Growing pains

'Whenever children aspire to be older than they are, it is seen as a problem - yet adults are encouraged to aspire to eternal adolescence.'

Ed Barrett

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Topics Politics

Once upon a time, children wore children’s clothes and were treated as children until the age of 14 – then suddenly wore adult clothes and went out to work. Teenagers were expected to aspire to adulthood, even if they weren’t ready for it. Adults, it goes without saying, wore adult clothes and acted like grown-ups (or at least tried to).

Today, the situation has been reversed. Whenever children and teenagers aspire to be older than they are, it is seen as a problem. Meanwhile, adults are encouraged to aspire to eternal, arrested adolescence.

Earlier this month, the Family Matters Initiative (a group working on behalf of the Lords and Commons Family and Child Protection Group) produced a report entitled Does Your Mother Know?: A Study of Underage Sexual Behaviour and Parental Responsibility. Its message, predictably, was one of concern – particularly about the reading habits of schoolgirls.

It transpires that magazines containing ‘strong sexual language’ and guides to sex, such as Bliss, More! and Just 17 (or J-17 as this middle-aged journal now styles itself), are read avidly by children of 13. The campaigners want an ‘18-plus’ sticker on unsuitable magazines, and penalties for those selling them to underage readers.

It’s true that the content of today’s magazines is more explicit than it was in the days of Jackie, My Guy and Mates in the 1960s and 70s, but these things are relative. Everything else in society is more sexually explicit, too. It is ridiculous to imagine that an age of innocence could be restored by restricting the sale of magazines.

You can no more stop teenage girls reading about sex than you can stop them having sex. Teenage girls will always try to act older than their years. They will always read magazines aimed at older readers, just as they watch soaps and other ‘adult’ programmes.

In any case, what’s the problem with aspiring to be adult? If teenagers didn’t try to act older than their years they would never grow up at all. Then again, judging by the state of today’s adults, this might not be a bad thing. Everywhere you look, adults seem to be modelling themselves on adolescents. The ‘innocent’ (that is, moronic) discos-dresses-and-snogging mentality of 1970s Jackie is actually alive and well. The only difference is that it is kept alive by adult women rather than credulous teenagers.

One of the more notorious titles on the market is the pre-teen mag Mad About Boys. But this phrase sums up the preoccupations of Bridget Jones and her imitators equally well. Women’s magazines and newspaper features are becoming increasingly teenage in outlook, with nothing but relationships, relationships, relationships. Compare the Guardian‘s women’s page of 20 years ago with today’s broadsheet fodder and the difference is amazing.

The patron saint of this stuff is Ally McBeal, who is supposedly a high-powered lawyer, but seems to spend her whole life obsessing about ‘guys’ like an empty-headed prom queen. The central McBeal conceit (adults are really just children at heart) has now been taken up by Channel 4’s drama Teachers, in which the teachers are more immature than their pupils. The newspaper ads for the series spell it out: ‘Adult job, teenage minds’ and ‘Getting older. Acting younger.’

Adults don’t just act like kids. They even dress like them. The understandable desire not to look old has been replaced by a headlong rush into juvenility, and this year’s summer fashions are pointedly childlike. One high-powered broadsheet journalist recently wrote about how she buys children’s clothes (because she is too small to wear adult sizes, I hasten to add). She was surprised to find how many other women do the same. Surely they can’t all be buying them for reasons of size or price?

And there are positively no excuses for the punters in blazers, caps and gymslips who flock to SchoolDisco, the club that’s held in a real school. Sure, it’s all just a laugh, but like the puerile Comic Relief slogan ‘Pants to poverty’ it is a demeaning joke that says a lot more than it means to.

During her brief stay in the Comic Relief Celebrity Big Brother house, Anthea Turner wore a vest more suited to a pre-pubescent gym class. When her fellow celebrities expressed astonishment at her youthful appearance and remarked that she looked about 12, she took it as a compliment and thanked them. But then, in a world where commuters read Harry Potter books on the train and adults ride micro-scooters and buy videos of old children’s programmes, perhaps 12 years old really is the best age to be.
Read on:
Mad – about boys by Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

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