Two weeks before I was supposed to move across the country to begin Bible School, I told my parents that I might not want to be a missionary after all. Demonstrating a deep awesomeness, they almost instantly let go of their dream that their daughter would be an evangelical Christian missionary, and told me to find and follow my dream. So I withdrew my acceptance to Bible College, and a year later, arrived at Sarah Lawrence College, arguable the most liberal liberal arts school in the nation.
Last weekend, I went back for my 10-year college reunion, (that’s me in the photo above looking off to my left), and soaked up the memories.
We all had nicknames at Sarah Lawrence. I was so obnoxiously plain—straight from a religious, Midwestern suburb—that I went by the “GAP Girl” or sometimes the “Token Straight Girl.” Perhaps I should offer some context. Both Win Butler, lead singer of Arcade Fire, and JD Samson, from the feminist electropunk band, Le Tigre, were classmates of mine. So, yeah, it was tough to stand out. A friend of mine went by “the lesbian whose name fits her face.” And the five men named John were christened: Scary John, Baby John, Sporty John, Ginger John and Posh John. Yes, after the Spice Girls.
Scary John was a writer. He wore slippers with a long, ratty, purple bathrobe, and ambled around campus with a coffee mug in his hand, as though he’d just woken up and was out to pick up the morning paper. He was always offering girls backrubs, which is why we called him scary. Baby John was a feminine man who wore colored dog collars. Sporty John was part of what the rest of us named “the SLC frat”—a small cadre of men who could have passed as regular guys at a public school, despite their being artists. Ginger John was a red-head. And Posh John was rich.
Looking back 10 years after graduating, this particular set of nicknames stands out. When I was in college, I was seriously seeking an image of womanhood I could get behind. Evangelicalism had taught me that good women were feminine, demure, sweet, and childlike—in other words, little girls with long legs. And the secular media’s images of women were often no more grown. It is fascinating to me, this preference for girls, and women’s subsequent girling, inside and outside of religious culture. The difference is, the evangelical Christian church’s girling practices are about desexulizing women (throughout the long history of Christianity, women have symbolized temptation, woe, sex and sin, whereas girls have symbolized purity and innocence), whereas the secular world’s girling pratices sexualize. From cover girls, to calendar girls, to roller derby girls, to Hooters girls, to the Spice Girls.
But as far as I was concerned, the Spice Girls appealed more to little girls and gay men than to me and my girlfriends for a reason. My friends and I weren’t interested in girling, though it was hot stuff in the heyday of Third Wave Feminism; we were interested in figuring out what it meant to be grown.
So, instead of becoming Spice Girls ourselves, we “spiced” the few men on campus—ran them through girl-culture, nicknamed them based on imagined-attributes, and made them into pop-icons for us to trivialize, cliché, and desperately seek after. We gave the girl hat to them, and set about the hard work of figuring our own messes out. And each of us, fumbling, struggling, seems to have found our way there. Because I must say, ten years later, I was pretty impressed by the women I saw.
(Note: The top three photos in this post were taken by the gorgeous and talented Kate Scelsa.)