When my mother was in hospice care, she craved those little bitty ice cream cones with a baby scoop of ice cream and a hard chocolate coating like these. She had gone through years of suffering with lung cancer that eventually spread to her brain and, dangit, she’d earned her right to an ice cream cone whenever she wanted one.
Of course, these are little, tiny things that can be eaten in three bites, so one on its own would rarely satisfy her sweet tooth. She’d want another. To which I said, “here’s another” and I would have given her the whole box if it gave her any comfort. However, she’d been conditioned by seventy-some-odd years of society to think that as a woman, her primary job was to maintain her figure and so, on her actual deathbed, she would feel guilt for having more than one and say things like, “No I shouldn’t.”
This drove me bonkers. Finally, one day, when she debated with herself as to whether or not to allow a second cone, I blurted out, “What? Are you trying to fit into a dress?” She was a little too far gone to understand my sarcasm, which is probably a good thing. So then I told her that I’d called her doctor and he had said that she should have as much ice cream as she wanted because it was good for her. She looked at me with narrowed eyes, skeptical. Then she said, “You did not talk to him. You can never get him on the phone.”
Nearly thirty years of trial work has taught me to think on my feet. So I said, “I mean, I called his office and talked to his nurse, who asked him. She said he said it was okay.” After a moment, she nodded, buying my story.
I’ve thought about this a lot in the three years since she’s been gone.
Not long ago, I went to a friend’s house, and she had a small collection of old books that she’d found in thrift stores and had inherited from her super-midwestern farm family. I was immediately drawn to them, and one in particular. It is called “How You Look and Dress” and it is a textbook – an actual Home Ec textbook! – copyrighted in 1959 and which had once made its home, according to the stamp, in the John Marshall School in South Bend, Indiana. According to a handwritten note, this particular book was “copy 15.” It is the third edition. A new edition was needed, according to the preface, because it “includes more material on labeling, on buying, on family needs and income, on becoming more attractive, on caring for clothes, and on selecting clothing.”
I daresay I would have failed that class.
The book is hilarious, until you realize that people like my mother were taught this in school. She was 14 in 1959. She was its target audience. The book teaches you how to make yourself look taller and slimmer if you are “short and stout”. Yes, it uses the word “short” and “stout.” As a tall, stout person myself, I was interested to learn what I would have been taught to do in order to make myself appear smaller so as not to appear any different from the attractive, thin, delicate-looking white ladies with perfect hair and 18 inch waists who populate the books many photographs.
I kid you not – the book even has a section on the proper posture to use while sitting at a sewing machine.
I learned that a “smartly dressed girl never has to say to herself: ‘Oh dear, what shall I wear? My green coat will not go with my lavender hat or my blue dress.’” I learned that you should “[r]emove your rings and make sure you do not have any hangnails” before doing laundry, lest you create a snag. My prominent nose “can be made to look smaller by combing [my] hair forward around [my] face.” I’m going to assume that’s not an anti-semitic slight, but it’s honestly hard to tell. I will likewise pray that “Loose, natural-looking waves and curls are more becoming than tight, small waves or curls” is not at all racist.
The thing is a true historical document. As offensive as it is on nearly every page, in a flash I understood my mother’s fear of eating too much ice cream on her deathbed. She was taught how she was supposed to look in the same way that she was taught to multiply and divide. To buck that, for her, would be the same as bucking the laws of physics or being told that using “ain’t” and “irregardless” was proper use of language.
And that ain’t right.
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Lori B. Duff is an award-winning author who practices law on the side. Her latest book, “If You Did What I Asked in the First Place” was awarded the Gold Medal for humor in the Foreword INDIES awards in 2019. You can follow her on Twitter at @LoriBDuff and on Facebook. For more blogs written by Lori, click here. For more information about Lori in general, click here. If you want Lori to do your writing for you, click here. If you want Lori to help you market your book, click here.