Monday, April 03, 2006

Claire Harvey: Young girls embrace lipstick and miniskirt mantra

Excessive eyeliner, lipstick, big blow-dried hair and teeny shorts that expose the point where buttock meets leg are all a bit much on a Saturday afternoon. Especially all on one person, and most of all when that person is a 12-year-old girl.

Multiply by approximately 10,000, and you have Girls' Day Out, an expo held last weekend at the Auckland Showgrounds.

It was a bit like a secular Easter Show, but with Barbie being resurrected instead of Jesus; a giant opportunity for retailers and recruiters to tell women about their new, exciting and exclusive wares.

Acres and acres of stalls and stands displayed cuticle creams, eyelash curlers, straightening irons, curling wands, bottled water, fitness programmes, acrylic fingernails, commercial hand-dryers for bathrooms (I wondered about that one, too), muesli bars and more, so much more, all under the hot glow of a thousand light bulbs.

Authors were on stage being interviewed about their new books, but only a handful of women were listening, and most of these seemed more interested in sitting down for a second to ease their tired feet.

Each year promoters stage dozens of these shows in the hope of luring bored Aucklanders to spend a weekend learning about all the previously unimagined ways in which they could be spending their money; the Home Show, the Wedding Expo, the Mind Body Spirit Show, and next month (although this one may involve less squealing and hairspray) EMEX - the Engineering, Machinery and Electronics Exhibition.

Girls' Day Out, which attracted 29,000 people last year, promotes itself as "a girl thing: for women of all ages ... one of the largest concentrated sales opportunities of the year. No other sales promotional/sales opportunity delivers the full-body experience using all five senses to attract its audience," boasted the website. "Consumers will be able to touch, taste, smell, hear, see and then buy the best of the best for women."

This piece is not a criticism of the organisers or audience of the Girls' Day Out. The former are exploiting a ready market, and the latter are having plenty of fun being that market.

That is the point - somehow, we women have turned commerce from a necessity into a hobby, and it is disturbing to see it being embraced by such young girls, wearing so little clothing.

The cliche would have it that retail is therapy. But in reality, shopping is something much more everyday; recreation, simply what we do on the weekend, even if we're not intending to buy or have no need for anything new.

"I'm not allowed near the shops," my friend Stephanie, who is saving for a house deposit, said the other week. "It's turned into a habit just to walk through the shops and I always end up buying something."

She's right, it's a bad habit that most of us share, and that's why Girls' Day Out was so intriguing.

It was an illustration in vivid colour (flattering autumn/winter shades, ladies!) of where the habit comes from - our joyful embrace of spending-as-entertainment from the earliest age.

The throngs on Saturday afternoon had all paid $15 to get in and were stampeding between the gleaming marquees, rushing from eyeshadow smorgasbord to fruit juice giveaway, show bags flying.

Some were accompanied by their mums, but in the main they were clustered in those "ohmygodkateyouhave-GOTtoseethis" gaggles in which young women move.

They didn't seem to be paying much attention to the sex toy stand, upon which condoms and lubricants and alarmingly shaped vibrators throbbed.

Not really appropriate for most of the crowd, who did not yet have breasts or leg-hair, but to be fair, 63 per cent of those at last year's Girls' Day Out were over 18, according to the show's website.

Anyway, any child who lives near a television set has, by the age of 12, probably seen not only simulated sex but a full-colour sex change operation, so the odd enormous dildo is probably not going to cause too much lasting trauma.

But the overall effect of the girls on their day out was more underage drag queen than blossoming woman. They were children wearing cosmetics and sexy clothing without any sense of play. This was not dress-ups - clomping around in mum's shoes and satin dressing gown in the living room - it was just natural.

As if to reinforce this, at one point in the afternoon a middle-aged fellow came wandering through the expo, show bags in hand, dressed in frock, heels and bright pink lipstick.

Middle-aged fellows, even shapely ones, do look quite startling in mascara and bangles, but the sight of this fellow was oddly reassuring.

He had conquered stiletto-walking as completely as Sarah Jessica Parker, and he was confident enough in New Zealand's open-mindedness to wear what he liked with his head high - but more importantly, he was old enough to know what he was buying into.

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