Poise and Personality?

I’ve been reading Gail Bruce’s book Literacies, Lies & Silences: Girls Writing Lives in the Classroom, about her being a participating observer in her work of writing with adolescent girls. In her lengthy introduction she takes the time necessary to explore the history of why a shift occurs in the lives of most girls as they move from childhood to adolescence. A shift from being the ‘subject’ to becoming the ‘object’. I find this fascinating on so many levels. More about this later.

On a recent flight I am sitting in an aisle seat on that beloved exit row next to an attractive young woman with long billowing black hair, dangly earrings, silver sandals, and those trendy “skinny jeans”. I admire anyone who can wear those things with class – of course they show off one’s body, however much or little of it there is. Here I am, a healthy middle-aged female, taking up much of that little airplane seat. And there she is, like a limber grasshopper, taking up about half her seat, legs folded up and she is writing thank you notes, one after the other. She is in the center seat. A mildly obese man occupies the window seat. He sleeps. I continue reading my book.

Miss skinny jeans reaches under the seat in front, stashes the stack of thank you cards, and retrieves a folder. I cannot help but notice there is a golden mark of some sort on the cover as she flips it open. She pulls out a stack of papers. On the letterhead I read, Mrs. America: We are Family. I slyly eavesdrop for a while as she ponders each question and fills in the answer. Then I have to ask: “Are you a contestant?”

She turns, flips her beautiful hair, and answers, “Yes. I am the state pageant winner and I will compete in the pageant in Tucson in a few weeks.” Her earrings shimmy as she flashes perfect white teeth. Congratulations, I say, you have a good chance. She thanks me, with demure humility, then tells me she is writing notes to her sponsors and continues talking about all the opportunities the pageant has afforded her. She is a wonderful cheerleader and has what they look for in those pageants, plenty of poise and personality. And her hips are no wider than her head.

I think how synchronistic it is that she is seated next to me as I continue to read Bruce’s book, and I have to compare and contrast Bruce’s findings against the world of beauty pageants. My mind began to wander to Bruce’s stories in her book, and how the world of adolescent girls is so fragile. And to the media, which is another fantasy world.

My intention here is not to bash pageants or the media, as pageants are useful to those who enter them and to those whose business it is to promote them and those are arguments I will not pursue. My intention is to explore the complex dynamics in the lives of young girls and not the world of poise and personality. However, contrasting this is attractive to me.

I once worked with a young woman who put herself through college and graduate school on scholarships from such pageants. She lauded them and encouraged younger women to make use of the opportunity. But I think everyone will admit that pageants are not for everyone. Some women have the qualifications for them and some don’t. Most of us are called to different lives and to pursue different opportunities.

Which brings me back to Bruce’s book, and her experiences of writing with girls, and her descriptions of the period in girls’ lives when they begin to get ‘lost’. Most of the girls in my creative writing classes seem to feel as if they dwell in an alternate universe, yet they yearn to feel normal whatever that may be. I remember the time in my own life when I felt ‘lost’ – when I watched the Miss America pageant on TV and heard over and over that this was the dream of every little girl, to hear Bert Parks sing There She Is. Every little girl’s dream. I believed that. But it was never my dream. So how odd was I, I wondered then. What are the various fantasy worlds of adolescent girls, and how do these fit in with their reality? How do you think the world of pageants affects little girls?

I watch the Facebook posts of some of the girls in my writing classes and am embarrassed at their language, their abbreviated words, and realize it is an entirely new language. But at least they are writing! Even if some of those posts are full of misspelled words and anger. Mostly directed at their parents.


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