“You do look nice,” Ma says in These Happy Golden Years when Laura dons her new brown poplin, “but remember that pretty is as pretty does.” While Ma worried more about Victorian modesty than the modern day perspective of encouraging self-esteem, I still find her caution refreshing. If we need to stare at something just for being pretty, maybe we should try a flower, instead of a person.
You can stare at this flower and admire it all you like without affecting its feelings of self-worth or vanity.
This past week I worked the Athens Rock Camp for Girls, which “builds self-esteem through music creation and performance.” The basic concept is that 24 girls, ages 12-18, learn to play an instrument, form a band, write songs, and play a final concert. I taught drums and coached the Soul Takers, which would take much more than a blog post and most probably a team of literary experts to do the experience justice. I’ll narrow the subject down for now.
One goal of the camp is to focus on what women DO versus what we LOOK LIKE. Surely, I don’t have to argue the point how women (more so than men) are valued for their appearance. If you need help feeling convinced, you could try watching Dustin Hoffman (in reference to Tootsie) discuss what it was like to walk around as an unattractive women. The dude cries.
In the spirit of the goal, we were encouraged as counselors to give positive feedback on actions versus appearance. For instance “I love the way you thwack that snare” instead of “awesome shoes.”
Now, I really love awesome shoes. I love costumes, and dress-up, and theme parties. I love Mad Men for the outfits. I love silver glitter pants and platform shoes for men and women. I loved living in New Orleans where people look for any excuse to wear a hot pink wig. I went to Italy this summer and dammit if I didn’t really enjoy how Europeans step it up—real shoes and sharp shirts—no saggy t-shirts and white sneakers.
I am the woman who put on a bright turquoise prairie dress and drove across America. Blue jeans just wouldn’t have been the same.
But for one week, I had to admit that it could be a powerful experience to turn the focus completely away from looks, especially for teenage girls.
This seemingly easy request turned out to be harder than I thought. I mean, really hard. I felt like A.J. Jacobs working on one of his immersion pieces where he tells the exact truth for a week or lives the Bible literally. I had no idea how getting and receiving compliments based on clothes or looks was such a part of how I interact with women. Especially women I’m trying to get to know. A compliment is the go-to icebreaker move. When I saw a camper or a fellow counselor wearing something cool, I had to choke back and really think of something else to say. And when I put on something cool, I found myself pouty when no one said anything.
One side effect of being around teenage girls, is that it takes you back to all the insecurities you had at that age. I try to be a progressive woman of self-esteem, but when love goes wrong, my first thought since age ten has always been to wish I were prettier. Right now I hate my knees. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to look at a woman with these horrible knees. I know how silly this is. But knowing and feeling are not the same.
Over the week I began to reflect on the difference between an easy observation, versus a more satisfying one. A fellow counselor got excited about how I detected that a camper was left handed (as am I) so I was able to work with the unique problems of lefty-drumming. Thanks! And when my fellow band coach and I fist-bumped at the end of a challenging week and told one another how we admired one another’s work? Much better than someone liking my knees. And, of course, we were all thrilled when our campers took the stage and were applauded for their accomplishments.
Which isn’t to say that when I applied rockstar makeup for the final show, that I didn’t appreciate it when a fellow counselor noticed, and told me I looked nice.
“You do, too.” I said. “It’s the last day, we can say that now.”
We laughed and high-fived, but I’d say this was a knowing high-five. A knowing that first and foremost, we admired what the other person had done this past week, so it was okay to have a little fun with costuming this last night.
I think Ma would’ve have felt a little uptight about the red lipstick, but basically okay with it.