For me, it was dangly earrings, curly hair and contacts. For Anne Shirley, it was upswept hair and long skirts. For Betsy Ray, it was no freckles and curly hair. And for Mona, it was a bob and red nail polish. Those beacons to girls of what it might be to be grown up. And even more importantly, to be pretty.
When I was young, I first desperately wanted curly hair. Little did I realize how fabulous my straight glossy hair was–and I was even less aware that once I hit puberty, that straight hair would vanish. So, I got a very classic 1980s perm in 4th grade. Pierced ears were next. Mom thought this was crazy talk–she doesn’t like needles, so the idea of having one pierce your ear just for fun? Yep, not on her list of things to do. But she relented, with the caveat that I could not have any earrings that dangled. One birthday, my friend Jennifer gave me dangly earrings. I begged and begged for mom to let me wear them–because then I would be fashionable and stylish. Eventually, she did. I still have those earrings. They really aren’t terribly dangly–maybe an inch long.
But what I seriously pined for was contacts. I was one of those lucky kids who got glasses in 3rd grade. And remember, this was in the mid-1908s–not exactly a decade known for good glasses. Once I hit junior high, I would sometimes just take off my glasses and look in the mirror. Without those silly glasses, I was almost pretty. Maybe I would finally have a boyfriend. And be pretty. And be grown up. My 8th grade graduation present was contacts, and I wore them for the first time on the last day of school. Some people barely recognized me. I felt vindicated in my longing for contacts. And I knew high school would be better. It was, but not because of the contacts.
Looking back, we refer to those years as my ugly duckling years. Not sure that I’m all that swanlike now, but things are definitely better. If I was truly a bare-your-soul blogger, I would post one of those truly bad pictures from those years. But I’m not going to do that. Because this is a blog that is about books and history.
So about those books and history–or at least history other than my own. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve recently fallen in love with the Melendy family. In The Saturdays, set in the 1940s, one of my very favorite chapters was about Mona’s Saturday. She does what I think every other awkward, teenage girl has longed to do–she went out on her own and did what she thought was necessary to be pretty. And grown up. She knows exactly what she’s doing:
“After all, nobody ever asked me not to,” she told herself. “I never promised I wouldn’t.” But all the time she knew that she was quibbling; the corner of her mind that never let itself be fooled was well aware that neither Father nor Cuffy would approve of what she was about to do.
So, she goes into the beauty shop and for $1.50, she takes an important step toward becoming grown up. She has her hair cut and her nails manicured. She loves the way she looks. But she also knows that when she gets home, her family may not feel the same way.
Rush said, “Jeepers! You look just like everybody. Any of those dumb high school girls that walk along the street screaming and laughing and bumping into people. Why couldn’t you have waited a while?”
“What in heaven’s name has got into you, Mona?” inquired Father, red faced from choking. “I never thought you were silly or vain. When you’re eighteen years old if you want to go in for that sort of thing it will be all right, I suppose. But not now. There’s no way we can bring your braids back, but at least we don’t have to put up with those talons.”
And so Mona eventually gets the red nailpolish off and is properly chastised for growing up too fast. But though I had never done a similiar thing, I understood her motivations so well. And I began to think about previous kidlit history heroines and their own steps towards trying to be pretty and grown up.
Anne Shirley, set in the late 1800s, longs for puffed sleeves. But there are other mile-markers on the road to being grown up. On Anne’s 13th birthday, she and Diana discuss how close they are to being grown up–Anne is convinced “that in two more years I’ll be really grown up.” Diana declares:
“In four more years we’ll be able to put our hair up,” said Diana. “Alice Bell is only sixteen and she is wearing her hair up, but I think that’s ridiculous. I shall wait until I’m seventeen.”
Fast forward, twenty years or so, and you meet Betsy Ray. When Betsy is 13, Anna comes to live with the family. And Anna brings two very magical things into Betsy’s life: Magic Wavers and freckle cream. Both quickly become an integral part of her new beauty routine.
After supper, Betsy telephone Tacy and Winona for prolonged conversations, then went upstairs to wind her hair on Magic Waers, take a warm bath some of Julia’s bath salts in it, and rub the new freckle cream into her face. Wrapped in a kimono she sat down to manicure her nails.
But Betsy still doesn’t feel like she’s pretty.
“Oh, Tacy!” she said in a lowered voice. “I wish I was prettier.”
“Why, Betsy, you’re plenty pretty enough. You’re better than pretty.”
“I don’t want to be better than pretty. I’m tired of being better than pretty. Sweet looking! Interesting looking! Pooh for that! I want to be plain pretty like you are.”
These girls, generations apart, are all struggling to be 13–right on the edge of being grown up, but not there yet. Feeling not yet comfortable in their own skin, and definitely not pretty. And everyone wants to grow up faster–to get through those awkwards years and on to the glamorous future. And I think these struggles are a very large part of why these books remain popular today. Who hasn’t been snarky about another girl’s fashion choices? Who hasn’t wished they weren’t just one step closer to being grown up? And though the standards of beauty have changed–from rogue being unheard of in Anne’s time, to only on one woman in town (Miss Mix) in Betsy’s time, to being something expected when you’re grown up in Mona’s time, the emotions and the feelings are the same. A 13 year old girl just wants to be pretty. And grown up.
ETA: Last night, after posting this, I was lying in bed, trying to sleep and realized that I had forgotten one of the best, funniest incidents of a teen girl struggling to be pretty: Anne dying her hair green! How could I forget this? I blame the cold. At any rate, one of the recurring themes in Anne is her hatred of her red hair. But when the peddler’s potion turns it green, it is one of the funnier moments in the books.
“Dyed it! Dyed your hair! Anne Shirley, didn’t you know it was a wicked thing to do?”
“Yes, I knew it was a lilttle wicked,” admitted Anne. “But I thought it was worth while to be a little wicked to get rid of red hair. I counted thecost, Marilla. Besides, I meant to be extra good in other ways to make up for it.”
The things we’ll all do, in those desperate attempts to be beautiful. And yet, one of the signs of Anne growing up, besides talking a bit less, is that she comes to accept her hair. It deepens a bit as she enters adulthood and becomes a “lovely shade of auburn.” I suppose patience is a virtue (I certainly got my curly hair), but boy, it certainly is hard to wait.