She Enjoys Being a Girl


September 01, 1993|By DIANE OKLOTA WOOD

A little booklet called ''You're A Young Lady Now'' got me into trouble in the fourth grade. My mother had told me that I wasn't to share it with other girls, that this was something for their mothers to deal with.

It was the most vague and euphemistic booklet, with drawings of happy looking pony-tailed teen-age girls doing active things, and it had some little drawings of Fallopian tubes flowering and flowing gracefully somewhere in the human body. The drawings did not connect those tubes with any other essential parts; that might have led to the ''What goes where?'' and ''How does it get in there?'' questions that Kimberly Clark was leaving up to mothers.

But knowing that there was some kind of secret attached to this information and that it was somehow related to sex, and noting that my mother had said I couldn't share this with other girls, I took the booklet to school and rented it for five cents a read to the boys.

I had plenty of customers. The boys were as naive as the girls on this whole issue of sex and bodies. My best buddy was a boy. Ervin Bauman and I spent several afternoons walking home from school speculating and trying to figure out why kissing after marriage got you pregnant but kissing before marriage did not. We obviously had not learned to count backward from nine like my mother and the neighbors did when someone had a baby in the first year of marriage.

So the booklets had some clues and they were hot property. Passing them around the school kept me in candy money and Beatle cards for a few weeks.

My business was interrupted by German measles. While I was at home staring at the spots all over my body, Ervin was acting as my broker. He returned the booklets to my desk, where they were discovered by Mrs. Splain when she was packing my schoolwork to send home. To her credit the teacher waited till I returned from my sickbed to call me aside privately and return the booklets. They were wrapped in brown paper towels (I swear) and she said, ''I am sure your mother intends for you to keep these at home.''

My mother found out from somebody else's mother, and I was grounded for weeks.

What I now remember most fondly about that time is the girl that I was. A girl who took the information about her changing body and looked for opportunity. Who assumed that menstruation meant not more restriction, as my mother probably had in mind, but envisioned adventure and the biking and swimming and horses that Kimberly Clark seemed to promise.

As I enter my forties I am preparing for more physical changes. Thank goodness, they don't have books called ''You're An Old Lady Now,'' but there is plenty to read. I've graduated from pamphlets provided by feminine-hygiene marketers to best-sellers by female writers. Germaine Greer's and Gail Sheehy's texts on menopause are required reading for the women who 30 years ago were reading the pink and lavender ''Growing up and Liking It'' and ''You're a Young Lady Now.''

I also think about myself as a girl when I hear all the hoo-ha and outcry about referring to women as ''girls.'' It belies what we know about girls and what they are really like. I remember myself at 8 and 10 and 11 as brave, outspoken, active and bossy. The girls who were my friends were very honest. We said, ''I don't like you when you do that,'' and ''Don't be so bossy,'' and ''I won't play with you if you are mean.''

I am a feminist and almost 40 and I call myself a girl. When critics whine ''Don't say girl,'' it shows ignorance of what we've learned in recent years about who and what girls are, and what we know about female psychological development.

Carol Gilligan, who is well known for ''In A Different Voice,'' her book about moral development in men and women, has spent the past several years researching the development and the psycho-social changes that girls experience from ages 10 to 15. Her book on this topic, ''At The Crossroads,'' was published two years ago.

Ms. Gilligan's observations and interviews reveal that females under 12, as a group, display strong personal integrity and a clear moral sense. They are quite capable of speaking up and intervening as needed on behalf of their own beliefs and choices. Girls are clear thinkers and assertive, self-confidant beings. It is after 12 that the less desirable stereotypes emerge.

As girls hit puberty and are faced with society's expectations for women, their confusion begins and with it comes the waffling, passivity, demurring and intellectual flabbiness stereotypical of the ''girl.''

What is most impressive in Ms. Gilligan's research was the courage that the girls expressed and displayed, the clear sense of self and the strong voice a girl has before adolescence. Courage at that age is perhaps born of not knowing how gray life can be and how many painful things can happen. But women also need that kind of courage in later years to deal with the reality of how gray life actually is and the losses that come in our lives.

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