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A steady hum and bustle flowed in and out of Star Shots Photography Studio in Mission Valley Center. Teenage girls strolled in and out in twos and threes, sometimes chatting, other times giggling with arms locked, but never alone. The stark white walls of the shop amplified the unreal quality of the display photographs. I wondered if these girls were reaching for the savvy sophistication presented to them in magazines and movies, only to settle for the dull thump of a mall glitz shop.

I stopped a few outside to discuss fashion. Leanne, a 16-year-old, described her outfit. "I'm wearing white Capri pants, which I got in P.B. for, like, 30 bucks, and a tube top." The black fabric stretching over her slender ribcage accentuated her olive skin. I commented on the tightness of her top, wondering if she dressed for the boys. "I guess guys like my clothes," she granted, "but I have a boyfriend, so I don't know. But if you have a nice body, then flaunt it."

Alivia, 15, stared at me through Sophia Loren eyes. Her cream-colored bra straps lay askew from the lighter-white spaghetti straps of her tank top. Is that the fashion, to let your bra straps show?

"I didn't have a strapless bra to wear for it. I think it looks tacky, but I had no choice. These are black Capri pants," she said, further describing her outfit, "and I have on Steve Madden shoes. I dress for myself, but [Leanne and I] just kind of wanted to match today. I guess guys like my clothes, but I don't, like, to try to flaunt it. I feel comfortable in these clothes."

What do your parents think of them?

"They don't mind. They trust me with what to wear. I don't want to look hootchie -- you know, with really short shorts with your butt hanging out."

Do the stores here sell hootchie?

"Oh, yeah."

As I strolled the sun-faded multicolor swirled concrete pathways of the mall, I noticed the hungry-eyed, denim-clad model pictured in the window of Express. The denim looked worn and faded, yet clung like cellophane to her figure -- it was anything but broken in. I spied Allison, 16, outfitted in the same worn-looking denim. She described her outfit: "I've got a tight white V-neck and a pair of kind of stretchy jeans, and thongs. The jeans I got at Marshall's for, like, 20 bucks. I got the top there too, for 12. The shoes are from Nordstrom's; they were $25."

What's in the bag?

"A black denim jacket. I kind of like the look. Britney Spears wears denim, but I've seen this in ads in magazines.

"I dress for myself," she said. "I've been told that guys don't really look at clothes. They don't really care; they look more at the face and the figure." Her friend Sivan, 17, disagreed. "I think the face and the figure are all important stuff, but I think what you wear categorizes you. So I think guys really do notice what you're wearing, to make sure a girl's well put-together. I'm wearing a double-layered shirt -- the top is see-through leopard-print with a tight tank top underneath cropped to expose the belly."

Do you wear tighter clothes to show off your figure?

"Yeah, I do. I'll admit it, I do. I think this looks sharp and clean-cut. It's not, like, all loose and everything. It's not a slacker-type look. It's fashionable. [My parents] like how I dress, but they will tell me if something is inappropriate, like those shirts with the open back that just have this one string holding them on. They're really tight and they show lots of cleavage."

As I continued down the swirling pathway, I noticed a stalk of a girl with a boyish haircut and flawless skin milling around outside the arcade, bantering with a couple of friends. Her name was Nicole; she was 14. "The shirt I'm wearing is WMLA. It's a top-selling brand at Gaymart. Gay people like [the brand] and are attracted to it."

Are you gay?

"Yes."

She described her outfit. "This sleeveless black-ribbed tank top was about $18. I wear black ones and green ones, but not white. The white tank tops, the muscle shirts, they're called 'wife beaters.' I like the WMLA brand because it lasts forever. I have really expensive taste. These Nike shoes were $90, and these Anchor Blue jeans were $35. This stuff is all cool because I'm wearing it. I don't copy anyone's style."

One of her friends, 14-year-old Carina, brushed back her blue-tinted blond hair and explained, "I'm a raver. The guys are cute at the raves, the dancing is fun, and I love the music. I have these rave pants -- you could fit about two of [my friend] in the pant leg. They're like jeans with neon green stripes down and around the pocket. I got them at Hot Topic for $65."

Carina's large chest strained against her blue, stretchy dragon-print shirt; the faux jewels that served as the dragon's eyes commanded further attention.

Do you wear tight shirts for the guys?

"Yep, all the time. I dress for myself and for guys. I pretty much wear whatever my mother tells me not to -- like low-cut tight shirts."

What kind of message does teenage fashion send?

"It depends. There are a lot of hootchies; hootchies bother me. They're the big girls who wear shorts up around their crotch." Nicole blurts out, "With their ass hanging out of their shorts, and they're wearing shirts where the rolls come out, and, like, every little thing [is showing]. They're Britney Spears wannabes."

By this time, I was genuinely curious about the hootchie girls. I combed the mall in search of more details. Jenny, 15, and Ashley, 16, told me about the clothes. "Hootchie is showing too much skin," said Ashley. Jenny added, "It's clothes like tube tops and high boots up to the knee. Also high heels. The fabrics are thin, see-through fabrics. It's mostly young kids now. You go through a junior high, and you see them all hootchie-dressing."

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