Fiona McCade: Popularity comes at too high a price

Preston Lodge High School pupils size up each other's uniforms. Picture: TSPL
Preston Lodge High School pupils size up each other's uniforms. Picture: TSPL
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When I was about seven years old, I remember being sent out of class for sobbing uncontrollably. Why? Because I was wearing woolly tights.

It was winter and my mum was absolutely right to wrap me up as warm as possible, so why get so upset about a bit of clothing? Because the other girls teased me about it.

In the 1970s, woolly tights were not hip. When it came to legwear, proper girls were only ever seen in white knee-socks, not something granny might have knitted – or worn.

Fast forward to today and woolly tights are de rigueur, but kids are still suffering for the whims of fashion. In Utah recently, a stepmother discovered that her ten-year-old stepdaughter had been bullying another girl for not wearing new enough, or hip enough, clothes.

However, rather than merely talking through the problem, this woman took action of an extremely novel kind. She went to the local charity shop and bought some of the nastiest outfits she could find and then, for a few days, she forced the would-be fashionista to go to school in them.

Naturally, the girl was mortified and when she saw her schoolmates whispering and giggling about her new wardrobe, she got a taste of her own medicine and she didn’t like it one bit.

I wish someone had done that to all the little madams in white socks who made my childhood winters so miserable. However, although I applaud the stepmum’s imaginative and powerful action, I’m not quite sure if it was 100 per cent correct.

Ideally, we need to teach our children that nobody should be judged by – or attacked because of – what they wear. When the stepmother dressed the girl in nasty second-hand clothes, she couldn’t help but reinforce the message that second-hand clothes are, well, nasty.

In principle, I’m shoulder to shoulder with this woman. I understand that she was seeking to humiliate and she totally succeeded, but perhaps we need to tweak the approach a bit.

This is a difficult call, but I think I’d have said to my daughter: “So, you feel you’re superior to people who wear old clothes, do you? OK then, you won’t be wearing new clothes any more. From now on, we’ll go together to the charity shop and we’ll find your wardrobe there. Apart from your birthday and Christmas, this is where we shop.”

This strategy would permanently place her on the same sartorial level as the person she’d been mocking, but she might also learn that shopping second-hand can be quite a cool experience. It wouldn’t hurt my purse, either.

I love a school uniform for the simple reason that it’s a great leveller, but even that is open to abuse. For instance, in my secondary school, there was a cheaper version of the blazer available. Great idea, but wearing it proved that you couldn’t afford the more expensive one. Things like this shouldn’t matter, but to some kids, they do. And where are they learning this warped way of thinking? At home, of course.

I’m with Scots DJ Edith Bowman, who recently described the idea of toddlers in Armani as “ridiculous”, but we’re living in a crazy society. This week, one UK mother proudly announced that she’d spent more than £20,000 on a designer wardrobe for her eight-year-old son. He has 200 pairs of shoes alone, although by my calculations and experience, even if he wears a different pair every day, he’ll have grown too fast to fit into all of them.

Tellingly, his mother declared: “What is wrong with making your son look good? He is lovely and if these clothes make him more popular at school, I think it is money 
well spent.”

And right there is the insanity at the heart of this problem: the right clothes will make you popular. There speaks the voice that caused me to cry, all those years ago. There speaks the voice that influenced a ten-year-old to bully another girl so badly, the victim was scared to go to school. There speaks the bloated, selfish, deluded voice of the mega-consumer.

For people like this, popularity and status are things that can, and must, be bought. They’ll never teach their children about respect, care, or even love because these are things that can only be given.