A few weeks ago a friend posted an update on Facebook about how horrified she was to find that Forever 21, a chain of stores that carries inexpensive, trendy clothing aimed at teens and tweens was now carrying maternity clothes.
I laughed. I have never actually shopped at Forever 21, I don’t think I’m young or trendy enough to wear their clothes and in all honesty, I don’t think I’m thin enough to look good in them. So it struck me as funny that right now—in my third trimester of pregnancy, at my very largest—might be the best time for me start dressing like those half my age. On a very practical level, it’s hard to find maternity clothes that look halfway decent and don’t cost a fortune and I’ve already tapped out Target and Old Navy, so one more shopping option sounded good to me.
Then I started thinking about it a little more. A trendy store making clothing for pregnant women (as Target, Old Navy, and H&M have already done) sends a message that you don’t have to give up fashion for 10 months of your life. My sister (who, though older, is far hipper than me and does shop at Forever 21) has said that she’s jealous of the options I have now; 13 years ago when she was pregnant with my nephew, there were no stylish maternity clothes. Today, she could keep wearing her favorite Seven for All Mankind jeans. But neither I nor my sister are Forever 21’s target audience. In fact her daughter (at 11) and even mine (at four) are closer to its demographic than we are. One can imagine that when the marketing person pitched the new line to the higher ups, the discussion had more to do with an untapped market of pregnant teens than it did with 30-somethings who wanted to look fashionable even while huge. (In a posting on salon.com’s broadsheet, Sara Libby points out that the line is premiering in five states, three of which also have the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country.)
So, should a store that is marketing to teens and tweens really be selling maternity clothes? Does it fill a legitimate need, or does it send the message that “it’s okay for you, our young shopper, to be pregnant?” And is that, in and of itself, a problem? There are some tricky issues here for both educators and parents.
When Forever 21 and stores like Old Navy, Torrid, and H&M started plus-size lines that were appropriate for teenagers, I applauded. People come in all shapes and sizes and it was unfair that the latest fashion and nicest styles seemed reserved for the size-four set. While we want to make sure that all young people are healthy, we need to acknowledge that some of them will wear a 14 or above, and I was pleased that those teens, who often face criticism because of their size, had appealing clothing options. I never once worried that the availability of plus-sized clothing would in any way lead to obesity or accused these stores of encouraging unhealthy eating or discouraging physical fitness. They were simply acknowledging the reality of teens’ bodies.
The same argument could be made for Forever 21’s new line of maternity clothes. There are upwards of 400,000 teens who give birth each year; these young people will need things to wear for the better part of a year. Maybe making the clothes and marketing to them is just filling a need and as such makes good business and social sense. We have come a long way from the days of scarlet letters and sending pregnant teens to their “aunt’s house in the country” as soon as they started to show, and I think most would agree that this is a good thing.
As an educator, I know that one of the challenges of preventing teen pregnancy is to be able to do so without stigmatizing those teens who do become parents. I have often criticized strict abstinence-only-until-marriage curricula for suggesting that by getting pregnant these women (because most messages of purity are aimed at women) have clearly done something wrong and lack the morals and integrity of their peers who have remained chaste. The same challenge goes for me in talking to my own kids. I’m sure they will meet the children of teen parents and may very well have friends who become parents at a young age, and I don’t want them to judge these people for it. It is possible that a line of trendy clothes can help alleviate the stigma and judgment that surrounds teen childbearing.
That said, as both an educator and a parent, I want my children to know that teen parenting is extremely difficult. Teen parents are less likely to finish school, and they and their children are more likely to live in poverty. Moreover, the children of teen parents are more likely to have health issues, education issues, and behavioral issues. The unfortunate truth is that statistic after statistic shows that teen parents have a much harder road ahead of them than those that waited until they were older (which often also means better educated and more financially secure).
These truths, however, have to compete with the seemingly glamorous pregnancies of Bristol Palin, Jamie Lynn Spears, and other young women in the spotlight. These young women got a great deal of (often positive) attention for accidentally becoming pregnant and even more for how they are handling being mothers. Bristol Palin – who none of us would likely remember, had she not been scandalously pregnant while her mother ran for Vice President - is making a career out of discussing her teen parenthood to the tune of $30,000 per speaking engagement and a possible reality television show.
We can’t blame Forever 21 for causing teen pregnancy any more than we can blame Bristol or Jamie Lynn, however, it does seem possible that together they are giving off the wrong messages. The National Survey of Family Growth, recently found that 14% of females and 18% of males aged 15–19 would be “a little pleased” or “very pleased” if they got (a partner) pregnant. That scares me. And it suggests to me that as parents, we have a lot of work to do on this subject.
We have to tell our kids (nicely, so as not to offend them, of course) how difficult it really is to be a parent. There is no room to be selfish once you become a parent (and though I’m sure I will regret saying this in 12 years, 16-year-olds should still be able to be a little selfish sometimes). When I tell my daughter this, I might point to this very Monday when I was looking forward to taking a sick day, lying in bed by myself, sleeping, and watching HGTV in an effort to get rid of this horrid summer cold that she so nicely passed on to me. That sick day plan, however, was shattered at 2 am, when she came into my room crying because of a fever and what turned out to be a double ear infection. My upcoming day was no longer about taking care of myself, it was about the pediatrician, the pharmacy, and making sure she felt better. And when I tell my other daughter about this (the one who has not been born yet), I may find it necessary to point out just how many days I have spent nauseated and exhausted in the last 32 weeks (basically all of them). I will do this in much the same way my mother continues to point out the 6 weeks she spent on bed rest entertaining my then 2 ½ year old sister, all in the effort to keep me in until I was more fully cooked. I don’t want apologies from either of them; I became their parent willingly and I love it. I just want them to know what they are getting into and plan it carefully and realistically (because once you are a parent whether you are 19 or 39, you are a parent for the rest of your life).
So like everything else (sorry to be a broken record), I suggest we use this new line of clothing as an opportunity to find out what our kids are hearing on a subject, help them think through issues critically, and ultimately pass on our own values. In a few years, when my four year old becomes a tween (she’s already started rolling her eyes and calling me mom in such a way that it has more than one syllable) and discovers a cute maternity dress at her favorite store, I will start a conversation about who the dress was made for and what she thinks about marketing clothes to pregnant teens. I am already curious to see what she’ll think. And after that, I will tell her what I think about the whole issue, remind her how hard parenting is even when you are established in your career, your finances, and your relationship, and then gently (or not so gently) suggest that, if you ask me, she shouldn’t become a parent until she’s at least 30.
This story was originally on Advocates for Youth's Birds and Bees Blog.