“I can’t wear THAT!” can refer to anything—from vintage Chanel to last year’s potato sack—but the words and underlying sentiment have special significance when they are uttered by a teen girl. Girls use clothes, accessories, and fashion to define themselves, make statements about their choice of peer group, and to establish their psychological identities. For some, the right outfit can serve as a conduit to the popular clique. For others, clothing choice allows them to fly under the radar. It sometimes might even make the difference between a teen girl’s fitting in or opting out of her school community entirely.
It’s as simple as a basic black dress and pair of pumps: for members of the teen girl set, fashion confers power. Many experience persistent worry about what they are wearing. They readily acknowledge that they dress to fit in with friends. In teen world a fashion faux pas has the potential to bring about social ruin, and to become a set-up for insults and ridicule. Even the possibility of choosing the wrong outfit can hang over a teen’s head like a Sword of Damocles.
Sound like an exaggeration? Take Jenny and Charlotte, both 13, and best friends since kindergarten. They had always done everything together, from picking out school supplies to texting non-stop about their favorite contestants on American Idol. Charlotte admitted that she idealized Jenny. She asked her friend for advice, laughed at all of her jokes, and wanted to spend every waking minute with her-- until Jenny began to feel too crowded. One morning Charlotte called home and asked her mother to buy a pair of jeans identical to those Jenny was wearing. Jenny fumed: “I can’t take it anymore! She copies everything. She wears just what I wear—the exact same style and color—every single day. I just want my own life.” Their friendship never recovered.
“What Charlotte was attempting to do,” notes Dr. Brenda Berger, a New York City psychoanalyst, “was to use her friend as a means to bolster her own ego. By latching onto the same jeans, she was really seeking mirroring and external confirmation and supplies from her friend as a way to pump herself up, so she could feel more confident and less vulnerable.“
In other words, when adolescents copy their friends’ outfits, it’s not just about clothes. By dressing the same way, speaking the same way, and adopting their friends’ mannerisms, they are actually expressing something complicated about their own developing self-esteem. In psychological terms, they are seeking out—and all of this goes on outside of their awareness—a mothering type function from their friends. When they feel insecure or fragile—and what teen girl doesn’t worry constantly about her social standing—they attempt, through minute and routine interactions, to use their friends in much the same way a young infant uses it’s mother. They try to get approval and attention in tacit and unspoken ways in order to bolster their fragile self esteem.
How exactly do adolescents use friends to bolster self-esteem? They do this through two related processes: by seeking mirroring from one another and by establishing a sort of twinship with an admired friend. Both mirroring and twinship are complicated, and both are ways to boost a fragile self.
First, mirroring: while the theory, borrowed from work on infant development, is psychologically dense, it essentially boils down to this: if someone feels unsure but sees him or herself reflected back in another’s appearance, words or actions—say in identical clothing—that person feels pumped up, less insecure. Though this occurs at the blink of an eye, and is mostly out of awareness, it is quite common. And what it all means is that when adolescent girls see aspects of themselves mirrored in their peers, they get an ego boost and feel less vulnerable.
Adolescents derive affirmation and approval from their friends’ identical outfit choices and from mimicking their friends appearances in much the same way a baby who is learning to babble feels shored up every time it’s “goo goo goo” is met with its mother’s identical and responsive “goo goo goo.”
Mirroring and affirming are crucial to the development of babies and toddlers, all of whom need a lot of esteeming. They are so important to healthy development because in their young state, infants and toddlers are totally reliant on their environment for support—and the proper environment is necessary to nurture development. In other words, babies need to get love and esteem from outside. They derive self-esteem gradually over time when in repeated interactions they see praise, love, approval, and affection in their mother’s eyes.
Healthy adolescents aren’t really all that different from babies. Just as the baby needs to take in what psychologists call “narcissistic supplies,” which are gathered from the outside as a normal occurrence as a means to build healthy development, the adolescent needs external supplies to build self esteem.
The concept of mirroring only goes so far in explaining why so many teen girls dress exactly like their friends and reject anything even slightly different than that which the rest of the gang is wearing. Still open for discussion, for example, are questions like: why is one color acceptable to a group of girls when the same style shirt in a different color won’t fly? Why do groups of friends sport matching hair and identical shoes? It seems they seek to bolster themselves by mimicking and adopting aspects of a close friend or “twin” through a phenomenon first discussed by H. Kohut, and since known to psychologists as “twinning,” or establishing a “twinship,” with an admired peer.
Though Kohut wasn’t writing about teen girls, he might as well have been. His writing on twinship explains a lot about needing the affirmation and approval of others to bolster self esteem. How it all works is as follows: fragile or insecure people (read: teen girls) borrow from an admired friend who, in a sense, unwittingly performs an important aspect of the mirroring function usually performed by a mother for an infant. When a teen girl mimics the appearance and style of a friend, she feels pumped up, her self esteem bolstered. It is as if the right jeans reflected in the mirror of a friend’s identical outfit are to the thirteen year old what a warm, radiating smile of maternal approval is to a six month old—a way to obtain narcissistic supplies that are so crucial to development of healthy self-esteem. It is as if the “twin” peer is saying, “Let me lend you an aspect of myself to pump up your esteem.”
What this means for teen girls, is that in this cohort the self is commonly experienced as being fragile. To repair it, teens (and adults do this too) imagine—not necessarily consciously--who they’d like to be, and attempt to align themselves with this idealized self-image. When they see themselves mirrored in another, a sort of ideal twin version of the self, they think the admired parts of the other have now become part of them; they feel they have attained the admired, hoped for self by aligning with the admired “twin.” Simply put: when teens align with an admired “twin” they feel less fragile and insecure. So, just as the mother in the example above is mirroring her baby’s emotional development by encouraging, affirming, and responding (“goo goo goo”), a teen peer is acknowledging, affirming, and esteeming her friend by dressing in an identical fashion. Teens that choose to dress identically to an admired friend also bolster themselves in a similar way.
Who is most prone to twinship?
If you have read this far, it won’t be a surprise that teen girls commonly change their appearances to fit in with peers and feel more secure. It makes sense; girls this age are often in a delicate position psychologically. They want to be part of a group and at the same time they are striving hard to establish their identity. Adolescent identity is somewhat plastic and subject to frequent changes, anyway—and that is all within the normal realm of behavior. Kids this age are unsure of their identity. It is in constant formation. One way of establishing an identity is being part of a peer group. And one way of fitting in with a peer group is looking like the members of that group.
So, parents can expect their adolescent girls might change their appearances on a dime, whether they all wear short skirts and high tops, or they all insist on getting matching tattoos and dying their hair jet black. Says one fifteen year old, “There are lots of groups at school: the preppy kids, the punks, the sporty people, the druggies, the Goths. My friends and I have our own style. We wear a lot of short skirts and cute tops. We go to the mall together and pick stuff out. You kind of like the same things as your friends, and you want to dress the same way so you feel connected to the group—you don’t feel right if you don’t look right.” And for fifteen year olds, looking right means looking the same and joining with a “twin.”
As a practical matter, ask a teen girl how she chose her outfit or what informs her style choice and, if she’s in the mood to discuss it, she’ll likely cop to imitating her peers:
“If all my friends are wearing black and I’m wearing black and white, it’s like I don’t fit in with them, and I don’t feel right. I, like, want to go home and change so I feel like part of the group.”
“If you don’t wear the same thing as your friends you feel weird, like you are on the outs.”
“You dress like your friends if you want to be popular, I guess.”
“If my friends are wearing it, it is cool. We dress the same way, and we all go to the mall together to pick stuff out.”
Viewed through a teen’s lens, the sentiment behind “I can’t wear that” takes on a deeper significance. It provides insight into the world and minds of teen girls; a place in which dressing to fit in is as important as having a boyfriend, and making good grades.
Though parents might wonder about matching hair- cuts and jet black dye jobs, these measures make sense to teens who are trying to establish identities, boost self esteem, and form relationship bonds. In these ways taking on aspects of another can be adaptive.
Sometimes self-esteem needs to be bolstered. If you can do it through a pair of denim jeans, why not?