Cover Photo: photo courtesy of the author
photo courtesy of the author

“A Modern, Up-to-Date Young Woman”: Shopping, Fashion, and the Rules of My Girlhood

All the fashion rules I learned as a girl were informed by the view that women’s bodies are never okay as they are—they always need fixing.

One day when I was twelve, while my friend and I were swimming, I noticed that her bathing suit was tight, stretchy, and chartreuse, and mine was saggy, baggy, and navy blue. Suddenly, with all my heart, I wanted one like hers. That was the day I began noticing what other girls were wearing, the day I realized things had to change. And that meant my mother had to change.

First I had to get her to understand that my clothes were all wrong; then I had to have a say in choosing them. Archie Teen American Bandstand.



I obeyed instructions about which parts of my body must, or must not, be covered; which body parts should have hair and which not; which clothes I was allowed to wear as a girl. All these rules were reinforced by the time-honored view that women’s bodies are never okay as they are; that they always need fixing: altering, coloring, enhancing in one way or another, again with the investments of time and money. It became clear that I could never be really sure I’d got it right. That’s what kept me wondering, and kept me shopping.

Mary J. Breen has been a literacy teacher, an ESL teacher, and a health worker, as well as a writer and editor. She is the author of two books about women's health, and her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines, including Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, The Windsor Review, Cha, and JAMA Cardiology. She was a regular contributor to The Toast. She lives in Peterborough, Ontario, where, among other things, she teaches writing and tries to complete her memoir.