My fifth grader thinks she’s slick when we are getting ready for school, that if her lip
gloss is subtly applied, or combined with a lighter shade, I won’t notice her
slightly rosier lips as we are heading out the door. I could tell Selena to wipe
it off. I am her mother after all, but I pick my battles, and there is my own relationship
to lip products.
At seven, I was obsessed with Maybelline’s Kissing Potion in Strawberry, which was
as sweet and sticky as it was shiny. I couldn’t lick my lips fast enough once
it was on. I will never forget the kindness of one of my mother’s co-workers,
Marlene, for buying me my very own. Bonnie Bell Lipsmacker was next. Another
gift from a generous soul – my aunt Leslie bought me a huge tube in bubble-gum
with a string so I could wear it around my neck.
These gifts were rays of sunshine in the Seventies feminist household my single
mother worked so hard to support. She wore brown suede Birkenstocks that
mortified me and sported what I thought were excessive amounts of body hair.
She used to look at me like I was some kind of alien, and say, “You’re so
feminine,” like it was a cold I had caught. In one of my favorite books from
childhood, Mom, the Wolfman and Me by Norma Klein, the closest fictional
representative I’d read to the mother-daughter household I lived in, the mother
dresses up for protests and marches. This was a mother I understood. I embraced
my own mother’s politics, but her fashion sense was another story.
This spring there was a 5th grade graduation 1920’s dance, and Selena’s good friend,
who I will call Belle, went as a newsboy. When I ran into Belle and her
mother having pizza one night after the party, Belle said to me, “Your know,
one girl in our class called me a pervert, and another called me a freak for
dressing like a boy.” When I mentioned how uncool some girls in her class had
been to Belle, Selena said, “I told Belle she looked awesome.” “Besides,” she
added, “Being a freak isn’t a bad thing, “I’m a freak.”
The other day we were walking with her best friend and I almost said, “Thank god
you’re friends with Ella because she’s not as girly as you are.” I bit my
tongue, then I told the girls what I had almost said. Self-presentation is an
important part of how we construct our identity. How do I teach my child who
skews to the femme, like her mother, about gender and its constructs?
That even loving parents and friends have expectations we don’t meet.
When I went on a class trip a few weeks ago, two of Selena’s male classmates looked at
me dismissively as I told them to line up in single file. On the way home the
same boys were watching a You Tube video of a fat woman running on a treadmill
on one of their phones. After the trip, I could hardly contain my rage. I told
Selena the phrase, “That is sexist” was on the tip of my tongue and the only
reason I said nothing was because I did not want to embarrass her. She said
back emphatically, “They are sexist!”
Fifth grade is not too early for Feminism 101. There are some things that are meant to
be shared. Selena wants a pair of silver Birkenstocks like mine. My mother’s
are now purple. We’ll be a Brooklyn sideshow of three generations of
Birkenstock wearing feminists. Stereotypes be damned. Lip gloss and shaved legs
Caledonia Kearns is the editor of two anthologies of Irish American women’s writing, Cabbage and Bones and Motherland. Her writing and book reviews have appeared in publications including the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune, her poetry in the MOM EGG, the New Haven Review and upcoming in Painted Bride Quarterly. She lives in Brooklyn with her daughter.