Monday, May 24, 2010

Who can wear pigtails?

In targeting the 12 to 19 demographic, Seventeen treads in uncertain territory. There will always be some degree of mismatched advice when an attempt is made to direct a unified message at an age range that straddles a few different developmental stages. Consider the fact that a 12-year-old is only just entering middle school, while a 19-year-old has already finished high school. The likelihood of producing a publication with advice (and advertising content) that is relevant to both of these groups is highly unlikely, and this fault occasionally manifests itself in the magazine's articles.

For instance, in choosing today's hairstyle I decided to go for the Playful Pigtails look. At this point in time, it is a well-established and well-enforced idea in our culture that pigtails on grown women are, at least to some degree, infantilizing. On children, pigtails carry little (if any) connotations. On adults, however, they are likely to be read as submissive, girlish, or at the very least, playful. I'm not here to make a judgement on whether grown women should or should not wear pigtails. I am simply reiterating the fact that if an adult woman chooses to do so, she is likely to be met with references to catholic school girls, Punky Brewster, and Lolita. It's just the way our society has come to perceive things.

If you require some convincing, take a look at these stills from the Prada Spring 2010 runway show. Hairstylist Guido Palau says of his inspiration for the show, "I was thinking of Lolita. The combination of pigtails with blow-up-doll mouth results in a dark Lolita-like look-- it isn't innocent. The hair is soft and girly, the mouth is glossy and sexual." Pigtails on grown women are a look that carry a distinct set of assumptions, regardless of whether or not these assumptions are fair.
Which brings me to my qualm with the inclusion of pigtails in this month's issue of Seventeen. Where do we draw the line between fun and sexual? At what age do pigtails change from just a hairstyle into a statement? The answer: somewhere between 12 and 19-- somewhere within Seventeen's target demographic. Pigtails have a distinctly different effect when worn by a 12-year-old than when worn by someone who is almost 20.

In the magazine's introduction of the hairstyle, they describe the look as, "not your little
sister's pigtails." Judging from this, I am assuming that the hairstyle is intended to lean more toward sexy-girlish than actual-girlish, unless your little sister happens to have been featured on Toddlers and Tiaras. If this is the intention, I am conflicted for two reasons. First, is it moral (or fair?) to encourage teenage girls who may not understand the implications of pigtails to wear them? That is, how comfortable are we letting young teens walk around unknowingly looking like fetish models? I know this outlook is a bit alarmist, but am I correct in thinking that it is at the least somewhat wrong to pin an image on young girls that they may not be able to understand the implications of yet?

Secondly, I take issue with the notion that encouraging pigtails on teens reinforce an association between things that are "girlish" and things that are "sexy." Something seems askew to me when we are living in a world childhood and sex-appeal can exist comfortably on the same plane.

Still, its difficult to determine where we draw the line. I came up with this handy infographic to illustrate the ages at which pigtails enter a gray area. At what age do you think pigtails cross the line from fun to sexual? Does this line even exist?

ETA: Jezebel linked to my article and now something happened to the picture from all the views. You can view a lower quality version of the chart here if the embedded one below isn't working.