You know what male teen-and-tweenagerhood smelled like in the 1980s? Polo by Ralph Lauren. It was widely believed by us male types to render girls sexually powerless before our fragrant selves. It was also an aromatic class marker, in the sense that the A-class males wore Polo. Do boys still wear Polo? Does anybody?
All that came back today when I read this NYT piece about how marketers are making a mint playing off tween insecurity to sell them Axe and other starter scents for men. Check this out:
Lyn Mikel Brown, a psychologist at Colby College and an author of a new book, “Packaging Boyhood,” said the products gave boys the mere illusion of choice. In fact, she said, they often preach an extreme, singular definition of masculinity — at a time developmentally when boys are grappling uneasily with identity.
“These are just one of many products that cultivate anxiety in boys at younger and younger ages about what it means to man up,” Ms. Brown said, “to be the kind of boy they’re told girls will want and other boys will respect. They’re playing with the failure to be that kind of guy, to be heterosexual even.”
“Boys are paying attention to personal brands more than ever because it’s too easy to be criticized virally by a girl,” said Pat Fiore, a market consultant for body image products in Morristown, N.J. “The peer pressure is starting from the girls, who are discussing how much someone smells or what they look like, and it’s being recorded in real time by e-mail and texting.”
These girls are also becoming sexualized at earlier ages, applying lip gloss and wearing racier clothes. Boys, a bewildered developmental step or three behind, feel additional pressure to catch up.
Kristen Gilbert, an assistant principal at Waterville Junior High School, in Waterville, Me., who has impounded her share of spray cans, wrote in an e-mail message that when she asked a young student why he wore the product, he replied, “I have to have it, Ms. G., because I don’t have the money to dress the right way. This is all I can afford.”
The boy added that the body spray was his “best chance to get a girl.”
I can’t imagine the pressure on tweens and teens these days, exploited by marketers — and each other. I remember my teenage years as mostly miserable and saturated by insecurity and self-loathing. If I’d had to deal with the girls in my eighth grade class texting among themselves that I smelled bad because I wore the wrong scent, or no scent at all, I’d have never wanted to leave the house. From the point of view of a 13 or 14 year old boy, no one is as powerful as a 13 or 14 year old girl — or as cruel.
You readers who have raised boys and girls through these years, how did you help them through the meanness? How did you prevent them from being nasty to others?