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In recent years, the fastest growing market for the sale of cosmetics in the United States has been girls between the ages of eight and twelve. Driven by media and marketing targeting younger demographics, this trend is a marker of earlier engagement with adult beauty standards and consumerist values, and the growing pressures on girls to conform to adult norms.

This development did not occur overnight. It’s not, as writers like Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge suggest, largely a consequence of the digital age, above all, the influence of social media and online influencers, though these have certainly contributed to and reinforced this trend.

Rather, this development is rooted in the deregulation of advertising that took place in the 1980s, which eased restrictions on marketing to children, exposing them to intensified commercial pressures. It also reflects a broader cultural shift toward introducing young girls to unrealistic beauty standards earlier in life.

This phenomenon has had profound implications for girls’ development and psychological well-being, highlighting the powerful impact of commercialization and commodification on childhood. The trend underscores how market forces and the portrayal of beauty in media are shaping younger demographics, putting pressure on children to conform to adult norms prematurely and affecting their self-image and self-esteem.

This example points to a much broader societal development: the deconstruction of certain cultural norms and assumptions that protected childhood from premature adultification, even in the relatively recent past, and the withering of regulations and practices that shielded kids from the most extreme penetrations of the market.

The term “adultification” refers to a social and cultural process where children are treated as more mature than their actual age dictates, exposing them to and expecting them to engage in behaviors, responsibilities and knowledge that were traditionally considered appropriate for adults. This phenomenon is manifest in various aspects of children’s lives, including their roles within families, their exposure to media, educational expectations and the types of products marketed to them.

In some cases, children are thrust into adult roles within the family structure due to economic hardship or illness or stresses on parents. This can include taking care of younger siblings, managing household tasks or contributing to the family income or their own personal expenses. While fostering responsibility can be beneficial, excessive expectations can burden a child and deprive them of opportunities for play and learning appropriate to their developmental stage.

Children today have unprecedented access to a wide range of media content through television, the internet and social media platforms. Much of this content, including some marketed directly to children, contains themes and messages that are mature and complex, involving adult relationships, violence and other adult-oriented content. This exposure can prematurely introduce children to adult concepts and pressures, adversely affecting their understanding of the world and their place within it.

The educational landscape has also seen shifts toward earlier academic rigor and competitiveness, with children being pushed to achieve academic and extracurricular success from a young age. High-stakes testing, homework loads and the push for college readiness can place significant stress on children, emphasizing achievement and performance over exploration and play.

Advertisers often target children with products that are essentially miniaturized versions of adult items, from fashion and beauty products to electronic gadgets. This not only blurs the line between childhood and adulthood but also encourages consumerist values and self-consciousness about image and status from a young age.

Another aspect of adultification is the sexualization of children, where children are portrayed or perceived in a sexual manner through media and advertising. This can lead to inappropriate expectations about appearance and behavior and contribute to body image issues and early sexualization.

The adultification of kids raises several concerns regarding child development and well-being. It can lead to increased stress, anxiety and depression among children, who may feel pressured to meet adult standards without having fully developed the emotional, cognitive or social tools to do so. It can also erode the space for childhood as a unique and protected stage of life, where play, learning and exploration occur freely and naturally.

In a recent book that hasn’t received anywhere near the attention that it deserves, the South Korean–born philosopher and cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han argues that contemporary society has witnessed the decline of many of the rituals that structured the yearly calendar and the weakening of the symbolic structures inherent in ritualistic behavior.

In this 2020 study, The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present, the author identifies several interconnected societal changes that have driven the decline in traditional rituals and the weakening of community bonds and the shared symbolic meanings that rituals historically promoted.

Market pressures, commodification and commercialization have transformed many rituals into consumer experiences, stripping them of their communal and symbolic essence. Bureaucratization, professionalization, secularization and what Max Weber termed the “disenchantment of the world,” have further eroded the foundations of ritualistic practices, leading to a more individualized and less communally oriented society.

The Disappearance of Rituals doesn’t conform to any existing scholarly model. It’s neither anthropology nor history, linguistics, philosophy or sociology, even though it draws on each of these disciplines. Nietzsche-like in its reliance on aphorisms, it’s suggestive rather than methodical and poetic rather than analytic. Yet it’s the kind of book, like Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command and Norbert Elias’s The Civilizing Process, that leads one to rethink our standard narratives of history and to see our society and era in a fresh light.

As the book suggests, the weakening of rituals and ritualistic behavior has had far-reaching consequences across multiple aspects of life.

It alters how we experience the annual calendar, diminishing the communal and celebratory aspects of seasonal and cultural festivities.

Many coming-of-age rituals, once pivotal for marking the transition to adulthood, have died out, affecting individual identity formation and community bonds.

When we mourn and seek closure, the decline of earlier collective rituals tends to complicate the grieving process, leaving individuals without shared practices to navigate loss.

Religion, traditionally structured around ritual, has lost some of its communal engagement and spirituality.

The decline in seduction rituals in sexual relationships has contributed to more transactional or less meaningful connections.

Warfare, too, has been affected, as the rituals that once governed the conduct of war and honored combatants and victims fade, undercutting perceptions of honor, valor and mourning in the context of conflict.

The decline of rituals has also influenced our understanding of history, as the myths and symbolic language through which historical narratives are woven fade.

The shift toward data analytics for understanding human behavior represents a move away from symbolic interpretation to empirical analysis, potentially losing the nuanced insights that come from cultural and ritualistic contexts.

Even the way we write today reflects the losses that The Disappearance of Rituals describes.

The language of Shakespeare and the King James Bible exhibits several defining characteristics, particularly in terms of metaphor and figurative language, that not only distinguish it from contemporary writing, but also mark it as uniquely expressive and powerful.

For one thing, their vocabulary was richer. According to some estimates, Shakespeare used over 17,000 words across his works, many of which he coined himself. This extensive lexicon allowed for nuanced expression and contributed to the ability to convey complex emotions and ideas.

Perhaps even more important was the use of metaphor and simile to create vivid imagery. Unlike many contemporary writers, who tend to use metaphor sparingly or with more restraint, the metaphors in Shakespeare’s works or The King James Bible imbue those works with layers of meaning and symbolic timbre and resonance.

Also, there’s a rhythmic pattern to those writings that lends a musical quality to their use of language and makes the lines especially memorable. While one can think of contemporary writers who experiment with various forms and meters, like Marilynne Robinson, the consistent use of such rhythms is far less common today, making today’s writing less evocative, poetic and aphoristic.

Beyond metaphor and simile, Shakespeare and The King James Bible employed an array of figurative language, including personification, hyperbole and synecdoche, to enrich their texts. Shakespeare’s language, in particular, is replete with puns, double entendres and other forms of wordplay, which serve to add layers of meaning, humor and irony to his works. This playful use of language demonstrates his linguistic dexterity and contributes to the dynamic interplay between characters.

In terms of syntax, Shakespeare and The King James Bible often employed inversion, rearranging the usual order of words in a sentence, to achieve particular metrical or rhetorical effects. This can make his language seem formal or complex to modern readers, but it allowed those earlier writers to emphasize certain words or ideas and to maintain the rhythm of their verses.

Both Shakespeare’s works and The King James Bible include words and phrases that were already becoming archaic in their time. These elements can make his language seem distant to contemporary readers, yet they also contribute to those works’ richness, expressiveness and enduring power.

In comparison to most contemporary prose, the use of language in Shakespeare and The King James Bible is marked by its formal structure, its poetic density and its deep engagement with figurative and metaphorical expression. While modern writers may prioritize directness, simplicity or experimental forms, that language remains a high watermark for its complexity, beauty and expressive power.

I tend to resist declensionist narratives that treat history as a story of decline. After all, history is a story of gains as well as losses, progress as well as regression, and liberation as well as Foucault-like confinement, control, and subjugation. But I suspect that Byung-Chul Han is right: The erosion of the ceremonial, the ritualistic, and the playful represents a genuine loss.

I fear that our society has stripped many aspects of life of their symbolic significance. To take just one example: Sports, once imbued with rich symbolism and metaphorical significance, reflecting broader societal narratives (for instance, about meritocracy or amateurism) and communal identities, has increasingly been commodified and professionalized. This shift toward viewing sports primarily as commercial entertainment and business has overshadowed its symbolic dimensions, reducing it to a form of gladiatorial contest focused on competition and spectacle. The transformation is part of a broader societal trend toward commercialization and individualism, moving away from communal experiences and shared cultural meanings that sports traditionally fostered.

To be sure, as the rituals that once marked significant life events and transitions fade, individuals do seek new ways to invest meaning and find connection in a fractured and disenchanted social universe. We still find ways to celebrate key life experiences and give structure and meaning to our lives. Yet I think it’s fair to say that contemporary American society is characterized by an increasing focus on individualism rather than communal experiences, making social relations more transactional, interchangeable and exchangeable.

Commodification has shifted the focus of sports, the arts, and other cultural practices from being expressions of communal identity and shared experiences to being products for consumption and entertainment. Professionalization, in turn, has altered societal narratives, emphasizing individual success and monetary gain over collective achievement and cultural expression. As a result, collective identities are increasingly defined by consumer choices rather than by shared cultural practices, leading to a fragmented society where communal bonds are weakened and cultural activities are stripped of their deeper societal and communal significance.

Let me conclude with this thought: In the marketplace of modern life, rituals have become commodities, and we, the consumers, are left hungry for meaning.

As rituals have faded, so has our shared language of belonging, and we find ourselves adrift in a sea of individualism. Without ritual, our collective memories are untethered, while the commodification of tradition has sold our communal soul for the price of spectacle.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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