Notes from the Bureau of Humiliation and Embarrassment

Recently, my children told me that I am "hip." Not too hip of course, but just enough to be granted that elusive stamp of approval by these adolescents far hipper than I could ever dream to be. Tomorrow I may not be very hip at all, due to the degree with which I disallow household computer use or fail to stock the pantry with carbohydrates. However, it seems to me that the true test of hipness (not to be confused with hippiness) is whether or not my fashion passes their standards for my forays into polite society.

Admittedly, I take my fashion quite seriously. I actually get paid to give other women fashion advice, and I’m known among my peers as a woman who could sport a mean pair of stilettos at a moment’s notice. Years ago, when I began my fashion gig, frazzled mothers asked me to work with their teenage daughters on basic issues such as appropriateness, coordination, and shopping. I was happy to oblige because I figured that any self-respecting daughter of a frazzled mother would listen to a fashion expert, and I certainly couldn’t imagine my toddling little fashion princess ever displeasing me in the one area of life on which I could possibly write a book.

The truly valuable knowledge for any parent to have regarding the
formation of fashion taste and sensibilities has to do with
the stick-with-it factor. This is really the secret ingredient for success.

Eleven years have now passed since those days of smug ruminations, and I’m happy to say that my sweet children have grown into teenagers with keen fashion sense, although, amazingly, with some gaps in the basic skills of appropriateness, coordination, and shopping (go figure). Beyond this, I’m humoured by two prevailing notions that tend to arise amongst adolescents all over the known universe (or at least here along the western shore of Lake Michigan).

The first is that your garden-variety middle school student (the one who wears large plastic accessories and garish shoes) is far more of a fashion expert than anyone could hope to be over the age of Lindsay Lohan.

The second is that because there is this significant over-representation of fashion expertise among this population, there is no need to look beyond it for fashion inspiration or advice. Well, duh.

At least those are the vibes I’m picking up right now.

Anyway, now that I am both a frazzled mother and a fashion consultant, I like to think that I possess rare knowledge not available to the general public. This clearly puts me in the position of making exceptionally astute observations on the often toxic combination of adolescence and fashion. These observations include the desperate need for any mother to know exactly what she means when she says "streamlined silhouette," "focal point," and "not on my credit card!" and she must also know how to correctly pronounce the words ruching, bateau, and undergarment. Unfortunately, this same frazzled soul must also look both respectable as an adult and credible as a source of fashion advice and inspiration, albeit a source far beyond the age of Miss Lohan.

These qualities combine nicely into a person often unfairly referred to by middle school youngsters as the "Bureau of Humiliation and Embarrassment" (or BHE for short) – at least until computer time is generously increased and the pantry is stocked with vanilla wafers and cheddar crackers. Then, if the moon is in a certain phase and the barometric pressure is just right, the mother formerly known as the BHE is graciously dubbed hip mom. Of course, this can only happen if mom’s fashion is actually hip in the first place.

Most moms understand this – dare I say it? – moodiness. No parent of a teenager anywhere in the world is surprised to hear that all the plundering and pillaging which went on in the Middle Ages did so because the average king or tribal chief was freshly out of adolescence. Don’t we all know not to look cross-eyed at a pubescent son or daughter too early in the morning (and late in the morning, and early in the afternoon, and after 6pm)?

Rather, the truly valuable knowledge for any parent to have regarding the formation of fashion taste and sensibilities (aka BHE) has to do with the stick-with-it factor. This is really the secret ingredient for success.

How do I know this? Is this knowledge gained through my special position as both mom and fashionista?

I know because I watch teens, moms of teens, and (most importantly) moms of teens who grow into adults who dress well and still love their parents. Personalities and moodiness aside, these moms persevere in everything I mentioned above. They also stick to their standards, listen, and get to know their children’s friends and culture (kind of like anthropologists do). When times get tough and the barometric pressure is never just right, these moms (and dads) stick it out. Indeed, they may have contrived smiles on their faces, but they are there with lots of love (and maybe even carbohydrates).

So ultimately, as a mother, I’ll just keep my eyes on the prize. Things might be really messed up right now, but one day, long after I’ve stuck with it (either by being a hip mom, or the BHE, or both) my grandchildren will put them through the same thing. And, if I’ve done my job well, I might even get called for advice about it.

Mary Sheehan Warren is a hip mom in Milwaukee and author of It’s So You: Fitting Fashion to Your Life. Visit her at


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