I’m trying to explain charm school to my daughter. Is this even still a thing? Do mothers still sign their girls up for classes in how to be delightfully alluring? We were told we would become more pleasing to everyone, but the subtext was: be appealing to men. I was thirteen, the age she is now.
My child wrinkles her nose and rolls her eyes in a facial expression that would definitely have earned her a rebuke from Miss Maricel, our beautiful young teacher. “Why would you need classes in how to walk and talk and sit?” That’s what I wanted to know when my mom announced that I would be spending my Saturday mornings – precious cartoon time – learning manners and grooming. Her friend’s daughter had taken this wonderful class, and Suzy was such a poised young lady now. Presumably, she’d been an uncouth mess going in. Hair ratty. Legs akimbo. Smacking her gum, perhaps. Upon completion of the class, Suzy had hosted a dinner party for her father and his business friends. “From soup to nuts,” my aunt chimed in. “She’s quite the little hostess now.” I felt a sudden burning hatred for Suzy, who was now my nemesis, whether she knew it or not.
I protested but realized all was lost when I turned to my dad, who surely did not think this travesty was worth the cost, especially when we were eating canned tuna and rice for dinner toward the end of the month. He shrugged. My father was a man who knew how to pick his battles, and he wanted no part of this one. (Also, if I’m being fair – I liked tuna and rice sprinkled with furikake. Struggle meals can be delicious.)
The classes were held in the Sears department store, in a subterranean room that must have been used for meetings. I’d take the escalator down to the basement, past the automotive accessories and the concession that sold candies and butter toffee peanuts and other tantalizing treats. As a reward, after class, I’d spend some of my allowance money on a quarter pound of double-dipped chocolate-covered peanuts in a paper sack. From that floor, the other girls and I would take a freight elevator to the bowels of the store, where pallets of merchandise were being unloaded from an underground bay. The scent of buttered popcorn hung in the air.
At the end of the hall, there was a surprisingly well-lit room with a ring of folding chairs. Against the back wall, there was a row of vanity mirrors – the kind with light bulbs all the way around, a shallow counter, and cushioned stools. Every week, we’d come in, take our seats, and listen to the gorgeous, soft-spoken Miss Maricel (Miss, not Ms.) give us lessons in how to be young ladies. She had lots of shiny, dark hair, sparkling eyes, and boobs that we all hoped to attain someday.
Maybelline Kissing Potion by twitchery This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
The first thing we learned was that to be charming, we needed to be less like ourselves. Don’t walk like that, don’t eat like that, and for goodness sakes, don’t just flop down in the chair like that. A lady, we were told, lowers herself to the edge of her chair and then gracefully eases back. She keeps her knees together. When we were older, we could cross our legs like our mothers did, but for girls, it was acceptable for us to tuck our feet back and to one side, crossed at the ankle. We practiced this over and over. Standing, which was also a thing we’d been doing wrong our whole lives, was a reverse of the whole sitting routine: uncross the ankles, smoothly scoot up in the chair, leaning forward ever so slightly, and then rise slowly, like a Botticelli Venus from the ancient seas.
Though all of us were proficient at walking and had been since toddlerhood, this was also a thing that needed practicing. Miss Maricel marked out an imaginary runway on the floor with masking tape. The ideal walk, she said, could be achieved if we pictured ourselves following a straight line. We weren’t to place one foot directly in front of the other, as that would cause our hips to swing back and forth. Instead, she advised us to concentrate on placing each foot as close to the line as possible, but not on it. “Your knees should brush each other as you walk, but not touch,” she said. This was tough for me, as I am bow-legged, so to make my knees touch I had to do this weird, bendy thing with each step. I looked like I had to go to the bathroom, but Miss Maricel could tell I was trying. She beamed at me.
We were too young for makeup, but she showed us how to apply powder (to eliminate unattractive shininess) and lip gloss (that kind of shininess was good). She gave us each a compact with a little with powder puff and a tube of Kissing Potion lip gloss. Mine was bubble gum flavored. I peered doubtfully at my newly matte face and my extra shiny lips in the vanity. Miss Maricel also instructed us on the importance of using a good astringent when cleaning our faces and on the use of deodorant.
Charm school wasn’t just about physical appearance. We also learned the art of conversation. You couldn’t just blurt out whatever was on your mind. You had to practice asking acceptable questions – not too personal but allowing the other person to talk about themselves. If you know any 13-year-old girls, you know that they don’t need any help with talking. We were pros. But being charming meant making the other person feel important and interesting. Somehow, we all understood that she meant men.
For our final class, we had a sit-down meal. Chicken and salad from the Sears cafeteria. We sat properly, with good posture (“Pretend there is an invisible string attached to the top of your head that is pulling you upward”), and cut our food into tiny, ladylike bites. We ate slowly and daintily, with our napkins on our laps, periodically dabbing at our mouths. We sipped our juice and politely thanked the servers. When the food was cleared, we crossed the room to the masking tape runway and took turns demonstrating our newly-acquired walking skills, pivoting expertly. Miss Maricel applauded each of us, her eyes glistening with pride.
When I got home, my little sister regarded me with skepticism. “So, that’s it? You’re fully charmed?” I shrugged and popped a chocolate-covered peanut. I’d brought home a paper sack of them, along with a goodie bag of sample sized lotions, face powder, a small hair brush, and a silver egg containing my first pair of pantyhose. Oh, and a heaping helping of self-doubt, enough to last me for years.
“Didn’t Nana think you were good the way you were?” my daughter asks. The truthful answer to this was no, because in our culture, a parent’s job was to improve their child and to imbue them with a sense of humility and duty. “She loved me,” I say. “And she thought she was helping me to get along in the world. It’s what they thought then.”
I don’t want my daughter to be charming. I want her to find her own voice, her own walk, her own way of occupying herself. I want her to find what she’s hungry for in life and gobble it down. I will cut the imaginary string from the top of her head, because she doesn’t need it to rise.