Nothing below the waist

7th February 2003 at 00:00
There's never been a shortage of advice for teenage girls. Geraldine Brennan previews a new exhibition and online project

Mrs Clare Gossett of Ealing - a woman with a mission - selfpublished her "hints to girls on self-management" at some point between the First and Second World War, in a pamphlet mysteriously titled "The Era of Womanhood". No doubt intent on saving sporty girls from themselves, she advised: "It is exceedingly dangerous to dance, or bicycle, or ride or play games like hockey during the monthly period ... it is a mark of womanliness and common sense to be firm in relinquishing any engagement which will necessitate any tiring or violent exercise."

In her companion slim volume, Things We Must Tell Our Girls, Mrs Gossett had this message for parents: "We cannot speak too plainly against the romping and flirting, the walking about after dark with men and boys, which is too common".

The battle was lost by the 1970s when the Family Planning Association published the strip-cartoon Too Great a Risk!, about a teenage-pregnancy scare in which the doctor may have had Mrs Gossett in mind when she briskly counselled: "Don't listen to old wives' tales". There seems to be nothing dated about the fold-out leaflet, except that every face is white.

The Women's Library's second exhibition Grow Up! has assembled books, magazines and leaflets spanning more than a century, which seek to tell girls what to do and how to be as they get to grips with the adult world.

Clothes, make-up, collectables and accessories have been borrowed for sections on "teenage pleasures" (from debutantes' balls to Girl Guides and Generation X gigs), "tools" (Max Factor and Mary Quant's finest) and "the ideal girl" ("Do you dress to please the boys?" asked Mirabelle in 1976).

Jo Green, the library's access and interpretation manager, hopes Grow Up! will entice students to explore the collections for coursework research.

Fourteen-year-olds and over can register to use the reading-room independently, with open access to post-1920 books and periodicals covering every aspect of the private and public life of women and girls. Exhibition school sessions can be built around a tour of the collections aimed at key stages 3 and 4 sociology, but also adaptable for PHSE, says Jo. "We are associated with publications on women's suffrage but we have material on everything to do with work, home life and entertainment. And teenagers are still being told what to do, so both girls and boys will be drawn to it."

From February 7 pupils can confide their own secrets to Read This!, an online project on the under-the-bedclothes reading habits of teenagers past and present. Authors who have contributed to Read This! include Jacqueline Wilson (secret reads: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and The Devil and Mary Anne by Catherine Cookson), whose novels are devoured by would-be adolescent girls aged eight and above. Wilson became part of the advice industry while still a teenager herself, as a contributor to DC Thomson's magazines and got a staff job on Jackie, one of the first magazines for young teens, in 1963.

"Readers' problems were all kept confidential and answered by experts, and the company policy was fairly dictatorial," she says.

"The permissive society had not quite reached Dundee (where DC Thomson is based). Girls who were worried about how far to let a boy go were always told 'nothing below the waist' and in the stories and features I was writing nothing more than kissing was allowed.

"When I was 17, I wrote a funny piece, which was considered subversive, about the disappointment of going out with a seemingly attractive boy who just went on about himself and how the kissing could sometimes be a terrible let-down. The middle-aged men who were in charge said this was not what modern girls wanted to read."

After Jackie she moved on to the more sophisticated IPC titles Honey and Petticoat and saw the birth of women's obsession with slenderness, "as Twiggy replaced Marilyn Monroe".

Worries about weight, dieting and looks continue to preoccupy the young readers who write to her today. "Girls of nine are writing about shaving their legs and going on diets and the obsession with wanting to be like celebrities is at a height. Magazines are now aimed at girls who can be whatever they want to be, but the message that is not getting through is that it's okay to be different; not to have a figure like a little boy; not to have the right mobile phone; not to be one of the herd. That's the advice that is needed."

Grow Up!: advice and the teenage girl, 1880s to date, is at the Women's Library, Old Castle Street, London E1 until April 26. Jacqueline Wilson will speak during "How to be Good" - a day of talks (February 15) about messages to girls in literature. Other speakers include Angela McRobbie, who will talk on "The Pressure to be Perfect" (March 29), suggested for sociology students. There are sessions on fashion, pop and make-up.To book talks: Tel: 020 7320 2222www.thewomenslibrary.ac.uk

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