Posted Online: Dec. 28, 2012, 9:11 am

Teens: Why are we so obsessed with fashion?

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By Tara Iyer, youth writer

Photo: McClatchy Newspapers
Barbara Bloom, 15, uses glitter and stars to add an extra touch to the makeup she already wears.
Anime eye contacts? Shapewear before age 40? Corsets? Ridiculous, right? Not so for some teenage girls, many of whom are artificially altering their physiques to help them live up to the "Barbie doll" beauty ideal.
As a high school sophomore, I'm no stranger to image obsession — plastic eyelashes, color contacts and short-shorts are a daily sighting, and bathrooms are clogged with girls straightening their hair and reapplying makeup between classes. Even so-called "smart" kids like me socially are required to own at least one case of sparkly eye shadow and some lip gloss to wear for special events.
Why are girls so obsessed with image? Many would first look toward media influence, blaming pop-culture icons such as Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian for popularizing risky styles (armadillo heels, anyone?). However, when I called Sharadha Raghavan, a San Jose, Calif., psychiatrist, to learn more, she told me that media influence is a natural consequence of low self-esteem, which results from deeper physical and emotional insecurities.
"When nature and nurture are against a person, then he or she will fall prey to low self-esteem, which is the root cause of many problems that our teenagers face today," she said.
Raghavan said the problem starts as early as elementary school: Some children naturally are shy and have trouble socially interacting with others, making them feel inadequate. As a result, by middle school they start to become obsessed with things they think will make them accepted.
One of these things is fashion, and the media (including magazines such as Vogue and Seventeen, as well as pop stars such as Katy Perry) play a huge part in setting the trends many students follow. Media influence is inescapable — even sophisticated publications such as Time magazine have featured articles about Spanx, a popular shapewear product, and other haute couture, from Prada heels to Alexander McQueen gowns.
Once teens have picked up on "what's hot," fashion becomes a tool for them to feed their insecurities: If students don't shop at a certain store or wear certain types of clothes, they are branded as "uncool" and are shunned by their peers.
I can't count the number of times my friends rolled their eyes at me in middle school for refusing to buy from trendy Aeropostale, and I'll never forget the afternoon when a friend looked at me and remarked sarcastically: "New jeans? Where are they from, Target?" I'm not immune to wanting to look stylish and fit in, so I traded my khakis and tennis shoes for more fashionable skinny jeans and Converse sneakers.
But I'm only willing to go so far. Every day at school, I witness the harmful effects that keeping up with the latest trends can have on girls. I've seen girls who straighten their hair so often that it is falling out, as well as those who endure painful blisters all over their heels just so they can walk around in "pretty" shoes.
I'm fortunate to have supportive friends who join me in my choices to forgo artificial curls and come to school sans mascara. Keeping myself surrounded by people who value me for who I am rather than what I look like has been crucial.
Teens need to learn to value "what's on the inside" and judge each other based on personality instead of appearance. Nobody should feel compelled to slim down with Spandex or wear sky-high heels to make friends. It just isn't worth it.