Monday, November 20, 2017

Temples of the Holy Ghost/Occasions of Sin

In the 1960's, long before bra straps became a fashion statement, we girls used to sew little tabs on the inside shoulder seams of our dresses to keep bra straps out of sight. To hide our incipient cleavage we used a dickey--a triangular piece of cloth that snapped into the center of a too-revealing neckline. At prom time in our Catholic high school, we were warned that if we showed up in a gown with spaghetti straps (or, God forbid, strapless), we would be sent back home. Our bodies were Temples of the Holy Ghost, but unless we were ever watchful, they could also be Occasions of Sin. 
1962 Senior Prom. Note the sin-avoiding straps on my dress.
 It was a difficult message for our hormone-marinated brains to disentangle because those same bodies, as our mothers, aunts, grandmothers and the entire culture never ceased to remind us, were our passport to the main if not the only source of personal fulfillment for women: marriage and motherhood.

Beauty and modesty were supposed to coexist in an eternally precarious equilibrium. Neglect your looks for a single day and you risked passing unnoticed by the Brylcreem-anointed boy who might have been your ticket to happiness. Disregard modesty and who knew what might happen? We certainly didn't, because it was never spelled out--nobody said the words pregnancy, or venereal disease, or rape as they might apply to us. But the consequences of immodesty were all the more alarming for being unspoken.

It was drilled into us that we had to make the most of whatever portion of beauty Providence had bestowed on us. Hair was supremely important. It had to balloon off the scalp to give us the wide-eyed, neotenic look that made us seem vulnerable and attractive. This required nightly work with brush rollers--I used to sleep with twenty-seven of them digging into my scalp--many cans of spray, and prayers for dry, windless weather.

Our skin gave us fits, being liable to erupt in pimples when we least wanted it to, despite copious applications of Clearasil. But breasts constituted the ultimate dilemma. From the movies--Sophia Loren! Marilyn Monroe! Jayne Mansfield!--we figured that they were a major asset, a helpful tool in luring the father of our future children. Yet because they also had the potential to provoke unbridled lust, they needed to be completely covered, although they could be hinted at by the artful positioning of darts in our bodices.

Legs were less of a liability, though we worried that our nylons would develop runs, a disgrace comparable to having our slip show. Until the blessed invention of pantyhose, stockings were held up by garter belts, an item that has since acquired fetishistic status but that I remember mostly as giving me severe pain in the lower back.

Sacred vessels on the one hand, agents of disgrace on the other, our bodies came to feel like two-edged swords, or UXBs that might go off unpredictably. It is a miracle that we managed to learn anything in school, worried as we were that the "rats" might be showing under the upper layers of our hair, or that the middle button on our uniform blouse might have popped open.

And yet we did learn, despite all the distractions, and ours became the first generation to aspire to having both meaningful work and a guy. And when the pill, the pantyhose, and the second wave of feminism burst simultaneously on the scene a few years later, we put away our dickeys, our garter belts and sometimes even our bras, and believed, at least for a while, that we could have it all.


  1. When we tried to have it all - PhD in Nuclear Engineering, husband, three children, job at Princeton - some of us got sick.

    The reason men got away with appearing to have everything is that they had wives to carry the homefront and the kids.

    We were lied to: there are only 24 hours in a day.

    And we were also supposed to be healthy and thin and ...

    Or something. And I still feel guilty I couldn't do it all, successfully - I was going to show them, my family, that I was good enough to do all that. Apparently, I wasn't.

    Those who managed it usually had only one kid.

    It was a lovely deam.

  2. Oh Alicia, this makes me so sad. I too suspect that my desire to have it all had something to do with my developing CFS. But the last thing you should feel is guilt. This country and its culture are, even today, inimical to working families, especially working mothers. Things might have turned out differently had we lived in Sweden or Denmark.

  3. You're right about Sweden and such countries; the one thing that saddens me about them is a huge rise in children being brought up in a web instead of nuclear families - because of the very high divorce and single-mother rates. I'm not sure that's worked out yet.

    I believed that, if I worked hard enough at it, I could have what I wanted - and I get the ONE disease where you can live the rest of your life on the outside, looking in, and not be able to do a THING about working hard enough to make yourself well.

    When I have time to follow it up, I will look further into the story of Colleen McCullough, the amazing Australian author of The Thorn Birds. She was a major scientist for a significant portion of her life; I need to see what caused her to have to give up science and turn to writing.

    I don't believe in the 'everything happens for a reason' meme/trope/folk saying. But I do believe you either do what you can with what you have - or give in to despair. And you only have to square it with yourself.

    You did an awful lot of things.

  4. "I believed that, if I worked hard enough at it, I could have what I wanted - and I get the ONE disease where you can live the rest of your life on the outside, looking in, and not be able to do a THING about working hard enough to make yourself well." You have said exactly what I feel. CFS is the ultimate irony for us achieving types--kind of like Beethoven's deafness (except that he did manage to keep composing, because deafness doesn't kill the vital spark, the way CFS does).