I was once pregnant with a child I hoped was a boy. He was — so were his four younger brothers. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived with any other women. And it’s been even longer since I’ve lived with any girls. It shouldn’t matter. I was once a girl myself and there’s nothing about being sequestered with my sons that can alienate me from that part of my identity. It should be true. I believe it’s true. But I still keep having awkward collisions with little girl culture years after little girls stopped being part of my daily life.
Some collisions are secret and subtle. I’m not a very big woman. Shopping for clothing can be frustrating for me. One of my girl-friends, a lady born in the Philippines who’s learned how to deal with over-sized western clothing, gave me a tip: do some shopping in children’s departments. It’s brilliant. The first time I tried it I was like Homer Simpson at clown college turning around in front of the mirror saying, “I’ve never had pants that fit so well.”
Then the saleslady noticed me out on the floor, picking through the kiddie-jeans. “No daughter with you today?”
“Uh – no,” I said.
“That’s okay,” she allowed. “If they don’t fit her you can always bring them back with the receipt.”
I skulked away. I felt furtive and a little ashamed. I am not a girl. That’s supposed to mean I don’t belong in the store, let alone in their merchandise. I don’t know. Maybe it’s a bit like what closeted transvestites cope with when shopping for clothes outside the ones socially prescribed for them. I am not a boy but since I have sons, I feel perfectly natural stomping around in the boys’ section stocking up on jeans and navy blue sweatpants for my kids. But in the girls’ section, in the company of the specter of my fake daughter, I am a pretender – unfit and unworthy.
This weekend, girl culture and I collided again. My sister was staying at my house while her daughter, my most glamorous ten-year-old relative, competed in a dance festival. I counted four costume changes – peacock feathers, rhinestones, ruffles, crinolines. She was plastered in makeup and hairspray. And my sister – a nursing instructor who can thread a tube into a trachea – struggled to glue false eyelashes to her lids.
My niece is warm-hearted and adorable and had no idea Auntie was eyeing her dance gear with the detached skepticism of a smug anthropologist. I shouldn’t have been surprised when she asked me to come watch her dance. The invitation rattled me. Accepting it meant detachment was not an option and I was being drawn into her culture – one I had abandoned ages ago.
I arrived at the auditorium all by myself. It felt awkward enough to make me wonder if I was in the right place. I asked the ticket seller, “Is this the little-girl-dancing-thingy?”
Inside the theatre, I found my sister. The lights went down and the first ballerina came out. She was a sixteen-year-old dressed like a fairy princess.
“Look! She’s seriously wearing a tiara!”
My sister smirked at me. “Yes.”
The next number was a whole troupe of teenaged ballerinas.
“They’re all wearing tiaras!”
My sister smirked again. “Yes.”
“If they’re all wearing tiaras, isn’t that the same thing as none of them wearing tiaras?”
“Shh. You have to stop laughing or the other moms are going to get really mad.”
“What? I’m just delighted.”
It was not completely true. I was vaguely delighted but it was a patronizing outsider’s delight – amused but not quite charmed by the spectacle. I stuck to my social scientist persona. The dance numbers – with all their kitschy props and maudlin narratives – had names like “Imagine” or “Grace” or the risky “Images of Grace.” Even my sister laughed when the lyrics of one of the songs earnestly crooned, “If I could put you on top of a cake I would ice you.”
If there’s a perfect age for amateur dancing it’s got to be the one my niece is at right now. She’s technically good enough to actually be dancing but not so old that she’s starting to look silly and lumpy in her fancy leotards. If I was ever going to be able to enjoy this part of her life, it was now. Her first number was supposed to be a sad commentary on class divisions – at least, that’s what she told me. But she couldn’t stop smiling while she performed. The adjudicator complained about it but Auntie loved it. And by the end, in the dark, up at the top of the auditorium, awkward Auntie became sappy Auntie had to wipe her eyes.
No one gets to be a girl for very long. And some of us – like me and maybe like my niece too, depending on what the future brings her – end up moving farther away from girl culture than we ever imagined we would, back in the days when it meant everything to us. Honestly, I don’t miss it. It was silly and distracted from much of what is truly important. But maybe there’s no need to be embarrassed about celebrating it every once in a while. Maybe there’s no need to grudge the breasty teenaged ballerinas for spinning and tip-toeing through their final days in tiaras. So what if we’re all wearing one from time to time? We’ll have to set it aside soon enough.