAIN, IT IS OFTEN THE GIRLS, and not just the parents, who are under time pressures. “By the time I get home, it’s, like, eight o’clock,” says Jolanda, who has marching-band practice most days. “Now my dad says I can’t talk on the phone until half my homework’s done. I do my homework, and I’m too tired. I go to bed.”
“I take judo,” says Tracy Moore. “Last night I got home at nine.”
Lisa Lombardi is the editor in chief of Twist, a beloved teen magazine that is in all of the girls’ rooms. “Kids have a lot of responsibility,” she says. “Either both parents are working or they’re with a single mom. And they’re expected to do a lot. It’s not a very carefree time. We get a lot of questions about stress. We did an article on stress, and it was one of the most popular things in there.”
“They are as stressed out as their parents, if not more,” agrees Christina Ferrari, managing editor of Teen People. “They’ve got school, they’ve got work, they’ve got all these extracurricular activities they have to do if they want to get into a decent college. The pressure on them starts younger and younger. There’s definitely the sense that they’re growing up in a competitive world. But I think that in spite of that, they’re still upbeat. It’s reality for them, but they’re achievers.”
KALYN KEPT A RECORD OF CLOTHING and cosmetic purchases. Here, a week’s worth:
• Dress from Filene’s, $48
• Dress from Byer Tool, $48
• Shoes from Marshall’s, $29.97
• Two jumper dresses from Sears, $30 and $36
• Cover Girl eye shadow $4.25
• Maybelline nail polish $1.99
This is my second home,” says Tracy happily. “I come here once or twice a week.”
We’re at the mall, of course. Tracy is accompanied by Sara, who is looking for a bathing suit. Tracy is just freestyling. She’ll know what she wants when she sees it.
The mall! It’s so much more than shopping. To a teenage girl, it is a weekly chance to safely reinvent yourself – some new Steve Madden shoes and frosty pink Clinique lipstick, and Chad or Jeb or Zack could be putty in your hands. All it takes is some baby-sitting money and a few twenties wheedled from Mom and Dad.
What’s so great about the mall? “There’s so many things,” says Kalyn giddily. “It’s such an escape – which I need to do, especially when my older brother’s around. Plus, a lot of times you’re split up from your friends in classes, so you get together on weekends and you can talk and no one will overhear your conversations. You get to pick your own food because of the food court, which is awesome. Do I want tacos or pizza or Chinese or all of them? Then there’s Mrs. Fields afterward! Or Slush Puppies. Do you know what they are? It’s sort of like slush from the side of the road but, like, clean? With syrup, like grape or lime or cherry?” Kalyn estimates that she spends anywhere from $10 to $100 per visit.
Tracy and Sara, meanwhile, are cool and businesslike. They hit four stores in twenty minutes. The Gap and the Limited are a bust, but Pacific Sunwear yields two tank tops for Tracy. She buys them without trying them on, slapping down forty of the eighty dollars she has in her purse.
Another shop purveys clothing for guys. “This is a store for bangers, I guess,” says Sara. Bangers, they explain, is one of the eighth-grade cliques. Bangers are the skateboarding guys and the women who love them. Bangers wear the big bell pants, long-sleeved shirts with short sleeves over them, thick silver neck chains, Vans sneakers. They listen to Korn and Metallica. “Ever since Korn put out that song about Adidas, that’s the thing to wear,” says Sara. “I don’t know why your music should pick who your friends are, what kind of clothes you wear and how you act.”
“There’s two different groups,” explains Tracy, grabbing Sara’s hands to inspect her nail polish. “The other is the rappers. Say you dress like a banger and you’re a rapper. You can’t be both. If you listen to alternative music like the Smashing Pumpkins but you dress in big baggy Boss shirts and stuff, then you’re a poser.” Rappers wear baggy clothes by Hilfiger or Boss, and Fila or Nike on their feet; they listen to Puff Daddy and Lil’ Kim. Then there are Alternatives, who enjoy your Smashing Pumpkins and the like. The dress code for Alternatives is apparently not as strict.
But we digress. Look, it’s Spencer Gifts! The girls swing in to inspect the latest in inflatable furniture, some of which decorates all of their rooms, then they make their way to a department store for Sara’s bathing suit. A group of teen boys checks them out as they walk. The two contrast prettily: Sara has a winning smile, rosy cheeks and glossy brown hair; Tracy has golden skin and blond hair down to her waist.
Sara is tall and willowy, but she feels like getting a one-piece. They search in vain in the Teen section. Nothing. They zoom into another department store. Again, there are only skimpy bikinis in Teens. She sighs. “It’s like they’re not actually just coming out and saying it, but they’re trying to send you a message that says, ‘You have to wear a two-piece if you want to fit in.'” She finally settles on a suit from the adult section. “Whatever,” she shrugs, plunking down a couple of twenties from her $150 stash.
Pity the fool who underestimates the buying power of a teenage girl.
“They are very savvy,” says Teen People‘s Ferrari. “They want brand names, especially designer labels. They’ve got money to burn, but they really want quality.”
Mail-order catalog Delia*s was one of the first to hear the distant sound of ka-ching! The company continues to mushroom: It has introduced a boys’ clothing line and a Web site, and has opened fifteen retail stores, with more on the way. Recently, it added a line for preteens called Dot Dot Dash.
Kids spread the Delia*s gospel through word of mouth. “What’s interesting in marketing to kids in this age group is that when they like something, they tell all their friends about it,” says Delia*s CEO Stephen Kahn. “We had lines of kids basically in the school cafeteria calling us up, and slumber parties. We pull in an average of 5,000 catalog requests every day.” A few years ago, says Kahn, marketers wouldn’t touch that age group. “There was a stigma, because they change addresses a lot and they don’t appear on lists,” he says. “What we found is, if you get them the right product, they go ape over it. Kids have access to incredible amounts of capital. Typically, daddy’s little girl gets what she wants and moms don’t have to be dragged to the mall.”
Alloy, another teen catalog, grossed $10 million last year thanks to its strong presence on the Internet. It runs poetry and creative-writing contests judged by celebrities dear to teenage hearts, such as Missy Elliott, Macy Gray, Jewel, Natalie Merchant, T-Boz of TLC and Tori Amos. The site also features installments of a new series called Fearless, by beloved Sweet Valley High author Francine Pascal. The catalogs’ empires are vast, but there are still frontiers to conquer. “More than thirty percent of teenagers are overweight,” says Irma Zandl. “There are some real marketing opportunities.” Indeed, kids are less fit now than they were forty years ago. “I think the biggest growth opportunity is going to be intimate fashion for overweight kids,” she says.
There is an unseemly side effect to this joyous festival of marketing. “Kids see probably as many as 400 ads a day,” says Pipher. “It reinforces a young person’s basic tendency, which is to be impulsive. Before TV, as a child grew up, they got hundreds of messages from people saying that grown-ups delay gratification. They learned the controls internally that they needed to be able to tolerate frustration.” Ads, however, tell kids to “just do it.” “Now they get so many messages that tell them, ‘It’s your right to get what you want, the moment you want it.’ If you don’t know how to deal with uncomfortable internal states, you’re very vulnerable to addiction.”
Pipher chats frequently with teachers, who tell her that these days, it’s spooky to see children’s art: “From the time they’re babies, children are getting sort of predigested images. And it probably directly affects their ability to imagine. They sit and inhale images from the screen, and it may affect the very neural chemistry of the brain. It’s sad, because when you feel hopeless, what you need is the ability to imagine a better place for yourself.”
Becky Lord, for one, is not entirely down with this idea. “I don’t think TV has anything to do with that,” she says. “I don’t think TV itself is bad; I think it’s the person.”
K RISTINE CALLENDER AND Jolanda Porter, friends since kindergarten, are making short work of mozzarella sticks and chicken fingers at Friendly’s. The subject: boys. Jolanda is explaining why things did not work out with a certain young man.
“I ended up really liking him a lot,”she says, “but there always came those parts where I felt like I was …” She pauses, for this is a delicate matter. “It had a lot to do with height.”
He is four feet eleven. She is five feet four. He has grown since then. The two have grown emotionally as well, because after a rocky breakup, they are now “best friends.”
“Me and Kristine are very opposite about boys,” says Jolanda, gesturing artfully with her chicken finger. “She likes them more than I do. I’m very picky. See, the problem with Kristine is that …”
“She always speaks for me,” Kristine says, collapsing in a fit of giggles. “Always! So what is my problem, Jolanda?” She points to her friend. “She leads boys on.”
“No, I don’t,” Jolanda declares. “How far have I gone, Kristine? I don’t even do anything! I’ve gone to French kissing. That’s it.”
“French kissing’s nasty!” Kristine says. “You get this tongue all up in your mouth.” They are both giggling now. The patrons of Friendly’s are surreptitiously watching them, not just because they are boisterous, but because they are beautiful girls who don’t know it yet.
Jolanda has something to say. “The reality is, a lot of people like the regular romantic kiss – peck, whatever you want to call it – much better.”
“French kissing is nasty,” Kristine says again. “Spit everywhere …”
Jolanda nods. “I don’t even let people drink from a cup before me,” she says.
WHEN IT COMES TO DATING and friendship, these girls are part of the first race-blind generation; if one of the girls is dating a boy from a different ethnic background, no one even bothers to remark on it. Jolanda is regularly asked out by boys of all shades (being picky, she is an equal-opportunity rejecter). A recent boyfriend of Kristine’s was Mexican, she says.
“No one cares,” says Jolanda, “although sometimes parents are a problem.”
“My brother went out with this girl, and she was white,” says Kristine. “Her father came to the school, called my brother down to the office and told him to break up with his daughter.”
All of the girls know everything there is to know about sex. They can rattle off methods of contraception, potential diseases, positions – but many haven’t progressed much beyond kissing. Some seem a little fearful.
Guess what the bases are these days? “First base is really not that bad; it’s just, like, French kissing,” says one girl. “Second base is really just like, oh, God, feeling somebody or something. Over or under the clothes. It’s really not that big of a deal. And then, um, third base is, like, the biggest one.” She collapses in giggles. “I don’t know how to say it! It’s the guy sucking the girl’s, like, breast or something, or a girl doing it back to him, but not – you know.” Oral sex? “Yeah. Or, um, the guy doing it down there [laughs]. Not a lot of people do it. Some of my friends have.”
Tracy says that a lot of the kids in her class are doin’ it, but she isn’t: “I haven’t done much, and I’m proud of it.”
“Anyone our age who thinks they’re ready for sex is so dead wrong,” says Sara.
“I’m not a professional on this topic,” adds Kalyn Walton.
“There is just so much pressure now to be sexually active,” says Margo Crowley, health teacher and confidante to some of the girls. “It’s so available. I feel really bad for these kids – they just know way too much. They watch a lot of MTV, they see a lot of R-rated movies. The way they flirt with each other is so different than the way I flirted with someone when I was twelve. The way the girls dress is so provocative. The skintight shirts. They’ll say, ‘Oh, my skirt’s not too short,’ and it’s like, ‘Yeah, it is.'”
The upside, surprisingly, is that teenage pregnancy is decreasing – the teen birthrate has dropped twelve percent since 1991. The average age of deflowerment is seventeen for girls, down just one year since 1970 (for boys, it’s sixteen). The frequency of oral sex, however, has increased for kids, who use it as a substitute for intercourse, mistakenly thinking that it will not spread disease.
But though sex may be all around them, so, of course, is anxiety. According to a recent national survey, teenage girls feel that the pressure to have sex and fear of pregnancy are the most pressing issues they face.
W E – JESSIE, LINDSAY, KALYN, Sam and I – are sitting at the Liberty Tree. With its tan-and-green decor and knickknacks, it looks like it used to be one of those good-times T.G. McWillicuddy-type chain restaurants. Now there’s Lilith music playing and veggie wraps for sale.
“It’s just cool to hang out here,” says Sam. “We do it to get crazy. And because coffee tastes good. I hate black coffee because it’s gross, but I like when they put stuff in it.” They discovered the place last year, after they all went cosmic bowling.
“We stay an hour, hour and a half,” agrees Jessie. They order salads and a round of iced tea.
“I normally don’t eat lunch at school,” says Lindsay, forking into the salad. “I just don’t like to eat in front of people. It’s just awkward. Three girls at my cafeteria table don’t eat lunch at all.” (A proposed solution: The folks at Los Amigos High School in California reported record lunch sales after they opened a mall-like food court three years ago.)
“Taste this,” Sam demands, pushing away her piña colada iced tea. “This is gross.”
“I’m getting coffee,” says Lindsay. “Sam! Come with me, pleeease.”
They return with iced coffees for everyone. It is some concoction called the Crazy Caveman. “This is some new thing, with a couple of extra things in it, like vanilla,” says Lindsay. “The guy won’t tell us what’s in there.”
“Coffee stunts your growth,” says Samantha, cheerfully quaffing hers.
“I’m five-seven and it hasn’t hurt me,” says Lindsay. “Hey, you guys – I have you all on speed dial.” This is, apparently, quite an honor – speed dial represents VIP status. “After Chris asked me out, I told John Paul that if he would call Chris and tell him no for me, I would put him on speed dial.”
The girls throw back the coffee within twenty minutes. “Let’s get another,” says Kalyn, and they do.
Although coffee-shop chains will deny it, they are luring younger kids in droves. Coffee consumption is up within the ten-to-nineteen-year-old set, according to a recent study. The National Coffee Association says that kids prefer cold, sweet, high-caffeine drinks – cafe mochas, iced coffee with whipped cream and chocolate shavings and caramel and cinnamon and vanilla syrup. Have you noticed a proliferation of these drinks popping up on coffee-shop menus?
Some studies show that too much caffeine makes kids nervous, frustrated, sleepless and anxiety prone. Others say that caffeine improves kids’ performance and sharpens their attention and reaction skills, so make it a double latte! In 1996, a high school in Huntington Beach, California, opened Java the Hut, the country’s first on-campus coffeehouse. It was a huge success.
Inside the Liberty Tree, the girls’ reaction skills have indeed sharpened. Sam and Lindsay jump up, race to the counter, return with some chocolate espresso candy and happily pop it. They talk about cute guys.
“Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer!” one yells.
“Prince William!” yells another.
“The 3rd Rock From the Sun guy!”
It is time to go.
When the four girls pile into the car, the caffeine really kicks in. “Turn on the radio!” they urge. “Oh, my God, I love this song!” says Lindsay. “Who is this?” Eve 6, it is determined.
“Turn it up!” they yell. They bounce around the back seat, twitchy and garrulous, not unlike a pack of Chihuahuas on crystal meth.
“Matchbox 20! Turn it up!” they yell. Boing, boing, boing.
JOLANDA CALLS. SHE HAS JUST returned from the African Methodist Episcopal Quadrennial in North Carolina, a week-long gathering. “Every day we had church, two times,” she says breathlessly. “We were, I guess, worshipping, clapping, singing out loud. I loved it so much.”
Oh, religion is big. “It’s interesting: Many girls are more religious than their parents,” says Mary Pipher. “I think it comes from several places. One is that people need meaning. Consumer corporate culture isn’t very satisfying. The other thing is that kids are hungry for guidance. They really, really like the structure.”
“People are looking for answers, especially young people,” says Irma Zandl. “The whole WWJD thing is huge. Kids ask themselves this when faced with a moral dilemma. And there’s a million kids now who are being home-schooled. That’s huge. And a big reason behind home schooling is on religious grounds.”
“If you watch history over time,” says MTV’s Cunningham, “in good economic times, religion goes way up. It can take many forms, even astrology and tarot-card reading.”
Indeed, with some of the girls, religion has a distinctly New Age bent – it’s more of a gauzy, be-nice-to-people-and-especially-yourself spirituality. Religion is almost a blanket term that gets all mixed up with things like aromatherapy.
Kids hunger for meaning because teenage girls in 1999 are, as former teaching intern Dianna Ivey puts it, “optimistic about the world but fearful about themselves. When that thing in Columbine happened, the kids really needed to talk about it the next day. I asked the kids to write in their journals, What could we do to make our environment safer? They said bars on the windows, policemen in the hallways.”
“Just last Friday?” says Kaitlin, “I was home alone and I was kind of scared because this guy stabbed his wife to death near our school. I had my friend’s mom come pick me up.”
“This girl got murdered on her paper route,” says Samantha. “That freaked me out.”
“Kids’ Number One concern is violence,” affirms Cunningham. “Mostly because they realize that it’s all happening out in the suburbs.”
“These girls are carrying around more knowledge of everything that could go wrong,” says Marian Salzman. “They spend their lives waiting for the other shoe to drop. I think the reason Titanic did so well with teenage girls is that everybody wants to know the ending of a story before they watch it.”
The best term to describe these girls would be cautiously optimistic. They are not idealists, but they do feel positive about the country and upbeat about life in general. “Times were kind of tough for the teens who grew up in the early Nineties,” says Cunningham. “Now kids rule. No parent wants to be accused of not spending time with their kids or giving them anything they want. The economy’s really great, and girls have lots of positive role models.” He laughs. “In many ways, things are fuckin’ amazing for them.”
WE WERE SOMEWHERE AROUND Norwich a summer ago, on the edge of the suburbs, when the raspberry ginger ale began to take hold. Nine junior-high-school girls from this Connecticut town have gathered to celebrate Becky Lord’s thirteenth birthday, and they are all amped to the gills on the stuff, a vile pink liquid that they gulp with the greedy intensity of Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. At this point in the evening – after the ice-cream cake and before a viewing of Scream 2 – anything will incite them, be it Hanson (Lindsay just saw them in concert and she loves them so much), Jerry Springer (“Awesome!” they yell) or Beanie World magazine, an alarmingly thick glossy about Beanie Babies that they excitedly flip through. (Chortle if you will – the magazine’s sales regularly top 1 million.)
“OK, seriously. Who farted?” someone hollers, and there is a round of heated denials. Meanwhile, Becky, who, like all of her friends, is dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, opens her birthday presents: Lip Smackers, glitter bath gel, a fifteen-dollar gift certificate for the mall. They briefly compare toenail polish (blue, purple, green), then out comes a well-worn Kelly Middle School yearbook. The school’s cute guys are pointed out. They speculate on the sexual leanings of one of the teachers, then Becky performs “On My Own” from Les Miz. “It’s so cool, she’s going to act it out,” says Sam admiringly, and she does, with much gesticulating.
M & Ms are passed. While they all talk at once, the girls draw their sleeping bags in a circle. Occasionally, the chatter is punctuated by dolphinlike shrieks. Everything they say is a declaration infused with operatic drama, often repeated for emphasis. “This girl, Amanda?” says one. “She is such a snot. I hate her. I hate her.” Jessie points to her yearbook photo. “That is the worst picture,” she announces. “The worst picture ever in my life.” They jostle to be heard. Wait! You guys! Sh! Lindsay has a story!
“OK,” Lindsay says. “Um, I put this penny on the table? And it landed straight up? And I put, like, five other pennies up like that in a row, and we were like, ‘It’s probably a ghost or something of the Notorious B.I.G.’ And then we got in my mom’s car, and two seconds later, the next song we heard was by him.” She looks around, eyes narrowed.
“You were so freaked out,” says Sam solemnly.
This is my cue to go. “Come on,” Becky wheedles, indignant. “You haven’t even seen my hamster yet! Don’t you want a piece of cake?” I gently extricate myself and say my goodbyes.
As I head out to the car, I hear a round of eardrum-shattering shrieks coming from inside the house. “Oh! My! God!” one of the girls screeches. I think of my own dad, the father of three girls. Around the time we all hit our teen years, he started going deaf in one ear. We begged him to go to the doctor. He never did.
“I’m fine,” he’d say cheerfully. Like a thunderbolt, it hit me.