Why So Many Moms Dress Like Their Teenage Daughters

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A researcher discovers the roots of the phenomenon: Style is determined by how old you feel, not how old you are

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If you've been to the mall recently, there's a good chance you've seen mothers and daughters who look eerily similar: same short skirts, matching hair highlights, and maybe even the same hyper-orange glow. New research explains this so-called "consumer doppelganger" phenomenon, suggesting they may have more in common than their looks.

"It's far more profound than simply buying the same products or brands," says Temple University marketing professor Ayalla Ruvio, whose study on the phenomenon will appear in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Consumer Behaviour. "It's about intentionally wanting to have the same identity."

Past research has tended to focus on the unconscious influence of role models and celebrities on adolescents, and the influence of children on family purchases such as groceries. Ruvio's study, however, broadens the existing mimicry literature by uncovering the factors that lead mothers to intentionally copy or "doppelgang" their daughters' style. The phenomenon is akin to reverse socialization: The children, instead of learning style and social cues from their parents, are actually the ones influencing the adults' behavior.

"Mothers don't have time to monitor what's cool and hip," Ruvio says. "They just copy their daughters as a shortcut."

Ruvio surveyed 343 pairs of mothers and daughters with an average age of 44 and 16 respectively. She inquired about their cognitive age (how old they feel), fashion consciousness, expertise in clothing and cosmetics, the extent to which they perceive the other as a consumer role model, and their penchants for emulating the other's purchasing behavior. As it turns out, mothers and daughters have a mutual tendency to mimic each other's purchases when they regard the other as an expert in a particular domain, in this case fashion and youth culture. Still, Ruvio notes, mothers' mimicking tendencies are markedly stronger.

The mothers in the study, Ruvio explains, reported feeling 10 years younger than their actual age, and were therefore motivated to project a more youthful identity through their possessions. But since many moms have full-time jobs and take care of their kids and homes, "they don't have time to monitor what's cool and hip," she says. "They just copy their daughters as a shortcut."

Teenage girls, on the other hand, would rather copy celebrities than their moms. In another experiment, Ruvio confirmed that adolescent girls tended to intentionally copy a celebrity's look, particularly when the chosen celebrity matches the adolescent's perceived age (the average, unusual as this may sound, is 23) and is regarded as a style expert. "This is not surprising," notes Florida State University marketing professor Ronald Goldsmith. "Previous texts have explained that reference group appeals are powerful, and celebrities are perhaps the most powerful reference group."

The implications for advertisers and retailers, while not necessarily novel, are plenty. Copycat consumers are after an overall look, Ruvio says, so clothes and cosmetics intended for them should allude to the comprehensive personas that these consumers hope to identify with and not be marketed on their own. In terms of age segmentation, consumers should be classified based on their cognitive age, not their chronological age, since this is what influences purchase decisions.

For the rest of us, Ruvio cautions that doppelganging might lead to some unwanted side effects. "Even when you successfully achieve your desired identity—let's say you look 10 years younger and hot—others might resent you," she says. "Think about Demi Moore. She looks gorgeous, and she gets crucified for it."

Image: jramspott/flickr

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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