The Evil Empire of Libby Lu

Essays — By on October 1, 2007 at 12:00 am

libbyluGoing to the mall is something I do only if I’m feeling very strong (or at least slightly masochistic.)

The sheer sound of the place sends me into a cold sweat, and the barrage of products from every angle is enough to make me want to find a suitable burlap bag, fashion into a one-size-fits-all moo-moo, and just be done with it.

But one place in our local mall doesn’t just make me pine for solitude in the nearest black hole, but to stage interventions and form support groups for those caught by the evil empire that is: Libby Lu.

Touting girl power and individuality as their main prerogatives, Libby Lu is a cross between a store and a day spa where girls are dressed up, given makeovers, strutted down a runway, and taught a dance they are to perform in front of a group of beaming mothers.

The company describes Libby Lu as: “A special secret club where super fabulous girls can get makeovers parties, play games, get advice, and find really cool princess paraphernalia…”
I think I just threw up some sparkles.

If you find yourself in one of the malls in the U.S. that is lucky enough to have a Libby Lu (there are 90 or so nestled in select Younkers and Saks across the country), follow the pixie dust and the pounding sounds of Mambo #5 (or some other misogynistic song), and get ready for a lesson in being a V.I.P (Very Important Princess).

If you are age 4-12, tug on your mom’s Kate Spade purse and beg her to fork over $35 (and sign over her soul), and you’ll be given a full makeover (heavy on the eye makeup!), a new hair-do (I’ll take the Hanna Montana hair extensions!), and a music video dance lesson (b/c what’s the use of looking like a little tramp if you can’t shake your booty?!). Before you go, make sure to purchase a spa kit or some accessories to go with your tiny stuffed dog.

The company admits to being more than a store, calling themselves a “special secret club”. And though they’d like to project a carefree atmosphere of individuality and creativity, there is as strict a code of conformity and social norms taught here as there were in any 19th century school of etiquette.

Had one of these girls been born 100 years ago to a well-to-do family in the U.S. or Britain, it was likely that she would have been sent to some such school to learn expectations of social behavior. But the social mores taught in these schools of yore were not all frivolous inventions of snobbery (i.e. finding just the right angle to hold your pinky out whilst sipping your tea); they focused also on teaching girls worthwhile traits like hospitality, comforting the bereaved, and contributing to conversations in a non-dominating way.

Welcome to Libby Lu, the 21st century’s version of a school of etiquette. But instead of hospitality and generosity, we’ll teach you consumerism and self-indulgence, replace lessons of “How to create a comfortable house” with “How to shake it like a Polaroid picture, ” and make sure you don’t graduate without the firm notion that you are only as good as you look.

You may say: “it’s not that big of a deal. What damage can a some makeup and a day of pampering do on a little girl?”

Honestly, isolated, not that much.

If we lived in a society that constantly reinforced girls’ confidence, told them they were good enough without any product, and didn’t need to act in any way not true to themselves, we’d be fine. If every girl knew she was valued apart from what she looked like or what small box of gender constrictions she could fit into, no amount of Libby Lu or any other such foolishness could touch her.

We obviously do not. Walk out of Libby Lu and you’ll run into Victoria’s Secret, where you’ll find mostly naked women in hyper-sexualized poses with the tag line “The beauty candy store for grown-up girls.” I dunno, captain, but I think there might be a connection here.

From Libby Lu to Victoria’s Secret, we indoctrinate girls to think that their value is based on their appearance and men’s response to it. You’re young? You should be trying to looklike you’re older! You’re old? You should be trying to look younger! Don’t try on any form of femininity that might challenge men or make someone uncomfortable! Be sexual and submissive. Be the girl on “The Man Show” or in a rap video who cannot show her intelligence or personality, only her body. Be that girl at the bar or the one who laughs at all his jokes even though he’s a jerk.

When do these girls get a break? From the time they’re just out of diapers until the time they die, they are taught, both subtlety and not, that their inner qualities play second fiddle to their outer appearance, and that products can offer solutions to all imperfections.

I’m not naïve enough to want to go back to the good ole days of Emily Post. I realize that along with those mild-mannered women come another set of social constraints. But let’s not pretend that we are empowering our girls when we let them “express themselves” in places like Libby Lu. We have replaced corsets with tube tops and being overly submissive to “having it your way.”

By the time I have children, I hope that places like Libby Lu will be a thing of the past. Then again, I’m not sure if I’ll ever snag a man with this itchy moo-moo on.

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  • Kim Gottschild says:

    Thank you, Rachel. Thank you, thank you, thank you! As the mother of two little girls, I feel like we fight against society’s often backwards way of empowering girls every day. My husband and I want more for our daughters than that. When will girls be empowered to just be people? The horrible and disheartening thing about swimming upstream, though, is that your kids wind up thinking you’re positively evil for not letting them wear lipstick to third grade. It’s turning out that I’m becoming a very uncool mom a lot sooner than I thought I’d be.

  • Jenny says:

    Right on. Those stores are incredibly creepy. When I think about a nation of Libby Lu girls, burkas almost make sense…

  • APN says:

    I worked in a mall for 5 years and every single I time I either passed the Libby Lu store in the mall or a passel of little girls came into our store all decked out in Libby Lu “apparel,” I would die a little bit inside. The crassness of these people marketing such a lifestyle to 6-10 year old girls….
    Bravo to you parents who keep your children away from the purveyors of such horribly false self-images.
    Burkas indeed….

  • jen miller says:

    I am all for the Burkas, but you know as soon as you got your daughter to start wearing one, Libby Lu would come out with a purple-striped, glittery one that “only” shows your navel.
    Great article!

  • Bethany Sanders says:

    rachel, seriously, Libby Lu?
    what kind of a name is that anyways?
    Any corporation beginning with the word “Libby” shouldn’t be allowed to commercialize itself.
    props to the moms that keep their daughters away from the idea that a twelve year old girl should be wearing makeup.

  • Susan Isaacs says:

    Wow, great article, Rachel. I can say that now that I’m done throwing up. But I think it does do a lot of damage, for the reasons you mentioned. Getting girls to think their identity is based on looks. And worst, sexy looks. And we wonder why girls end up with anorexia or pregnant. My sister’s family has retreated into a world of home schooling and grannie dresses. And while that bothers me, reading this reminds me why she’s doing it. Let a girl be a girl. A real girl. Thanks again, Rachel. terrific writing.

  • Mitchell Thayer says:

    Right on, Ms. Pater. Every time I go past that store, I die a little bit on the inside. Thanks for being bold enough to write about it. :)

  • Lark says:

    I have never heard of this, but dang. That’s pretty creepy. And I thought Limited Too was disturbing . . .

  • Laura Cabral says:

    Hi Rach, awesome article, well written! I especially appreciate your perspective from a young single woman. As our society continually gets more materialistic and vain, hopefully we can step back and put our priorities in place as to not fall prey to the “demands” put on us to stay beautiful as if that is the key to our success as females.

  • Jared Jonker says:

    That article is brilliant!
    Thanks for sharing your wit and wisdom from within the burlap bag, I laughed a lot and sent it to my colleagues at work. It’s brought some good conversation especially among the people who really would love going to Libby Lu. Hope you’re doing well. Miss the days in the cabin in the woods.

  • jj kessel says:

    pater rocks!

  • Lori Hernandez says:

    Thanks Rachel. I completely agree with you. I’m a GEMS leader this year at our church and was disturbed to learn that the theme is a princess theme (something along the line that God is the King and we are his princesses…uggg). I seem to be the only one that thinks this goes against the whole theme of Christianity – that we should be servants, not expect to be served. Princess stuff makes me want to puke.

  • Sarah Schaaf says:

    I completely disagree with both you, and the other “commenters” above.
    Don’t any of you remember what it is like to be a young girl?
    Both my girlfriends and myself have passed by Libby Lu and pined over how much we would have loved having one when we were small. We know that it would have been nothing but tons of innocent fun, just as it is now.
    I think you all need to get off your, we grew up in the sixties, non-admitting man haters, overly sensitive to your own physical complexes, soap boxes. And to quote Ms. Issacs above, “let girls be girls.” To conclude, I would like to say, being a ‘real girl’ doesn’t mean you can’t play dress up, which is all this store is really.

  • Eric says:

    I agree with Lark… I always thought Limited Too was a little weird; this is absolutely over the line. Thanks for the great article about it, Rachel.

  • Kimberly says:

    we don’t have Libby Lu in Arkansas… but we do have plenty of mom’s who manage to dress their little girls up, just the same.

  • Brad Hill says:

    I am not a man prone to written comment but…. I have to applaud this article. I have 2 teenage daughters whom I have succesfully taught that men are worthless walking Phalic symbols until at least…oh say… 25 yrs old anyway (with rare execptions). OK, I am mostly kidding, but seriously, a huge part of the problem is that for a variety of reasons we could discuss endlessly young men are being raised to be less than manly and riddled with insecurities. They are taught to value all the wrong things and therefore demand what is shallow and do not know how to encourage and applaud what is of true value. The concept of true love is so warped that to actually think and opertate in the realm of treating a woman in a consistant manner of disinterested benevolence is a concept beyond grasp. So much of the postmodern culture removes the emphasis on character and places it on individual fulfillment at any expense. Thanks for the opportunity to rant! I love the article and the values you possess in writing it. Itchy moo moo or not you’ll have no problem “snagging” the worthy man you deserve and when you do please procreate or adopt, I may have a grandson by then that will need a wife espousing the values you will pass on.

  • dan says:

    “let girls be girls.” ??????
    more like, “let girls be prosti-tots”
    if that is how you define what a girl is…I’m talking to a brick wall. (albeit a super sparkly one)

  • Brad Hill says:

    I now know I have entered mid-life…..
    Prosti-tots??? That is priceless. I am sure that it’s not new phrasology…. but it is new to me. Dan, can I have your permission to use that? very appropriate verbage I think

  • Brad Hill says:

    I now know I have entered mid-life…..
    Prosti-tots??? That is priceless. I am sure that it’s not new phrasology…. but it is new to me. Dan, can I have your permission to use that? very appropriate verbage I think

  • Jordan Green says:

    I can’t dismiss Sarah that easily. How is Libby Lu any different than boys playing war? Many parents make rules about their kids can’t have toy guns, but there always seems to be a default desire to play war, even if it means boys use sticks instead of toys.
    To some extent, Libby Lu is just a place for girls to play dress up. I’m not saying it’s not insidious (especially if a parent advocates that kind of behavior), but we can’t ignore the innate desire of little girls to play.

  • Anonymous says:

    oh pater, i love you.

  • Rachel Pater says:

    finally some controversy! i was beginning to think i hadn’t pissed anyone off by writing this article.

  • Nora Beerline says:

    Rachel, I couldn’t agree more. I’m one of those radical nuts who wouldn’t let her five year old daughter wear make-up at her dance recital. I had never heard of a Libby Lu until this article, but to me, it sounds like more than just “dress up.” I have already noticed the hugely inappropriate “sexy” trend in children’s clothing; this sounds like further promotion of the same sterotype. If it were truly just dress up, non-princessy costumes would be included, and no runway would be necessary. By the way, I wasn’t born in the 60′s; I don’t hate men; and my abhorrence of making my daughter “sexy” at the age of 5 has nothing to do with any of the many physical complexes that I do, in fact, have.

  • APN says:

    OK Jordan — I’ll take the bait and extend your metaphor to its logical conclusion.
    Tell me one store that you know of that markets exclusively to little boys playing war? Is there a “Jimmy Joe” store out there where boys can dress up in army greens-and-khakis, put on face paint, & crawl around shooting their toy guns against their enemies?
    Playing dress up to play an adult isn’t the problem. Not in the slightest. But the girls I knew from my childhood didn’t dress up in the type/style of clothes that are sold at Libby Lu — they wore their respective mother’s clothing, make-up, and jewelry. I think there is a bit of distinction with THAT type of dress-up….

  • Jordan Green says:

    Have you been in an Army surplus store lately? I can tell you that’s where we wanted to be when we were young, and now they’re selling airsoft guns that look like real automatic weapons. those guns aren’t marketed to adults.
    (my cousin used to play with those when he was a freshman in high school until the neighbors called the SWAT team)

  • Angela Jeffery says:

    Great article Rachel, and good comments all around. I have 6 kids, 5 boys, and only 1 girl…and my boys play war, and my little girl has a princess costume.
    I think that Rachel hit the nail on the head when she said that in isolated instances, Libby Lu would not be so bad…it is the society that we live in, and what we are choosing to teach our kids that matters. And sadly, there is a lot of self absorption.
    As parents, we must take responsibility for instilling in our children true self worth, and an understanding of what is really important, and what is just for fun.
    I agree with the person who commented that as Christians we are to be servants…however that is to each other, I think it is also important to realize what we are worth to God, each one of us. We are His daughters and sons…and there isn’t anything wrong with reveling in that…as long as we put it against the backdrop of God loving each and every person in just that same way.
    Anyway, thank God that right now there is not one of these stores in my area, and I don’t have to deal with it for now!

  • Kimberly says:

    would a paintball field qualify as a “Jimmy Joe” store?

  • APN says:

    Interesting. I haven’t been in an army surplus store in probably 15 years or more. But is there a personal stylist at the Army surplus store who plans appointments to hold parties for groups of 8-to-12-year-old boys in order to dress them in the finest of new Army apparel? I don’t think so.
    Again, I don’t have ANY problem with dressing up. But I do have a problem with dressing 8-year-old girls in outfits that wouldn’t be appropriate on their 16-year-old older sister or their 40-year-old mom.

  • Susan Isaacs says:

    Yes, it’s great to play dress up. But when I said “let girls be girls,” I didn’t mean let girls dress up like Jonbenet Ramsey. Did Sara Schaff see the last scene in Little Miss Sunshine? It was supposed to be CREEPY.

  • Jordan says:

    Sorry for the delay if you posted a comment and it wasn’t up until now!

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