How to Express Your True Self
Through (and Despite) Fashion
Jackie Walker and Pamela Dittmer McKuen
In a day and age when tarted-up toddlers are rewarded with reality shows and when magazines like Teen Vogue boast upward of nearly a million subscribers, it should come as no surprise that young girls are looking for fashion advice.
Written as a how-to guide for girls aged eight to twelve, Expressionista seeks to fill that desire, dispensing advice for tweens about expressing themselves through their clothing, accessories, make-up, and hairstyles.
Authors Jackie Walker and Pamela Dittmer McKuen, both of whom hail from the Chicago area, address such issues as fashion, style, and shopping in a short, hands-on guide full of quizzes, questions, and self-evaluations. Walker and Dittmer McKuen also examine issues of self-esteem and self-expression, showing readers how they can use clothing to reveal their true selves.
Whether eight-year-olds are aware enough of or even care enough about who their true selves are is debatable (seriously: plenty of forty-year-olds are still grappling with that issue). However, knowing that, by some reports, as many as 18 percent of preteen girls regularly wear mascara, eyeliner, and lipstick, one must acknowledge that issues of appearance, style, and fashion are of interest to many preteens and tweens.
Expressionista operates with that fundamental understanding. The authors acknowledge that girls—even very young girls—face issues with body image, self-esteem, and peer pressure, all of which can shape not just their childhoods, but their entire lives. Walker and Dittmer McKuen strive to balance these issues, suggesting ways for girls to identify the fashion personas that best suit their lives and lifestyles so that they can better match their outer appearances with their inner selves. The authors argue that girls who are able to confidently express their personalities through their clothing and accessories are happier in the long run.
This is laudable, even if there might be something sad about advising an eight-year-old to ask herself whether her personal style is conservative or traditional, to determine whether she is more dramatic or more natural, or to assess whether she prefers chunky jewelry to single-strand necklaces. Although many younger girls may well know what they like to wear and what they don’t like to wear, one might wonder whether they are really capable of the kind of self-reflection that would help them ponder the reasons behind their fashion choices.
Older girls may get more out of the book, particularly when it comes to the issue of how fashion is related to both self-expression and self-esteem. The authors make an especially strong argument for understanding not only one’s own fashion persona, but the personas of one’s friends, siblings, and other relatives. Doing so, the authors argue, makes it easier to respect the fashion choices that others make and, therefore, to respect the personalities of others in general.
At its heart, Expressionista shows tweens and preteens how they can use fashion to empower themselves. The authors shine when working to boost the confidence of young girls. At times, however, Walker and Dittmer McKuen use language that seems geared more toward parents than toward young readers, making one wonder whether they didn’t just simply adapt their usual message for adults to an audience of children. In addition, a number of the pithy quotes sprinkled throughout the book (i.e., the advanced reader copy) are misattributed, as when the oft-cited Oscar Wilde quote “Be yourself, because everyone else is already taken,” is attributed to Selena Gomez, or when the common saying “Reach for the stars” is attributed to Juliane Hough.
Helping girls respect themselves and those around them, regardless of the various fashion choices people make, is a positive message. Helping girls better understand themselves so they can make fashion choices that make them feel better about themselves is a powerful message. Telling an eight-year-old that she should embrace her fashion persona might be a good message as well. Parents will need to decide at what age those issues need to be addressed.
September 2013, Beyond Words/Aladdin (Simon & Schuster)
$17.99, hardcover/$9.99 paperback, 224 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen