Tween girls’ dressing in Singapore: Aspirations, Allowances and Affiliations

By Bernice Loh

My PhD dissertation focused on young Singaporean girls’ cultural identities and practices of girlhood. More specifically, it investigated the ways tween girls in Singapore wanted to dress after adults, and the values and meanings that they attached to their clothes. While girls’ adult-like dressing have been a topic of extensive debate in the West, there has been a lack of research on girls’ young femininities in Singapore, or Asia for that matter.

Despite being Singaporean, and given the focus of my research, I have not had an opportunity to return home for a conference, nor present my work in front of local academics. The first ISA Joint Conference for Family and Population in Singapore provided a wonderful opportunity in my first year post-PhD. At this conference, I presented the paper Tween girls’ dressing in Singapore: Aspirations, Allowances and Affiliations. This paper sought to provide a cultural perspective of tween girls’ dressing in Singapore, as much of the work within this region has also focused on girls’ identities and roles as students. In outlining the values and meanings that were embedded in 29 Singaporean girls’ dress, this paper also highlighted the ways that (adult-like) clothes are an important and conscientious deliberation for girls. Through the themes of aspirationallowance and affiliation, what these girls aged 8 to 12 wanted to wear not only helped them understand themselves, but the social world that they live in. Finally, this piece of work also initiated a dialogue about Singapore’s own successful girls narrative. This is where girls not only need to excel academically, but they also need to have the ‘right’ social class in order to access the ‘right’ brands of clothing.

While there were many concurrent sessions that ran over the three-day conference, the book launch for Singapore Family & Population Changes by the conference organisers is of particular mention. Contributing scholars like Professor Jean Yeung, Associate Professor Teo You Yenn and Dr. Lavanya Balachandran each gave an overview of their chapters. Intending to extend my research to how youth from low-income households in Singapore construct, go about and make sense of their everyday lives, these scholars’ presentations were extremely valuable. Professor Teo, for instance, highlighted how the welfare system in Singapore tends to only reward certain qualities in low-income families, whereas others are seen as deviant and unbeneficial. She further explains how certain ‘acts of love’ performed by low-income parents are not always legible to the state. Dr Balachandran’s work adds to this discussion, by elaborating how the CMIO (Chinese; Malay; Indian; Others) race model in Singapore enables the discussion of inequalities between different ethnic groups, but makes it more difficult to address the inequalities within each ethnic group. Understandings of inequalities in Singapore tend to be ‘cultural’ (students from a certain minority ethnic group deserve more help, for example), rather than identifying or attending to the differences in socio-economic class within each ethnic group.

I am immensely grateful for the support from The Sociological Review for my attendance at the joint ISA conference in Singapore. Not only was I able to reconnect with many of my professors from my undergraduate days, I had the chance to meet many other Singaporean PhD graduates from other universities, who were also at the same point of their careers. Being post-PhD and an ECR has always been challenging, and this opportunity provided by The Sociological Review gave me a lot more confidence to navigate my journey in academia.

Bernice Loh is a doctoral candidate and teaching associate at Monash University, Australia. Born and bred in Singapore, her current research focuses on Singaporean tween girls (aged 8 to 12), who want to fashion themselves adults. Besides taking an interest in girls’ young femininities, she has also published articles on local music in Singapore.

Originally published 19th August 2018

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