August
18th 2009
It’s Back-to-Girl School time, kids!

Posted under: Gender, women's history

The Bittersweet Girl has a fun post up about what she never learned in “Girl School.”  She writes,

For years, Golden Boy and I have had a bit that we do, in which we joke about what we did or did not learn in “girl school” or “boy school.”

For example, if I were to do something particularly girly like sew a button on his shirt or arrange a vase of flowers just so, GB will say, “Is that something you learned in girl school?”

However, the joke is more common in the negative. Neither GB nor I particularly conform to gender norms — he’s the bookish, sensitive type, while I like to repair things with large tools — so usually we use this concept in moments when we’re not able to perform as our genders dictate. For example, if GB declines to kill a particularly large, scary bug, I would say, “But, isn’t that a skill you learned in boy school?”

cowgirlchapsThis is apropos of the Lessons for Girls series that Historiann initiated and is archiving. I’ve enjoyed this series immensely and have wanted to participate but whenever I sit down to compose a lesson for girls, I get stuck on the feeling that there are so many lessons I haven’t learned or have yet to learn, who am I to give anyone else advice?

Hey, BSG–that lack of self-confidence is extremely “girly,” don’tcha think?  Otherwise, it’s true:  she doesn’t sound like a very good “girl,” to me.  She doesn’t know how to put on makeup or do her hair, she can’t cook to entertain, and she is chronically “sweaty, flustered, wrinkled, and cranky,” among other non-”girl”-like attributes, but then, I bet we can all think of ways in which we’re not sex/gender normative!  I never learned to shut up when people told me to, like a good “girl.”  (Shocking, I know!)  Oh, and I sometimes forget to hang up my chaps and to wipe my boots before coming in the house.  But, I’m (embarassingly) “girl”-like in that I’m mechanically incompetent beyond changing lightbulbs or tightening screws, and I have a bad habit of ignoring weird noises and blinky lights in my car in the hopes they’ll get better on their own.

What lessons did you miss in “Girl School” or “Boy School?”  Do you regret it, or are you proud never to have learned those particular lessons?  (By the way, I’m adding this to my popular and instructive series, Lessons for Girls, a feminist vade mecum.)

33 Comments »

33 Responses to “It’s Back-to-Girl School time, kids!”

  1. Mother of ALL on 18 Aug 2009 at 8:02 am #

    I think one of the things I didn’t learn in “Girl School” was that I should not let people know I was the smartest kid in the class. I always let them know in some way or other and when I was growing up, that just was not the way things were done. By the time I got to high school, I started goofing off and decided it was more fun for me to “get by” than to excell. Why this changed, I don’t know. I had friends among the braniacs, the jocks and the “rough girls” so it wasn’t a matter of fitting in. I think I just got lazy and wanted to have fun more than study. As I have aged, I still have the desire to be the smart one and quite often I still am.

  2. Feminist Avatar on 18 Aug 2009 at 8:12 am #

    OOh, that’s something I never learned- I keep forgetting I am not as smart as the boys, so I am forever pointing out when they are wrong.

    Seriously though in my academic life, I have at least one man who went from being friendly to disliking me when I achieved more academically at an earlier point in my career. I was a bit dumb so didn’t quite realise that his attitude had changed, until someone else asked me about it at a drunken party. And, this was definitely about being a girl as he has no problem with men in a similar position…

  3. Susan on 18 Aug 2009 at 8:22 am #

    I didn’t learn to do manicures on my own nails.
    I never learned to kow-tow to the girls who were most popular.
    And, like Mother of ALL, I never learned to keep my mouth shut. I wasn’t necessarily the smartest in the class, but I was one of the smartest, and everyone knew it. I was never the one whose paper you read and say, Oh, I didn’t know she was so smart…”

  4. Emily on 18 Aug 2009 at 8:58 am #

    This reminds me a bit of an article at Wired.com from last week: http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2009/08/5-tips-for-raising-your-girl-geek/

    I think a lot of “girly” gender signifiers all relate to mating rituals, of a sort. Growing up in a geeky, academic household, and identifying as queer myself, I’m only just starting to realize how many of those gestures towards femininity or “softness” or attractiveness–and the learned skills that they entail–are perpetuated with the view that doing so will attract a man. While admittedly I may have a chip on my shoulder, I often try to deliberately do the opposite of what these mating rituals suggest, if only to make the point that they aren’t necessary to living a fulfilling life. I don’t think that’s something that’s emphasized to young women enough.

  5. Historiann on 18 Aug 2009 at 9:22 am #

    Mother of ALL–wasn’t one of your problems being a smartest Lutheran kid in a Catholic school, too? The fathers and the sisters didn’t like it that you won all of the bible and religion quizzes, as I recall.

    Susan–you have fab pedicures now, and it’s so much more relaxing to pay to have someone else do it, isn’t it? And Feminist Avatar–too bad your “friend” cut himself off. You might have been able to do him a favor sometime–more evidence that patriarchy professionally and economically irrational sometimes, too.

  6. Historiann on 18 Aug 2009 at 9:24 am #

    Emily–welcome, and thanks for the link to the Wired article.

  7. Paul on 18 Aug 2009 at 9:47 am #

    From the “guy school” side, I never learned to have any interest or skill in fixing things around the house, or cars. I also never learned to like watching sports very much (with rare exceptions). I am hopelessly bad at bragging about anything. I managed to pick up an unfortunate fondness for gardening and flowers along the way, along with my shyness and bookishness.

    On the other hand, I did learn how not to cook (living on microwaved and bagged food instead), how to be careless about my dress and appearance, how to loathe shopping for clothes and shoes, and how to enjoy movies with lots of stuff exploding, so clearly my lessons weren’t entirely wasted.

  8. life_of_a_fool on 18 Aug 2009 at 9:48 am #

    Thanks Emily! I was starting to feel very “girly,” as I tend to be shy (less so now, but still), and so sometimes keep my mouth shut more than necessary, and definitely fall into the “who I am to give anyone advice” that Bittersweet Girl mentioned too often. But!! I never learned to flirt, never really embraced the “mating rituals” thing and also sometimes do the opposite of what they suggest.

  9. Bookbag on 18 Aug 2009 at 12:06 pm #

    I’m sure my grandmother could compile a list several pages long detailing what I failed to learn in girl school, and it would definitely include the following: not devoting enough time to my makeup and hairstyle, wearing my hair short, being a know-it-all, and not caring enough about what the neighbors think of all of the above. But most of all, she cannot understand why I refused to accept that women should do all of the cooking/cleaning in their house with little to no appreciation or assistance. She swore that my failure in this regard would keep me single and therefore unhappy forever, and she’s still shocked that I somehow managed to find a man to marry me who accepts that doing the dishes is his job too.

  10. Kathleen Lowrey on 18 Aug 2009 at 1:10 pm #

    hair and makeup! I will usually say that I just don’t feel like devoting the time, but the truth is, even given world enough &, I haven’t a clue what I am doing. At least 50% of the time when I attempt serious dolling-up I come out looking like Tammy Faye Bakker or something. Once I had fake eyelashes applied for me and they looked so great; when I’ve tried on my own, it’s like Groucho Marx’s mustache got glued to the middle of my eyelid. Don’t get me started on the mysteries of blow-drying hair. It always looks so manageable when the stylist does it; I’ve actually hit myself in the face with my hairbrush trying it at home. I would love to be making a “choice” about my tousled hair and unmade up face, but it’s more like fate. And I really do wonder — where did so many other women learn this stuff? Now I know — girl school!

  11. John S. on 18 Aug 2009 at 1:34 pm #

    Let me chime in and say that I am a failure at one of the the “boy school” equivalents of make-up: I can’t shave. I have been trying to get it right for around 20 years now and just can’t seem to. I cut myself, I miss spots, and I always end up with razor-burn when I am done. Wearing a goatee for over a decade seemed to mask these faults, but since I shaved it off, I am now exposed.

    As to the other “boy” equivalent: the hair thing is another kettle of fish entirely. There should be a “man school” where people can be both honest and helpful about appearance when the hair starts to thin and recede. If anyone knows where such an academy exists, do let me know.

  12. life_of_a_fool on 18 Aug 2009 at 1:48 pm #

    heh. some of these don’t even occur to me to list — e.g., I forget that I don’t do my hair or nails or cook — that’s how much I missed in “girl school.”

  13. Mary on 18 Aug 2009 at 1:50 pm #

    I never learned how to be a good Girl Scout. The badges were too crafty for my taste. The only badge I completed on my own was called “Miss Fix It” because it involved tools. I wanted to be a Boy Scout instead. I was so envious that my brother got to build rockets for the rocket launch and cars for the pinewood derby. It all sounded more fun.

    I also never learned how not to be competitive especially in sports. I loved playing baseball and football. My dad wouldn’t let me wrestle though.

  14. Historiann on 18 Aug 2009 at 1:54 pm #

    Ha! It’s funny how the hair and makeup (or shaving, which is kind of hair AND makeup or hair AS makeup, when you think about it) is a major problem for so many of you. Or should I say, of US.

    John S.: Most guys I know say to just keep it honest by keeping it short. You could also go the shaved-head route, although I don’t know how that would look on you. (And it seems like if you don’t like to shave your face, you probably don’t want to shave your whole head every other day or so.)

    Kathleen, re: the conversation we were having about professors’ clothing and appearance the other day (and student derision thereof), if you went the Tammy Faye route, that would sure give them something to talk about! (Professor Baby Jane, I presume?)

    Ha!

  15. Mary on 18 Aug 2009 at 1:54 pm #

    I should add that my competitive spirit did make me a good Girl Scout in one respect—I generally sold the most cookies.

  16. Historiann on 18 Aug 2009 at 3:31 pm #

    Mary–excellent! Can you hook us up with GS cookies again this year?

  17. Mary on 18 Aug 2009 at 3:43 pm #

    Oh I wish! But alas, my Girl Scout days are long gone.

    However, I did hear about one tech-savvy girl scout who sold cookies online last year. However, parents complained the website wasn’t “fair” to the other scouts and the troupe leader made the industrious young one take down the site. Still, maybe the Girl Scouts will cave this year and we can all order cookies while blogging.

  18. Historiann on 18 Aug 2009 at 4:31 pm #

    I’d put a widget on my blog that would lead to a GS cookie vending site. Make mine the peanut-butter ones covered in chocolate…yum. Or those coconutty ones that must be loaded with transfat.

  19. Digger on 18 Aug 2009 at 4:39 pm #

    I just had this discussion the other day with a friend. I never learned the hair/makeup thing… though I have tried, both were unmitigated disasters. I no longer own emergency makeup, and hair is kept trimmed. I never learned how to walk in heels (my feet are grateful). And girly talky giggly hair-flip is a foreign language to me. As are mani-/pedicures. Though my friend did explain the mysteries of keeping long hair up with a stick; after 38 years, a mystery revealed! Fortunately, she was able to explain the physics of it all, so it made sense lol.

  20. Mamie on 18 Aug 2009 at 5:19 pm #

    Shopping. In malls and department stores. I never learned in girl school how to enjoy shopping for clothes and shoes and such. (I do like shopping in farmer’s markets and certain grocery stores, but that’s altogether different.)

    I feel certain my students have considered posting photos of my wardrobe for others to mock; they certainly mock it in their evaluations.

  21. Historiann on 18 Aug 2009 at 6:03 pm #

    How dumb is this, Digger: I never learned to walk in heels either, but that doesn’t stop me (occasionally) wearing them! I’d better reproduce before I become a candidate for a Darwin award…

    Mamie–I hear you on the mall-a-rama-lama-dama-ding-dong. I find shopping so overstimulating that I can’t make reasonable decisions. I used to enjoy it when I was a teenager and young adult, and didn’t have much money. Now I can buy more stuff (or spend more anyway), and I just don’t care to shop.

  22. laydeegirl on 18 Aug 2009 at 7:21 pm #

    I never learned to feel it was normal to “hate on” other women, a la this bimbo from the reality show “The Hills,” who was featured in a recent article in the OC Register about her implant surgery:

    “If they aren’t hating on you, then you’re not doing anything right. If women aren’t jealous of you, talking about you and cutting you down, then you’re a nerd, and I would never want to be that.”

  23. Mamie on 18 Aug 2009 at 7:33 pm #

    Oooh-ooh-ooh! Can I be the proud nerd that other women aren’t hating on?

  24. Historiann on 18 Aug 2009 at 8:03 pm #

    Wow–can I say, after William Carlos Williams:

    so much depends
    upon

    big breast
    implants

    gazed on with
    envy

    by all the other
    chicks

    Sad. But, my guess is she’s young, so maybe she’ll figure out by age 40 that tempus fugit and even her fake ones will head south of the border…

  25. Flavia on 19 Aug 2009 at 10:25 am #

    I went to Girl School late — the end of college and after — when I decided that I did, in fact, want to “pass” as female in certain external ways.

    This includes hair/makeup/clothes/grooming stuff, but not the behaviors that I and a lot of the other posters here identify as feminine in a negative way (being deferrential, giggly, backstabby, etc.).

    I’m sure some of this was for mating-related reasons, but I saw it at the time as self-creation — as becoming a certain kind of adult, urban woman, based on the smart, confident, fast-talking characters I admired in books and old movies. I was tired of being shy and awkward and feeling that I didn’t come across as the person I thought I was.

    My Girl School Extension classes were successful, insofar as I did become the person I wished to be. But I’m still ambivalent about the ways that my “success” seems complicit with heterosexual norms of female attractiveness.

  26. Historiann on 19 Aug 2009 at 11:24 am #

    Flavia, maybe you should think of yourself as an undercover secret agent for radical feminism? That’s how I think of myself, although I am pretty conformist and pretty femmy now in the way I dress. And, I’m very flirtatious (or so I’m told), so mark me down as an honors graduate of “Girl School.”

    The only takeaway from “Girl School” I still feel the need to actively rebel against is when I am unnecessarily focused on being “nice.”

  27. The Bittersweet Girl on 19 Aug 2009 at 2:28 pm #

    Thanks for showcasing my post!

    I think you are right — if we define “girlhood” as “unrelenting insecurity that one has failed to meet the standard precepts of femininity” than I am an award-winning girl. The spirit behind the post was that, as much as I don’t think many of these social niceties — and the gendered stereotypes that they rest upon and reinforce — are valuable, I nevertheless beat myself up about failing to satisfy them. I’m very interested to see that so many of your readers seem to have similar experiences — and particularly to see what your male readers have to say about the lessons learned or not learned at “boy school”

  28. Digger on 19 Aug 2009 at 3:07 pm #

    Flavia, I’d love to reinvent myself a little bit, in the mold of those characters and other, RL folks whose style I admire. I just, honestly, haven’t a clue where to start. Anyone have any Remedial Texts around?

  29. Flavia on 19 Aug 2009 at 4:29 pm #

    Historiann: ah, if only! But it’s true that I often regard my relatively femme-y exterior as an elaborate joke that not many people are actually in on.

    Digger: that’s tough. I spent a long time just experimenting, and figuring things out by trial and error (it took me a remarkably long while to discover that I have a good figure, because I kept buying the kinds of clothes that looked good on my friends but weren’t remotely flattering to ME).

    I’d say not to tackle it all at once, but focus on one or two things at a time, and don’t be shy about asking specific questions of people whose style you admire. For makeup and grooming, I recommend Paula Begoun’s books and website–go to the “learn” section. (She does sell her own line of products, but I’ve found her to be a trustworthy, no-nonsense explainer of skincare and makeup basics, who will tell you which routines and products are hooey.)

  30. Historiann on 19 Aug 2009 at 6:12 pm #

    Wow–I can’t believe this is turning into a genuine “girl school” lesson for girls!

  31. Digger on 19 Aug 2009 at 8:01 pm #

    Historiann – Heh, me either! Flavia – thanks for the tips. The thought of looking up makeup tips squicks me no end. I’ll cope and take a peek, but reserve the right to run screaming ;) Wardrobe tips, though… those I can use.

  32. Historiann on 19 Aug 2009 at 8:37 pm #

    Try “What Not to Wear,” with Clinton (or Clayton?) and Stacey (sp?) on some cable channel I don’t get. (TLC?) They work with people as they find them, rather than trying to change their bodies as well as their wardrobes, although they get a new hairstyle and some makeup tips at the end of the show. They have good ideas about how to find clothes that look good and fit properly, and which highlight your good features.

    One of the things I like about the show is that they always find a good feature on everyone, no matter how non-modelesque the participants. They teach people how to work with what they’ve got, rather than screaming at people that they need to lose 100 pounds before they’ll even try to work with them.

  33. Kathleen Lowrey on 20 Aug 2009 at 9:08 am #

    Digger — okay, this is one of the times I regret using my real name on the interwebs *but* there are actually instructional videos on YouTube. They aren’t magic, though — I watched one on how to apply fake eyelashes, failed miserably anyway, then had my husband watch it (he has better hand-eye coordination than I do) and voilá! He did it for me, perfectly. Not that anybody here doesn’t already know this, but so many supposedly girl/boy skills come down to un-gendered aptitudes. The idea that throwing a baseball is antithetical to making your hair look pretty… in fact, they both require mental control over one’s appendages that I just don’t have, I flail equally at both.

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