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Breaking down the TikTok hype behind this preppy Dallas boutique for tweens

A screenshot of Dear Hannah Prep's TikTok videos, which show girls modeling the boutique's merch.
Screenshot by NPR
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shopdearhannahprep
A screenshot of Dear Hannah Prep's TikTok videos, which show girls modeling the boutique's merch.

When I was a kid, I loved getting catalogs in the mail with cute clothes I could buy. Today, many companies are making that shopping experience even more interactive by turning their models into internet personalities — complete with behind-the-scenes footage of the models' lives.

But the kids who star on social media platforms like TikTok get almost no privacy and labor protections.

"There's this huge gap in protecting children who are essentially entertainers or performers or influencers on social media," Brandie Nonnecke, who teaches tech policy at UC Berkeley, told NPR's Morning Edition.

She welcomes legislation protecting child influencers in several states, but is calling for more.

"I'd like to see something proposed federally as well that upholds existing child labor laws in this new digitized entertainment ecosystem," Nonnecke said.

Videos of girls modeling clothes for Dear Hannah Prep, a boutique in Dallas, Texas, have gone viral on TikTok recently.

Dear Hannah Prep, a brand geared toward girls and tweens, is an offshoot of the Dear Hannah brand, which caters to an older demographic. Dear Hannah Prep's brick-and-mortar store opened earlier this year, according to the brand's TikTok page. Since then, the account has reached more than a quarter of a million followers and over 10 million total likes on TikTok. The company declined to comment on this story.

The account shows tween girls with makeup, impeccably-styled hair, brightly-colored crop tops and mini skirts advertising Dear Hannah Prep merch — like its Pumpkin Spice Blankets covered in smiley faces.

Sixteen-year-old Leigha Sanderson worked in the entertainment industry for about five years before she teamed up with Dear Hannah Prep. She started her career on Netflix's Dancing Queen and most recently became known for her role in JoJo Siwa's dance group, XOMG POP!

"It's really chill, to be honest," Leigha said of the Dear Hannah Prep gig. "We go in, we film maybe a few hours a month. We film content for our pages, for their pages."

Leigha gets a discount code and free products as a brand ambassador. But there's no other financial compensation.

TikTok users have called for cash payments for the girls, since what they're doing is work. Leigha is happy to build her modeling portfolio and make friends along the way.

Leigha's mom, Anjie Sanderson, says being able to model trendy clothes is empowering.

"Everything about it builds their self-esteem," Anjie said. "Nobody ever tells them, wear your hair this way or I don't like you in that color or wear more makeup."

Why is the account viral?

Rachael Kay Albers is a brand strategist, and says kids can't give informed consent about their image and personal lives being shared on the internet. According to Albers, this inability to provide consent is based on kids being unable to foresee the consequences of their internet personas on their future job opportunities and self-esteem.

She's not surprised at Dear Hannah Prep's TikTok success.

"We also are fascinated as a culture with the world of middle school relationships and middle school dynamics and mean girls and high school and all the things that go on there," Albers said.

Annika Wang, a 23-year old who works in publicity, posted a TikTok video about Dear Hanna Prep, which got over a million views. In the video, she refers to the brand as "that child labor boutique" showing "ten-year-old girls in colorful outfits."

Despite her critiques of Dear Hannah Prep, Wang doesn't agree with some of the comments people left about the brand's young models.

"I think the girls have been kind of unfairly given a persona of future mean girls or future bullies," Wang said, "which I really heavily disagree with."

Leigh Stein, a novelist and cultural critic, says that while many girls want to accelerate womanhood — adult women are romanticizing "girl" trends like "girl dinner, hot girl walk, rat girl, Girlboss [and] that girl."

"I just wonder," said Stein, "have we already run through all the possibilities of girl aesthetics for women, that now the most interesting or surprising thing is actual children, actual girls?"

But, being a girl is something that Leigha's mom appreciates about her daughter's gig with Dear Hannah Prep.

"I love that my daughter just still wants to be young and fun," Anjie said. "She's not trying to be older than her age and I love that this is a brand where she can have her own style and is not pressured to be anything other than what she is."

Stein says that the root of what's happening on Dear Hannah Prep's TikTok is nothing new.

"Girls dressing up in outfits, posing like models, recording little skits with their friends is like a very American rite of passage, normal teenage girl behavior," she said.

But instead of just taking place at a sleepover — like it may have in decades past — it's online for potentially millions to see.

This story was edited for radio by Olivia Hampton and Halimah Abdullah, and edited for digital by Treye Green.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claire Murashima
Claire Murashima is a production assistant on Morning Edition and Up First. Before that, she worked on How I Built This, NPR's Team Atlas and Michigan Radio. She graduated from Calvin University.