American Teens Have Lost Ability to Shock Anyone

Nothing can raise our eyebrows anymore.

Shock me. Go ahead and try. I almost feel bad for young adults now: All your tattoos, piercings, and spiked and colored hair really only tells us how you want others to label you, how you categorize yourself, but otherwise makes us yawn. Remember when spiked hair was interesting? When candy-colored hair made you look twice? What would someone have to do now to really get your attention?

We’ve all seen gauges that cause ears to hit shoulder blades, piercings that attach lips to ears to eyebrows. I just don’t know what’s left.

Fashion “brands” us, and so most people are happy to wear the clothes that reflect their personalities. Listen to how we talk about clothes: “This just isn’t me, is it?” and “That’s so YOU!” I once overheard my daughters talking about a surprising couple at their high school, summing up their incredulity with: “But she’s so PacSun and he’s so Hot Topic.”

In my normal life when I’m at the gym, I’m in one costume, and then I change costumes into either Mom or Professor, depending on the day of the week. (I have always loved the fashion rule in academia: anything goes.) My sister-in-law works at a place where women must wear pantyhose and no open-toed shoes. And, no, the company has not fallen through a time warp.

We know that what we wear triggers how we are treated. When I was in grad school, my friend Caroline changed my life: I was talking about how I didn’t go in high-end shops unless I was dressed for it because of how snotty the salespeople would treat me. She said, “Just think this to yourself about them: You work in retail.”

Once, in the mid-1980s, I was a bridesmaid at my cousin’s wedding. Put every bad bridesmaid dress detail from the ’80s into one dress and now color it Pepto-pink. Got it? That’s the dress. All of us bridesmaids had our hair and makeup done by stylists hired to come to the house. Every time I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror that day I was thrown off balance; I so did not look like me. At one point during the reception, the wedding photographer asked me if I’d like to go out in the parking lot and smoke a joint with him. I remember thinking: OK, normally I’m in jeans and flannel shirts or gauzy skirts and Timberlands, so yeah, I’d get such an invitation, but, in this dress? How did he know anything about me?

What’s mildly interesting right now is both the “uniforms” we’ve accepted for different groups, and the escalation of dress: Madonna’s pointed boobs were the forerunner to Katy Perry’s ice-cream cones, and how can anyone explain what Lady Gaga was thinking about the meat (or the fake alien face implants, or the red-wrapped wtf)? She’s trying, at least, to think out of the box, when there’s really nothing left. I think I do respect her ridiculous attempts at shocking us more than not thinking at all. When I dropped my daughter off to take her S.A.T.’s last year, in a room of about 100 high-school seniors, my daughter was the only girl NOT wearing Ugg boots (or imitation Ugg boots) and black leggings. The only one. You want to know what she was wearing? (Imitation) Ugg clogs and skinny jeans. Sigh.

No one knows what to do with themselves, what false need to fill: Madonna has released her first fragrance (get with it, Madge! Taylor Swift has had a signature scent for a year!), and A.P.C. and Aesop have joined forces to create “Post-Poo Drops” (and where do we apply it?)

I hate to date myself, but I remember when the fight to wear pants was big. The only thing I have left in my makeup that’s Catholic is my love of mayonnaise, but I remember telling my mother that ALL of the girls were wearing pantsuits for confirmation, and my mother’s anger when I was one of two girls in pants instead. I guess I also do remember “church clothes,” and how we used to have to wear “church clothes” to the doctor’s so she would think well of our family. Sometimes now, when I am say, standing in line at the bank, I see men in sweats and women in yoga pants, none of whom look like they were working out recently. I think about old photos of women always in skirts and pumps, men always in hats, and I think no matter how popular Mad Men gets, and no matter where on your body you get your next transdermal placed, one thing we can be sure of is Americans are simply not going to give up their flip-flops.