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Ladies, Please

A user's guide to growing up female in America.

Jul 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 43 • By JENNIFER A. MARSHALL
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Girls Gone Mild

Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good

by Wendy Shalit

Random House, 352 pp., $25.95

"We don't want you wearing something that blends in with the crowd .  .  . boring! We want something that inspires!" Mrs. Hoffmann tells 45 high school girls assembled on a Saturday afternoon in Bethesda, Maryland. In black patent peek-a-boo heels and a sheer black sundress skimming the top of her knees (and this from her maternity wardrobe), Mrs. Hoffmann, 37, makes a convincing pitch.

This is Pure Fashion, a program that emphasizes virtue and dignity as it cultivates modesty and life skills. "Remember, many girls are pretty, but few are radiant," Mrs. Hoffmann tells her protégées.

I recently led a workshop on public speaking, and now it's time for the group's fashionista to assess girls' outfits for next month's fashion show. Besides the no-wallflower rule, each must meet Pure Fashion modesty guidelines and suit the individual girl. "Grow some thick skin real quick," Mrs. Hoffmann advises as the girls prepare for their consultations.

These "Pure Fashion divas," as Wendy Shalit calls them, are among the countercultural heroines she champions in Girls Gone Mild, her second book. Thick skin is a prerequisite for this rising generation of activists--girls engaged in what Shalit calls a "postmodern battle for decency." In a culture that seems "to have lost the ability to say that some toys, clothing, songs, or programs are simply inappropriate for children," Shalit's Girls are taking matters into their own hands.

That's partly because they can't always count on the adults around them to uphold decent standards, Shalit explains. Baby boomer parents who fought for sexual freedom assume their children will make the most of it. According to surveys from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, adults were more likely than teenagers themselves to think teens are embarrassed to admit being virgins. College professors' crude treatment of sexuality and high school teachers' low expectations don't help, either.

"Far too often, it's the adults who are saying we can't accomplish our dreams, and they expect us to fail instead of encouraging us to aim high," observes one teen.

With cultural consensus lowering the bar, standing up for modesty becomes an act of defiance. Girls Gone Mild pays tribute to young women who have tangled with corporations and campus authorities to challenge the status quo. One such heroine is Ella Gunderson, who at age 11 appealed to Nordstrom for more modest clothing selections. It began with a shopping trip with her mother, 13-year-old sister Robin, and friends. When Robin tried on jeans that they agreed were too tight, they asked for the next size up--only to have the Nordstrom clerk advise them, "No you don't want that size, you want the smaller size, the tighter size, because it's The Look."

That didn't sit well with Ella. She wrote a letter to the company (her mother didn't find out until Ella asked for help addressing it) expressing frustration at clothes cut too tight and too low and clerks too narrow in their concept of fashion. "I think you should change that," Ella told Nordstrom.

A few months later--while the Gundersons were helping produce a local Pure Fashion show--they were surprised to receive two apologetic responses from the company. Ella's letter and the Nordstrom responses were added to press kits prepared for the fashion show. Soon the story made the front page of the Seattle Times. Radio and television interviews followed, including an interview on the Today Show. Today's Katie Couric also interviewed Pete Nordstrom, who acknowledged receiving such complaints from other teenage girls for some time. A question raised at a stockholder meeting pressed the matter further with the company: "What do you plan to do about the Ella Gunderson issue?"

In a separate episode, a Pittsburgh-based group of girls launched a "Girlcott" of Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts that were sexually suggestive and otherwise demeaning ("Do I make you look fat?"). When the company invited the group to its Ohio headquarters, one of the girls charged company reps with "neglecting their social responsibility." The Girlcott attracted nationwide attention and the participation of thousands of girls. It also achieved changes (at least temporarily) at Abercrombie: A&F pulled the shirts, and its inventory soon included a tee touting "cute and classy."