reading Mavis Jukes' endearing new book, "It's a Girl Thing: How to Stay Healthy, Safe and in Charge," is a little like taking a trip down memory lane -- someone else's memory lane, granted, and one not nearly as bumpy as the one that wound through my own adolescence, but still one familiar enough to remind me that growing up female wasn't half as bad as I remember it. Filled with funny personal stories and frank advice on everything from buying your first bra to sexual harassment, "Girl Thing" arms young girls with an arsenal of information without making them feel like there's a war ahead -- and that's no easy task.
Jukes, a sixth-grade teacher, fondly recalls that when she was in sixth
grade in 1958, she and her mother belonged to an elite organization, the "Ladies' Business Club." Only she and her mother were allowed in this very private club, and it was there that she learned about the mysteries and privileges of being female.
My own experience, when I was in sixth grade in 1979, was very different. Women's lib had come and gone, and what little awareness it raised in my conservative Southern community seemed to manifest itself in bitterness more than empowerment. In that climate, growing up female was still a pretty private affair, but it didn't seem like much of a privilege. Most
things about growing up female were presented in terms of limitations: You
couldn't swim when you had your period, at least not until you figured out
how tampons worked -- and that could easily take a whole summer, maybe two. You couldn't eat everything you wanted to because you might get fat. You couldn't act a certain way around boys, because they couldn't be counted on to control their physical urges. Sure, boys had to worry about inopportune
erections, but this seemed silly compared to what girls had to go through.
Jukes' stories about girlhood -- popping the bra question, her first
near-kiss, discovering her brother's "camel mask" (a jock-strap) -- made me
marvel at the universality of the experiences that I thought were mine alone. I'm not sure how much has changed since I was in junior high, but certainly not enough to make being an adolescent girl in the '90s easy. To find out, I talked to three 14-year-old girls from San Francisco, all of whom had read and loved "It's a Girl Thing."
though Caitlin, Odie and Sophie agreed that "Girl Thing" would have been
more helpful had they read it in the sixth grade (they're starting their
freshman year of high school this fall), they each singled out different parts of it for praise. Odie liked that the stories seemed directed at her.
Sophie found Jukes' advice about sex to be relatively free of heavy-handed
judgment. And Caitlin liked the fact that "beautiful" was understood to be
something more than "pretty."
The first thing I wanted to find out was whether they thought it would
be easier to be a boy. They all looked at me with a big "duh" written on
their faces. "It's always been a man's world," Sophie said, and Odie and
Caitlin agreed. But when I asked them if they liked being girls, they all
replied without hesitation, in unison, "Definitely."
Some things have changed. Phrases that came up regularly in the
course of our conversation -- "sexual harassment," "emotional
responsibility" and "male sensitivity" -- were definitely not part of my
14-year-old vocabulary. Still, this is progressive San Francisco, not provincial Carolina, and apart from being remarkably self-aware and mature, they spoke of several difficult coming-of-age experiences that were almost identical to
my own. The sixth grade, for instance, still sucks. ("The eighth-grade boys
-- the 'cool' ones -- harassed me and called me names," Odie said, cringing
at the memory.) Asking your mother for a bra is still a nightmare, no
matter how open she may be about it -- but once the asking is over, the
actual experience of getting a bra is one of unparalleled joy. ("I
remember having a bra, but not even wearing it," Caitlin told me. "Even
just having it was great.") And older boys are still there to torment you
by reminding you that you don't have much need for that hard-earned bra.
Though more books about puberty and sexuality are available for girls today, most are still "way too technical" to be very useful. All three girls
gave Jukes bonus points for getting personal with the details. With regard
to some "stuff" (yes, "stuff" is still the all-encompassing euphemism for
anything having to do with sex), some books aren't quite graphic enough.
"When you're going over all the stuff, you know, the fallopian tubes or
whatever, you get lost -- like, OK, now where am I?" complained Caitlin.
"A picture or something would help." Each of the girls said they
appreciated Jukes' endorsement of masturbation -- "If I'd known about
exploring my own sexual responses, I probably would have spent much less
time lying in bed at night, staring blankly into the darkness, twirling my
hair and sucking my thumb. And my teeth would have ended up being
straighter, too" -- but they all agreed that Judy Blume's "Are You there
God It's Me Margaret" was still a better "how-to."
Sex education has been a regular part of these girls' school life for almost four years. A lot of things they wanted to know about sex -- and some things they didn't -- they learned as early as fifth grade, in science and health
classes. "It gets pretty factual," complained Odie, "and then it doesn't
really broaden what you already know. One woman came in with a model of a vagina and showed us how to use the female condom," she said, as the others -- including me -- burst into a fit of giggles. But they're tired of
the facts -- they want real stories. "It would help if they talked more
about how people felt about things," said Caitlin.
So, I asked them how they felt about things. Here's what they had
About being a teenager:
CAITLIN: Some things are exaggerated, I think, about being a teenager
and how rough it is. Some people try to understand, but I think they
understand it too much -- they think it's this really difficult
thing. Sure, it's harder than being in elementary school, but its also a
lot more fun.
About being a girl:
SOPHIE: I hate it when that's an excuse -- like, "Oh, it's that time of
the month." Why when you're mad does that always have to be the reason?
CAITLIN: There's so many ways you can pick on girls -- but there's no
word for "slut" for guys.
About getting your period:
CAITLIN: I remember exactly how I felt. I remember my heart went wild, and I was really excited. I wasn't really nervous, but I was really excited -- my face turned really red.
ODIE: I was excited, because I got mine after them, and I was like, "Oh
finally." Now, I'm like, "Oh God, this is a drag."
SOPHIE: When I got it, it was with people who I didn't know very well in
Boston. I have really good friends there, but we don't have the same
openness as I do with my friends here. When I got back here, it was like
taking off a really heavy coat or something, because we could tell each
About having sex:
ODIE: I think I'm physically ready, but I'm not emotionally ready, so I
don't even think about it. It's hard to say. We've all talked about it, and
we're all pretty sure we're not ready -- we're all virgins. Most
descriptions about sex, it's like you're on some schedule. It tells you how
it's going to be in detail -- as if there are rules. It's not always that
way. The book talks about how you shouldn't have sex if you
don't want to. But what if you don't know that you don't want to until
you're actually doing it?
CAITLIN: There was this girl in my class who was having sex with her
boyfriend, and they had been going out like two years, and she was still
labeled a slut.
ODIE: Yeah, that's kind of bad. It's hard, because people get labeled.
SOPHIE: Girls aren't sluts just because they've had sex. It's because they've done, like, every guy.
ODIE: Girls who are emotionally ready and who are ready to go further than other girls, in some cases they are sluts -- but some people aren't. If they are emotionally ready, then they shouldn't be labeled that.
CAITLIN: A girl in my class got pregnant when she was 14 and had an
abortion. It seems like it really messed her up. She just seems really
depressed about it all the time.
ODIE: I think she should have taken the responsibility before.
But I'd have an abortion, too. I know I would. I'm not ready to have a
child. After baby-sitting and changing diapers and all that -- I mean, it's
hard work. I'm not going to have a teen pregnancy.
SOPHIE: One of my
mom's friends from high school got pregnant and went
away somewhere to have the baby, and gave it up -- and they still haven't
talked about it. It's just something they don't talk about. I mean, I don't think you should be proud of it. But it's the guy's responsibility, too -- it's not like she was having sex with herself.
ODIE: Our friends that are guys aren't that masculine. They're not macho guys -- they're sensitive and understanding, which is a big part of why we're friends.
SOPHIE: I think the guys we know that are really macho are just really
CAITLIN: I make it a point to tell our guy friends, when they say
something criticizing or sexist, to sort of knock them on the head.
ODIE: It doesn't seem like such a big deal in my family. I'm not going
to go out there and do something stupid. I know the consequences -- I know
what can happen if you abuse the substance. So I think if you talk about it
openly, and it's not blown out of proportion from the beginning, it really
helps. It makes a big difference.
SOPHIE: There's a big difference between smoking weed and doing heroin
or something. But a lot of the drug education makes it seem like it's the
same thing. We've had teachers tell us we'll go to hell if we smoke weed.
About trusting adults:
SOPHIE: At our school last year, the girls split up with a female
teacher, and we were supposed to talk about our problems. And if you didn't
want to talk about your problems, they gave you problems to talk about. You
did that once a week, and it really didn't really help. It created more
ODIE: Parts of the book say "tell a teacher" or "tell the police" if you
have a problem -- I don't agree. I wouldn't want my teacher to know -- a
lot of times, they invade our privacy. But I definitely trust my parents. I
have a really good relationship with my mom.
CAITLIN: I trust my parents. But some things you just don't want to tell
ODIE: Plus, we have each other. We tell each other everything.
On female sex symbols:
CAITLIN: I hate Fiona Apple. I loved her at first, I heard her song and thought, "She's really smart." And then this video comes on -- and she's
just stripping! It's her and all these beautiful bodies and all these
really skinny legs, and when I saw her, she looked like a heroin addict.
ODIE: I used to hate Hole. I saw them at Lollapalooza, and Courtney Love
was such a freak -- she wasn't wearing underwear. She was so screwed up.
But then she got her act together.
CAITLIN: Pamela Anderson Lee looks like she got part of her butt taken
off and put on her lip.
It was amusing to see what a strong sense of propriety these girls
have, as if they've heard all about how rebellious their parents were,
and now they simply can't be bothered with it. Their parents' generation
went through a collective identity crisis, but these three were quick to
dismiss the identity experiments of some of their peers -- "saying you're
bisexual to be trendy," "pretending to be anorexic to be cool" and
"pretending to be something you're not" all ranked high on their list of
stupid things people do. When they dress differently or "act weird at a
concert," they assured me, it's not an act of rebellion (though their
parents may interpret it as one) -- they only do it as a joke. "Because
we know who we are," Sophie explained.
Could it be that this generation of teenage girls has inherited the best
of both the garter-belt-wearing and bra-burning worlds?
Or is it partly because they've heard so much about the horrors of AIDS and
other sexually transmitted diseases (and, in contrast to the generations
that have preceded them, they believe themselves to be susceptible to them)
that they feel less pressure to have sex, which allows them more time to figure out who they are and what they want? Odie, Sophie and Caitlin all agreed that the "sex" part of sex-ed is generally overemphasized -- they want to know more about romance. Listening to the three of them as they giggled and talked their way through the afternoon, unself-consciously sharing their intimate thoughts with a complete stranger, I thought -- for just a second -- how cool it would be to be 14 again.
"You know what I would do," offered Caitlin. "I was thinking I should
write one of these when I'm older, and I was thinking I should take notes
now. Write exactly how you remember you felt and how other people your age felt, because I always wonder about that."
"Yeah," Sophie added. "The sex stuff is good, but when I was in sixth
grade, I didn't think I was ever going to have sex," Sophie said. "I think
there should be more about kissing."
"Yes!" Odie nodded emphatically. "There should be a book on kissing --