Pretty is as Pretty Does?

January 29, 1994|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Staff Writer

The girls shift in their seats to get a better look at Nicky Smelser's posture: shoulders back, body straight as a 2-by-4, legs crossed right-over-left so tightly that only the contours of her calves proved there were two limbs there.

"Now everything is hugging together," Mrs. Smelser says, smiling at the 11- 12- and 13-year-old girls attending "Finishing Touches," one of the etiquette, beauty and self-confidence courses she teaches at Leggett's Department Store in Westminster.

Mrs. Smelser tells the girls job interviewers will be impressed if they use this dignified, lady-like sitting position.

"That only works if the boss is a man," whispers 13-year-old Megan Byers.

"Yeah," says Kellie Cocilova, 11, sitting in front of Megan. "All you're doing is showing your legs."

Kellie's assessment of today's lesson would give heart to those who fear beauty and manners courses like this one and others in the area are teaching girls to focus on self rather than self-esteem. Critics say etiquette courses promote deference to others' opinions and hamper development -- especially of adolescents.

Advocates of the courses say girls who take them develop self-esteem by learning how to be comfortable with their looks and socially confident.

Linda G. Wilder Dyer, 38 and a former model, is the Virginia Beach, Va.-based creator of the manners courses. "Pretty Me" is geared to girls ages 6 to 11; Finishing Touches is designed for girls 12 to 17.

Mrs. Smelser, the fashion coordinator at Leggett's in Westminster, has taught the classes there three times a year since fall 1991. The courses are held several times a year in 53 Leggett's and Belk's department stores in eight states including Delaware, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. The most recent set of courses started Jan. 12.

Some stores will test a new class this month. "Boys at their Best" offers lessons in manners, etiquette, self-esteem, good grooming, nutrition and sportsmanship.

"The basics are the same, but instead of a fashion show at the end there will be a reception," Mrs. Dyer says. "I don't feel that the boys would be comfortable on a runway doing a fashion show."

Mrs. Dyer says her manners courses put firmly in place the scattered pieces of girls' self-esteem. "Self-confidence is so crucial for everything we do.

Manners and etiquette are things parents no longer stress the way they used to. With everybody working, there doesn't seem to be time."

Indeed, many parents feel the courses are an inventive way to teach necessary lessons.

"There's nothing wrong with learning about makeup and hair and manners to get self-confident, feel good about yourself," says Susan Stielper, whose daughter Erica, 13, completed the course in October.

"If learning good manners and good appearance is the way to get it [self-confidence], then so be it," Mrs. Stielper continues. "She won't get anywhere without it."

But educators and women's rights advocates say courses like Ms. Dyer's give fashion and beauty tips to young girls with no emphasis on building character.

"I don't think this course builds self-esteem or teaches girls to express themselves. I think it teaches them to repress themselves," says Marion Crook, author of "The Body Image Trap," a book about teen-age girls and eating disorders. "I think it encourages self-centered passivity."

Putting the pieces together

Pretty Me students settle into their seats on the first night of the course. A few are quiet, but others chatter away as Mrs. Smelser moves to the front of the room.

"Let's think of 'Pretty Me' as a picture puzzle," Mrs. Smelser tellthe girls. "We will put all these pieces together to make a pretty me, to make us the best we can be."

Ms. Smelser describes the course outline: skin care and makeup, hair and nails, health and fitness, table etiquette, fashion rules and wardrobe-building and fashion careers. The girls will meet once a week for the six weeks to learn these lessons.

If there was such a thing as a pretty pill, one that would make you more popular, would you take it?" Mrs. Smelser asks. The girls nod.

"Well, you all have this pretty pill inside you," Mrs. Smelser tells them. "It's developing self-esteem and feeling good about yourself."

And so begins the girls' struggle to learn telephone etiquette, how to make introductions and how to write thank-you notes -- all described in their respective handbooks written by Mrs. Dyer. The hands-on lessons, such as applying makeup and dressing up, will come later.

During the final classes excitement mixes with camaraderie as the girls rehearse for the fashion show that will serve as their graduation. They strut one by one down a mock runway in the classroom. Few girls will leave without phone numbers of several new friends.

It's a long way from where they began -- from practicing the proper way to sit on a stool to coming to terms with their strengths and weaknesses, individuality and their commonalities.

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