High school. Forget about it. How many of us will go on the record and dare to own up that high school was our favorite time in life? And well, if you did, you probably peaked too soon…
I didn’t grow up in the US, but went to a Dutch secondary school and while there are many similarities with what my Californian kids have been going through (bad skin, insecurity, sleep deprivation and stupid parties), there are also many differences like biking to school in the rain most days and the common perception that marijuana was for losers: true story, even though, yes, this was the Netherlands where every US college kid has a marijuana coma the moment he hits Amsterdam.
I have a son (now in college) and a daughter who’s a high school junior and, strangely enough, I have always felt more anxiety about raising a daughter in the US than a son— maybe it’s because I am a woman myself and feel the pressures of the beauty myth much more acutely here than in Europe.
Two years ago, when I was walking with my daughter through Amsterdam, she suddenly blurted out: “Mom, I get it! I belong here. Most of the women look like me!” My daughter’s cultural dissonance, which she had felt much more so in the US than in the Netherlands, derived from the fact that she’s not built like some Italian-American petite woman but she’s solid— not obese, just big boned and healthy. This difference from the norm might have made her feel uncomfortable among her peers. I certainly know it made me feel awkward when I spent a year at school in Chapel Hill where Southern women were much shorter than my height of 5’11 and where, on top of that, I had to get used to the American social norm of hugging: I remember writing letters home, commenting that I felt ridiculous, as if Godzilla from the Lowlands had stumbled upon a US college campus to learn a new trick, i.e. hugging Barbie dolls.
Many Europeans sometimes view, and unjustly so, American women as Barbie dolls— there is an enormous pressure to be a certain size, height and complexion… I even remember that my daughter talked about the “popular group” in Middle School, a group whose popularity was based solely on beauty, not balls…or originality, creativity, smarts, you name it. It was about surfaces, the exterior, the clothes you could afford rather than that inner beauty which ugly ducklings might never get to show at all, if they don’t get the space or comfort to share their inner beauty with the world. And let’s not blame the guys here. 1970s feminism is waning and the next generation of young women is its own worst enemy as the beauty myth still holds more power over these young women than bra burning and nurturing body hair in odd places.
The popularity contest continued at High School, but in the last year or so, I saw a marked change in my daughter.
She got it. Once again.
Or rather, she wouldn’t let the popularity contest get to her because she was developing her own beautiful and authentic personality and she was not afraid to flaunt it. That personality is creative, eccentric, funny and at times a little extreme, though not extremist. To ask her friend to junior prom, she edited an elaborate video proposal in which she enacted Guns & Roses Sweet Child o’ Mine, combining American kitsch and flag waving with quirky shots in which she was not afraid to debunk herself or her own video:
For many girls junior prom has a debutante ring to it, a coming of age ritual in which girls seem to make the transformation from the insecurity of adolescence to becoming sweet sixteen swans. The theme this year is white dresses of a quiet elegance and understatement, and many parents spend hundreds of dollars on this dress that gets worn only once.
My daughter bucked the trend, drove to the Haight and got a 1980s green velvet prom dress for $45 with a weird open back and shoulders so big you could hide your guinea pigs in them for the entire evening. Her hair is going to be big, her shoes won’t match the outfit and her beau will try to find the ugliest tux of the prom that was. My daughter is going out on a limb and there will be girls emerging from their limos who may laugh and sneer but if they do, they will fail to see my little one’s inner beauty and the message she seems to send to the entire school: life is who you are and not the dress you fill.
I am loving it. My daughter is coming of age at the Junior Prom.