Tuesday 16 August 2016

What I Don't Miss About the 50s 6

One of the boys


Even though the aim of a girl's life was marriage, we weren't allowed to be feminine.

For birthdays girls were given briefcases, alarm clocks, packs of cards and pen sets. I wanted a miniature plastic umbrella, a tutu and glittery plastic high-heeled mules, like my friend Adele had.

50s kids’ literature was full of children acting like adults. The girl heroines were the kind the nuns liked: outdoorsy, tidy, clean, “mature”. They had adventures on their own and were responsible and helpful and prematurely middle-aged.

Books and magazines held up wholesome, outgoing youths who didn’t “follow the crowd” but instead adored Dickens, grooved to Beethoven, and collected seashells. They didn't have special friends, they were “chums” with lots of “pals”. They played a sport, walked tall and were always cheerful, cheerful, cheerful. Be like this and all the other teenagers will hate you.

Translation: Don’t grow up too soon. Don’t be girly and interested in pop stars and boys, but at the same time don’t be a tomboy. Be clean and neat and well-groomed: clean hands, neatly filed nails, polished shoes, pressed clothes, glossy, well-brushed hair and a face that knows only soap and water.

Vanity was frowned on (perms, hair dye).

We were told:
Makeup is bad for your skin.
Plucked eyebrows grow back thicker.
Washing your hair makes it dirtier.

In the 30s, girls were meant to look lumpy in a gymslip, remain sexually ignorant for as long as possible, then go to Switzerland for a makeover, do the London season (lots of parties) and get married. So why all the propaganda about not looking pretty?

Girls’ literature never referred to life after boarding school (or outside it). The authors never mentioned the fact that girls grow up and get married. One minute you were being valued for your skills on the lacrosse field and your ability to keep the juniors in order, the next moment you were being judged on your looks, your clothes and your ability to flirt – and your sporting talents, frank friendliness and high marks in French were utterly irrelevant. Appearance (that “doesn’t matter”) was paramount, and you never thought about lacrosse again.

This advice for young ladies was barely updated since the 19th century – surely it was 1850s girls who collected seashells instead of admirers? And brushed their (long) hair a lot?


They were always trying to turn us into adults too soon – except for the sex part.

We were exhorted to form clubs and design our own badge. But they never told us what the point was. I suppose we could have had a club house in imitation of adults’ golf clubs and social clubs.

We were given "sets" for: Chinese Checkers, Chinese puzzles, halma, jacks, jokari, ludo, origami, quoits, diabolo, rounders, tiddlywinks. They were all competitive games that required a talent for maths or advanced motor skills, and lacked any element of fantasy – and were pretty unfeminine.

We were forced to be rather boyish, and our parents cringed when we liked girly things – but that may have been typical middle-class behaviour. Children weren’t supposed to be genderless, but they were supposed to be sexless. Boys had to be very masculine – and so did girls until they suddenly had to perform femininity. But at the same time you couldn't be a "tomboy".

Relatives loved to give children ugly, lurid Pelham puppets – you can put on your own puppet show! They frequently turn up, mint and boxed, on Flog It!

We were urged to collect things, because you were supposed to have a hobby: cheese labels, beer mats, bus tickets, postcards, car numbers, silver paper, stamps. Nobody ever suggested that collecting something, anything, might be a route to a social life, even if it was only with other beermat collectors. And why were girls urged to collect birds’ eggs (illegal by 1954), cheese labels and stamps, when they might have actually enjoyed collecting dolls in national costume, or seashells. They might even have made the shells into jewellery boxes (or jewellery). It may have been a gender-blind policy, but it was so dreary.

And we weren't allowed to have a genuine interest in anything. My parents cringed when I criticised or admired buildings. What are we going to do with her? A teenager who's interested in architecture!

Funny how they never told us that reading might be fun...


Emotions had to be “controlled” with “self-control”. Emotion was “sentimentality”. Expressing emotions – or even having them – was being "nervy, hysterical and worked up". If you went on like that you’d have a “nervous breakdown”. You must “calm down” and shut up as quickly as possible. And stop thinking about it.

The only way you could talk about your feelings was to “crack” – yell home truths and burst into tears. But next day everyone would pretend that nothing had happened.

You just had to put up with things. Unhappy? “Snap out of it” and “pull yourself together”.

Adults treated their feelings (with alcohol) instead of making structural changes (divorce). They were supposed to carry on, pretend it wasn’t happening, think about something else, never talk about it.

If tiny babies seemed to smile we were told it was “just wind”. Likewise thinking animals had human feelings was “sentimental” or “anthropomorphism”.

Sympathy (“mollycoddling”) was bad for people. You told them to buck their ideas up, or that they were better off as they were. God forbid they should try to change themselves, their appearance, their circumstances – it might inconvenience others, who might have to offer some actual help.

If you wrote to an agony aunt saying you were lonely, they replied that you were “stuck in a rut of self-pity”.

Unhappiness was “feeling sorry for yourself”, which was forbidden. And if you were unhappy, you didn’t look around for a cause in circumstances or other people.

You might be lucky enough to be officially “sensitive”, but this required a caring family and a lot of friends. Otherwise you were just “oversensitive”, or “insensitive”.

More here, and links to the rest.

No comments:

Post a Comment