Monday, July 21, 2008

How a Girl Becomes a Feminist

My Sister and I
My mom cried a lot when I was little, sometimes in embarrassingly inconvenient places like in the car on the way home from school or in department store dressing rooms. She smoked cigarettes in the laundry room where she thought my sister and I wouldn’t notice. I didn’t, until I was 8 and went to get money for the ice cream man from her purse, and found a pack of Merits stored in the torn lining. I rang up my best friend, Lydia, and told her. Sometimes her mom snuck cigarettes, too, she told me. Sometimes our moms smoked them together, in the backyard of my tiny row home or behind the shed where we kept broken tricycles and plastic baby pools with cracks in them that allowed the garden hose water to slowly seep out. Finding out my mom smoked cigarettes seemed like the end of the world, and that day I had quietly added it to the long list of offenses that I subconsciously built up against her.

Walking home from the French Consulate today, we started talking about the time I got in trouble with my friend Lydia for buying a copy of Vogue because the Spice Girls were on the cover. My mom decided it was inappropriate and ripped out various pages before we could look through the magazine. At the time, I was absolutely appalled that she would deface such a gloriously glossy and beautiful book by tearing out pages of thin, bronzed models with perfectly painted faces. It was the 90’s, a time of heroin chic and ripped denim and Kate Moss, and I found the pictures on the covers of the magazines I passed at the local market absolutely mesmerizing. My mother did not share this sentiment. The day Lydia and I brought the Spice Girls Vogue home she stared at me like I had become possessed. It hadn’t occurred to me then – or even until just today, when she explicitly told me – that she was protecting me from the messages implicit in those shiny pages. “Part of the reason you are the way you are now is because I made sure you didn’t internalize any of the sexist shit they put in women’s magazines,” she said today, as I smoked a cigarette, my 8 year old disgust for them clearly dissipated. “Hm,” I respond. This made sense.

I began to think of other things I held against her when I was younger in light of this new discovery. “It’s another reason I refused to let you become a cheerleader,” she mentioned. I could hear on the other end that she, too, was sucking on a cigarette. The cheerleader dilemma had been a point of contention in our relationship years ago. I would hike up my Gap Kids skort and tie an oxford up like a bra and shout cheers barefoot in our yellow linoleum kitchen shaking pompoms bought at a football game of the high school where my Dad was principal. There’s a home video somewhere of me getting a cheerleader doll for my birthday from my Grandmother that shouted things like “Rah rah, go team!” and kind of had a slutty looking mouth. I remember my Mom being less than overjoyed that I had received such a gift, and I couldn’t understand why; then, I thought she wanted me to be as unhappy as her, crying in the half-light on our moldy deck beneath the tree that knocked up against my bedroom window during thunderstorms. Now, I realize, it’s because that cheerleader doll was a symbol of everything she was intent on not teaching me: that girls are simply sex symbols or decorative sideline candy. She didn’t want me growing up thinking they were, and so I wasn’t allowed to be a cheerleader. She signed me up for softball instead. She cropped my hair and wouldn’t let me play with makeup and bought me Barbies who were made to have careers.

There were some things that were out of her control, particularly as I grew older and more wayward. Once I turned 11, I plastered my walls with pictures of teen heartthrobs that lived in the pages of J-17 and Tiger Beat. I had a major crush on Leonardo DiCaprio and his blonde locks and baby blues stared down at me from my crushingly not-canopied bed. I read Louis Sachar books instead of Babysitter’s Club until I become intellectually obsessed with the Holocaust and read The Diary of Anne Frank approximately fifteen million times. I wore cropped pants that I called “pedal pushers” and yearned for a retainer so badly that sometimes I would bend a paper clip to fit across my teeth and wear it in class. I read books in trees at lunch and was the 5th grade hopscotch champion. Despite these embarrassing idiosyncrasies, I did not believe I was ugly or fat or dumb or any of those other things ladymags subtly convince you that you are in order to curb self-confidence. I was not the most confident girl in the world, but when it came to the things that mattered, I believed in myself. Once my Mom remarked to me in a dressing room at the South Mall, “I don’t get how you do it. You never blame your body if something looks bad on you, you always blame the clothes.”


It was true, but it was all thanks to her. I think she knew that she didn’t want to instill the kind of negative image she had of herself into me and my sister. My mom battled an eating disorder and depression while my sister and I were learning that it was fun to be a girl, and if she would let us try on her mascara, it was maybe even awesome.

I don’t think that if my mother had let me become a cheerleader or allowed me to read Vogue or own a hoard of naked Barbie dolls that I would be all that different than I am today. I think my interest in feminism, however, stems from her careful and nuanced controlling of the kind of images that came into my life as a child. And though, with all the recent shit going on, my self-confidence could use a major shot in the arm, I think beneath it all I have a solid core because of her. Now that I can understand where she was coming from then, a lot of those old offenses accrued as a child have been swept under the rug.

Except for the bowl haircut. That shit was just awful.


-Jess

9 comments:

Marshall said...

Well then allow me to be the first to thank your mom for doing such a good job.

Mazi said...

haha louis sachar, I still have tripped out nightmares about that retarded school of his

teresawu said...

you write beautifully~

t

audrey said...

You're such a charming writer Jess. Unlike you, I read The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High with feverish obsession when I was a tweeny. Oh how my mother despaired!

audrey said...

And in case you don't know it, I recommend The Dairi Burger. Even those people who didn't grow up with the sociopathic escapades of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield will appreciate this.

your favorite writers favorite writer said...

ur now one of the first blogs i read everyday, im a fan, having kids and molding them is really an art...

the unreliable narrator said...

But WHYYYY would a staunch young feminist like yourself take down that HILARIOUS post about the fake 18-year-old putting the cautionary note in the Other Woman's lotion bottle?! That was a great post. And now it is gone. And we are sad.

Jess and Josh said...

Because my friend who it was about was afraid people would be able to figure out it was here! Believe me, it pained me to take it down.

the unreliable narrator said...

Oh. Well in that case I understand. Still, it's a loss to the blogosphere--stick *that* in her lotion bottle. ;o)