Teens Say Looks Can Be Liberating Despite Fashion Police

Selfies show how teens experience stress over their appearance.

At Oakland Tech, like high schools all over, passing period is a time for passing judgments.

Aaliyah Douglass, a 17-year-old, gives me a taste of how harsh critiques can be at the school in Oakland, Calif. She starts by evaluating a male classmate who walks by wearing shorts, a T-shirt and Vans.

"It's the classic teenage boy look," she says. "I don't know, he could probably dress nicer. More hipster-like I guess."

Next, her gaze falls on a female classmate's hairstyle.

"Well, that's a weave, and I don't like weaves that much because they look fake on many people," she says.

No one likes being cited by the fashion police, whether you're a teenager or an adult.

According to a nationwide survey of adults conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, appearance ranks as a cause of stress for about a quarter of those reporting a high level of stress in the past month. Twenty-eight percent said that particular unhappiness was a cause of stress for them.

Teenagers, of course, totally get what all the stress over appearance is about. "At school, if you don't wear certain things people notice and you will get made fun of," said 16-year-old Raina Pelly. Her classmates, 16-year-old Raina Pelly, and 17-year-old Sophie Varon, agreed.

"On weekends I stress about it more than weekdays," Pelly said, "but I stress a lot more when I'm going somewhere and seeing a lot of people."

"I hated being short my entire life, and I guess wearing high shoes and clothes make up for that," said Varon. "I always wished I was taller.

Girls aren't the only ones wishing they were taller, fitter or better dressed. According to the NPR poll, adult men worry about appearance just as much as women. And, for some guys, the worry starts young.

"I was a fat Jewish kid from Brooklyn," said Tufts University professor Richard Lerner. "And many times psychologists study themselves. As a pudgy Jewish kid from Brooklyn--notice I went from fat to only pudgy--I wanted to know why I wasn't so popular."

For nearly 40 years, Lerner has been studying how attractiveness affects the lives of young people. Obviously beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and according to Lerner's research, if you find someone attractive, you're more likely to help them. "The advantages of looking well are making good impressions and getting positive social evaluations and social opportunities more so than people who look less attractive," he said, adding that it's likely society has always operated this way.

"I would venture to say the folks in Queen Elizabeth's court also wanted to look attractive by the standards of those days," he says. "I think wanting to look good to other people is part of the nature of what it means to be a human."

It might also be part of the nature of what it means to be a teen. I discovered that learning how to use your looks to get ahead in high school is one lesson some of us learn easily and some not so much. My classmate, Isabella Lew, understands it well. Our high school voted her Best Dressed Senior of 2014. She walks away with more than just the title, she's also gained an important life skill.

"If you don't dress well, people are not going to think you have your life together" she said. "I mean that's the first impression they get, and I know at least for me, if your grades aren't right, if something's wrong with my life, this is a way of faking it and pretending that you have your life together."

For 16-year-old Dani Tarver, getting dressed is not about covering up her flaws, but showing her true self. Most teens spend their mornings sleeping in. But for Dani, this is a time for unleashing her inner artist, crafting the perfect outfit to match her mood. School is practically her fashion runway.

On a recent morning this June, she gets up at 5 o'clock in the morning – that's late by her standards — to pick out her outfit for the day. She lays out four or five different outfits and begins the two-hour process of mixing and matching.

On this particular day, she decides on a blouse with flowers, tank top with colored stripes, black jeans with brown stitching, red socks and a pair of blue Converse sneakers.

"Yes, it takes me long to get ready, but I have my reasons," Tarver said. "I have feelings I have things to consider going throughout my day, like, I have work today, like, I look good for work, I look good for school. I don't look like I'm showing too much because I'm not showing anything. But yup, this is me. And I'm cute!"

Tarver calls this particular style her "girly-girl-serious-don't-mess-with-me look." And it's just one of the many personas Dani is trying out. That's what high school is partly about — figuring out how we want to appear to others.

It makes a lot of sense to me. In the chaotic life of teenagers, we have very little control over the other things that stress us out: the curfew our parents set, the pop quizzes our teachers give and the shade our peers throw at us.

But one thing we can own is the way we look. And if you figure out how to do that, waking up at 5 a.m. could seem like a pleasure and not a stress nightmare.

This story was produced by Youth Radio.

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