big girls want to be little, and little girls want to be big
so, you’re afraid of a fifth grader
welcome to strong feelings! Essays by writers we love, in which they share their most impassioned opinions on a given subject. If you love our usual advice column — don’t worry it’s not going anywhere. In today’s strong feelings, internet culture writer Steffi Cao explores the ever-intensifying juxtaposition of tween’s obsession with appearing older and adult women’s obsession with being young.
When I was at the preamble of my teenagerdom, there was one person who was my sun and moon: Bethany Mota, then known as macbarbie07. She was indelible to the internet, a vlogger on YouTube that would soon open the floodgates for many more creators. And she was three years older than me, which made her distinctly more grown, yet relatable in her concerns. I watched and replicated her “running late” morning routines, her after-school evening routines, DIY hacks for dressing up your room. She exposed me to the world of pumpkin spice and Frappuccinos, as well as the concept of braids inside braids (still genius). By 2014 she was the most-searched for designer on Google, beating out the likes of Valentino and Oscar de la Renta. I once ransacked an Aeropostale trying to find the sweatshirt I wanted from her collaboration line — a gray, slouchy one with a graphic of an owl printed on the front.
The internet has come a long way since Bethany Mota first showed us raw, unsponsored videos from her childhood bedroom. Lifestyle content would soon metastasize into a web of sponcon, ambassadorships, microtrends and an insatiable desire to be seen. While paid collaborations used to be a watershed moment (Emma Chamberlain put on a tie for her first sponsorship), now, a video tagged #ad is loose change in the feed. Anyone can subtly serve you a marketing campaign, and more importantly, anyone can be marketed to.
Nothing has made that more clear than the discourse of recent weeks. Since last December, social media has been lit aflame with the moral debate of letting 10-year-olds into Sephora. A video of family influencer account the Garza Crew went viral last week, featuring the youngest member Koti Garza — her front baby teeth missing — showing off an impressive collection of Mario Badescu, Peter Thomas Roth, and Glow Recipe products. People have expressed their concern over the tween obsession with Drunk Elephant, a brand which has historically targeted the concerns of adult women, such as anti-aging and hyperpigmentation (the brand released a statement clarifying that products with retinol and acids are not meant for prepubescent skin). Simultaneously, many took to TikTok to share their horror stories of how Sephora has become overrun with children in search of skincare and makeup. The kids get younger and younger, users lamented. Gen Alpha is out of control.
This conversation also comes after a prolonged cultural wave of grown women taking measures to reclaim their girlhoods, from the plethora of girl-based trends (Barbie fever, Eras reclamation, bows and coquette) to the language we have adapted tying a link between femininity and naïveté — consider the meme formats of “i’m a twenty-three year old teenage girl,” “girlhood is a spectrum,” and the many pink and pillowy iterations of “this is me if u even care.”
Big girls want to be little, and little girls want to be big. No one is at peace in the state of femininity they currently possess. We spin endlessly on this never ending teacup ride, buying Skims shapewear and Sonny Angels, beading kits and iced coffees until one of us throws up or passes out. When did it get so bad?
Caroline DuRoss, 11, is currently in the fifth grade. When we spoke, school was canceled for a snow day, so she went to Ulta with some friends. She doesn’t currently have Instagram, Snapchat or TikTok, but wants her own accounts eventually. She comes across products through YouTube and Pinterest. “I’m usually on YouTube, but I want to delete it, because I’m just on it a lot,” she says.
Beauty is a particular passion for DuRoss. Her routine is pared down, attempting to achieve the “pilates princess–coquette girl–clean girl” look. She used to do a lot of skincare, she tells me, but it wasn’t working for her, so she just washes her face now. Brow gel, a little blush, curled eyelashes. “My sister doesn’t know, but sometimes I steal her bronzing drops,” she admits.
“Most people [at school] want the clean girl, no-makeup makeup look,” she says. “In the morning, we always go to the cafeteria and we have twenty minutes to talk, so we’re always saying like, ‘Oh, I want the White Fox so-and-so, or I want the high-rise platform Uggs.’”
There are still very clear parameters that set apart the cool girls from the not so cool ones, and specific trends that dominate the ecosystem. “To be cool at our school,” she begins. “You have to have the whole skincare thing, your room has to be good.” She lets out a groan of exhaustion. “You have to try to be popular. Like, you’re doing this whole dance.” Certain products can land you in different echelons of the school hierarchy, apparently.
Beauty and fashion writer and co-host of the fragrance podcast Smell Ya Later Sable Yong says that the actual phenomenon of tweens in Sephora is not so surprising. “What did I think was cool when I was twelve? Everything I saw on TV, or all the things I read in magazines,” she says. “Imagine all of these grown iPad babies mainlining every single ‘get ready with me,’ all the influencers they’re aspiring to be like. So of course they’re mimicking that behavior without the critical thought of an adult. To them they’re like, this is glamorous.”
Little girls have always wanted to grow up. It’s the stuff that differentiates cool kids from unpopular kids, signals the beginnings of your identity development — that unshakeable currency of how well you perform being an adult. I didn’t want Justice or Limited Too once I became a tween. I wanted Victoria’s Secret bras, Forever 21 crop tops, and Bath & Body Works’ Sweet Pea body mist. I wandered the aisles of Sephora, swatching all the colors of the Urban Decay Naked palette and testing samples of the Anastasia Beverly Hills dip brow pomade, because that’s what YouTube beauty gurus did. I argued with my mother in the middle of a suburban DSW because I wanted to buy a pair of heeled black booties she felt were too grown-up. “They look like office shoes,” she told me as I clutched the box in my arms. She didn’t get it. That was the whole point.
“All the time, I’m envisioning this idea of, I can’t wait until I’m an adult,” DuRoss says. “Your parents are in charge of you until you’re eighteen. When you’re an adult you have freedom, but it’s probably annoying to pay the bills. I want a big house. I want to decorate, mostly. I want a lot of dogs. I want to have an aesthetic house, the kind you walk in and you’re like, I want this house.”
Meanwhile, for the girls with the houses, we have begun to see more obvious cultural consumption of the inverse — big girls wanting to be little. Girlhood and “soft” aesthetics have seen a wild resurgence over the past few months among adult women: bows, frills, and hearts have all been wrapped into the “coquette” aesthetic, and the strawberry milkshake Lululemon jacket has become a highly sought-after item in achieving the pilates princess look. Videos about marrying rich and living the “soft life” or becoming a stay-at-home girlfriend run rampant on TikTok. Of course, this is youth remembered through the fractured rose-colored looking glass of womanhood; a flattened memory of what true girlhood is. Many have attributed its success to the burnout felt among many women, as greater factors like economic uncertainty, job insecurity, and global catastrophe loom in the background. These trends offer a way to escape the harshness and unappealing reality of womanhood through the simplistic and soft imagery reminiscent of a more innocent time.
“Woman for sale,” peddled to us over and over, in a carousel of different colors and scents. Perhaps that’s why it feels so depressing to see young girls in Sephora, seeking products for problems they don’t have, navigating a wasteland of sponsored posts and underwritten content. It’s understandable to be concerned. But the question of a teenager wanting anti-aging products shouldn’t really be a question for the teenager.
So you can either shoo the fifth graders from the Sephora like a witch with a broom, telling them to get out of your house, where only you are allowed to try to find the concealer that will cover the blemishes you don’t like. Or you can embrace them, and let tweens do what tweens do best: wreak havoc upon the institution, and find joy in doing so. Let them mix bronzers and moisturizers together like slime. The mall has always belonged to tweens, anyhow. It was true a decade ago, when I wandered through Sephora swatching every single lipstick that Bethany Mota ever recommended, and it’s true now. Your individual femininity is a difficult thing to unpack at any stage of life, and it seems the way lifestyle content is progressing, that confusion will only compound. Instead of being shocked by the ways tweens are learning theirs, hold their hands, and maybe someday we can get off the ride together.