Girls in single-sex primary schools constantly worry that they are treading a fine line between tartiness and lesbianism.
They feel under pressure to be ultra-girly in order to avoid being seen as lesbians. But they must also be careful not to overdo this girliness, in case their friends think they are "tarty" or "too sexy".
Alexandra Allan, of Cardiff University, studied the behaviour of Year 5 pupils at a single-sex private school in the South East. Her findings appear in the latest edition of the Gender and Education journal.
The school, she says, was keen to produce girls who were considered "ladylike".
Teachers regularly made the word "lady" synonymous with ideal behaviour: "Nice ladies open doors for others" or "Ladies don't talk with their mouths full".
The word was also used to refer to acceptable standards of appearance. Two girls said they were told off because they attempted to go home in their games kit.
One said: "I should not be seen to be dressed like this by people from outside of the school. I could run into builders and perverts on the way home."
Dr Allan said: "Even by doing something as supposedly simple as wearing a netball skirt to travel home from school, this girl appeared to be caught up in judgments about her moral and sexual behaviour."
But the girls readily accepted these judgments, using them to monitor their classmates' behaviour. Where their teachers used the word "lady", however, the pupils used the expression "girly girl".
And they linked being ladylike, or girly, with being sexy. One pupil described girly girls as "pink, fluffy, hair, make-up, boys, straighteners, hairspray ... um, and hairdressing, playing with hair, cheerleading."
However, if they overstepped the bounds of this, they would no longer fit the school's idea of respectable ladies.
They therefore policed each other's appearance and behaviour, telling their friends that their clothes were "tarty", "too sexy" or "too common".
Joanne, one pupil, said: "Yeah, you are a tart if you wear those earrings and short skirts and stuff. It looks really common."
Despite this, many of the girls admitted they did not actually know any boys and "could only imagine what they were really like".
"The girls in this school felt that many more comments were made about their sexuality because of their separation from boys," Dr Allan said. "They felt that it was automatically assumed by their peers outside of school that they were lesbians."
She relates an incident where a boy teased one of the private-school girls, saying "she must be a lesbian".
She and her friends were so traumatised by the comment that they were still referring to it with horror a year later.
But many of the girls were suspicious of lesbianism among classmates. They felt they had to go to great lengths to protect themselves from being branded with this potentially damaging identity.
"Where boys were not physically present and where romantic relationships were rarely practised, the girls still felt pressured to present themselves as heterosexually attractive," Dr Allan said.
- 'The importance of being a lady', by Alexandra Jane Allan, appears in 'Gender and Education', volume 21, number 2.
'I MIGHT RUN INTO PERVERTS IN MY NETBALL SKIRT'
Year 5 girls from a private single-sex school in the South East told the researcher:
"You just feel like the teachers just want you to be a proper little lady. You have to sit with your legs crossed and your back straight and talk like this: 'La-di-dah'."
"I was called back in by Mrs Fairhead. She asked me why I thought I could go home in my netball skirt ... I should not be seen to be dressed like this by people from outside of the school. I could run into builders and perverts on the way home and everything."
"Some people say that Ebony has servants at home, that she is a real lady, and that no one in her family has ever had to wash up, because they either get their servants to do it or they throw the plates away."
"Claire from my other school, no offence to her, but she was really tarty. She had these huge hoop earrings that you could literally put your arms through."