All of the hoopla surrounding the Royal Wedding in England and the subsequent extreme scrutiny of the attendees’ attire and figures reminded me of my own first encounter with a body image critic at the young age of twelve or thirteen and what it meant to be a girl in the late 1950’s.
Here’s a post I wrote about it in this blog’s infancy:
“Does This Teacher Make My Butt Look Big?”
The phantom of Miss Elwell still follows me about, even after fifty years.
It was 1959 and I had just entered junior high school. In those days, a girl’s highest aspiration was to become a wife and mother. This may not have been stated outright, but it certainly was implied by society and the general culture of the times.
The curricula for seventh-grade girls included a year of “Home Economics.” This entailed a semester of cooking instruction and a semester of sewing. Having just come from a previous school year where I had excelled at touch football with the boys at recess, this was not welcome news. I could kick and pass a perfect spiral and, because the boys were still on the shrimpy side at that age, I had reigned supreme. Now I was supposed to be a lady? I was completely thrown for a loop.
The Home Ec. teacher was a rather portly woman in her 50′s by the name of Miss Frances Elwell. She was charged with the formidable task of trying to whip all this green talent into some kind of reasonably feminine shape by year’s end.
I never did quite figure out why this domestic onslaught had to be imposed on the seventh graders and not the more “mature” (relatively speaking) ninth graders. I guess the school board felt that we were more malleable at that age, before we got any further into the smart-ass teen years where it would be next to impossible to get any kind of response out of us beyond a sneer.
By the luck of the draw, I had been assigned the cooking section for my first semester. We were divided up into groups and given our own little versions of the Happy Homemaker kitchen. No Easy-Bake ovens here. This was the real deal.
Thinking back, I was so oblivious to everything of a domestic nature at that age. My Mother didn’t make me do any housework at home under the assumption that ”You’ll be doing it for the rest of your life” so why bother with it now? The fallacy in all that was how will you know what to do when the time comes if nobody shows you how to do it beforehand?
Consequently, my Mother did quite a bit of my homework for me for cooking class. Make that just about all. One important assignment was to create a place setting for an imaginary individual whom Miss Elwell had randomly chosen for each of us. My Mother and I slaved over every detail. Well, she slaved and I watched her slave.
When I presented the setting to Miss Elwell, I closely watched her face for some sign of benevolence. She critically observed the place setting before her and looked at me with twinkling eyes. Then she said, “Do you really think an elderly bachelor would want a pink paper parasol in his juice glass?”
If I knew then what I know now, I would have responded with:
“Yes, if he were Truman Capote.”
The actual cooking assignments in class were ones that I had to wing on my own. Only one of those stands out in my memory. (There may have been successes, but I doubt it.) We had to bake muffins, which sounds easy but can be very tricky. You’re not supposed to over beat the batter because that can cause too much air to become incorporated into the mix, creating all manner of havoc and the end of the world, apparently.
After my batch came out of the oven, I nervously took my burnt offering up to the altar of Miss Elwell and waited for the verdict. She broke one open and studied it like an oracle examining the entrails of a goat. Then she pronounced,
“These have tunnels so large you could drive a truck through them.”
I mentally made a note to look for a husband who was wheat intolerant.
Having gone down in flames in the cooking department (figuratively, not literally) I had the sewing semester to redeem myself. It turns out I was even less adept at this than I was in the culinary arts.
My Mother, of course, was a veritable whiz at sewing. She made most of my clothes for school and really knew her way around a sewing machine. I viewed it as an instrument of torture. So, again, my Mother commandeered my sewing projects while I wandered off and watched American Bandstand on t.v.
The main project for the semester was a circle skirt or full skirt. It should have been a fairly straight-forward task but, again, nothing came easy for me in Miss Elwell’s bastion of the feminine arts. I couldn’t find a pattern that fit me. My Mother had to do a lot of cutting and pinning and sweating to get the thing to correspond to my dimensions. All those years of being a tomboy had given me an athletic build. Not good in the world of Elwell.
So when I went before her with the finished product, it was pretty obvious that my Mother had cranked it out. I couldn’t do work like that and Miss Elwell knew it. She gave it a cursory glance and said simply “C,” for my grade. Which was fine with me because I just wanted the ordeal over with.
But when I said something about not being able to find a pattern to fit me, Miss Elwell uttered the words that have stuck with me to this very day, some fifty years later. Words that have haunted me in every dressing room of any clothing store I’ve ever been in and before every mirror where I have stood and contemplated my visage.
Sitting at her desk she looked up at me with those twinkling eyes and said,
“You have an oddball shape.”
This was spoken by a woman who was as wide as she was tall.
There was one happy memory from that year of living femininely. I had to sew a shank button on a piece of fabric, which meant sewing the button on loosely and then wrapping the thread many times around the bottom of the button to make it more secure. I tentatively placed it in Miss Elwell’s hands and waited for the usual. Instead, she looked at me with those twinkling eyes, smiled and said “A.”
I may be an oddball, but I wouldn’t be an old maid after all.