Girly Girl

Fall 1997
Bambi stood out from the very beginning. It might have been her bright red wig, or maybe it was her garish makeup. Or it could have just been the fact that she was at least a foot taller than all the other women in our class of would-be massage therapists.

Whatever it was, from day one, we all knew she had once been a man without her having to say anything.  But say something she did.

“Don't you love my boobs?” she whispered to me on the first day, punctuating her sentence, as she often did, with a forced, high-pitched giggle. The whole class was huddled closely together, intently watching a Swedish massage demonstration while Bambi happily felt herself up.

"Um. Sure?" I said and kept my eyes studiously trained on the body on the massage table rather than the one next to me.

"My doctor was the best! Do you want to feel them?"

"I'm sure. And no thanks."

Her shirts were cut low, her skirts high. She protested on the first day of class when they told her she'd have to lose her long red fingernails and many rings and bracelets.

She was not exactly the picture of the studious massage therapy student I had hoped would be my cohort. I was offended that she didn't seem to be taking our classes seriously, but I tried extra super hard not to judge her harshly. After all, I had moved to liberal San Francisco for a reason: everyone is accepted there.


As other students shied away from working with her, some subtly, others not so subtly, I was often paired with her. This was fine, after all I was - I wanted to be - open-minded. Surely there must be someone real underneath all her hyper-feminine bluster, I thought. So even though her parade of stereotypical feminine behaviors grated on me, I didn’t resist when she sat next to me during lectures or sought me out to practice a technique.

Which is how I came to be considered her closest friend in class, and when she overheard me offering a ride to someone else, she was quick to jump on board.

“Jenna, can you take ME home, too?” she said sweetly, batting her lashes at me like a cartoon vixen.

Which is how I came to drive her to and from our massage school for months.

“Why don’t you wear any makeup?” she asked me one morning, squinting her brightly lined eyes at me as we inched our way across the Bay Bridge.

“I don’t like it,” I answered, my plain eyes on the road. “It’s artificial. It feels funny on my face and between massage school, dance classes and working at the tea shop, I'm always sweating it off anyway.”

She laughed at me, her girlish giggle ringing loudly in my little Civic. “That just means you’re doing it wrong. I can help you with that, we just need to find the right kind of foundation and powder.”

“Foundation AND powder? BLECH, no thanks,” I said. “Makeup is just not for me. Look at me. I'm not much of a girly girl.”

She laughed her true deep belly laugh then. "Well, honey, lucky for you, I AM!"


When Z was born, I was adamant that she not live in a puffy pink world. We registered for a green car seat and a tan Pack-n-Play, a blue bouncer and a yellow Boppy. I wanted her to have an entire world of color, rather than one slender piece of the color-wheel pie determined by a limited and limiting view of girls.

(Have I ever mentioned I went to one of the Seven Sisters colleges? Where they basically pipe Women's Studies into the dorm room air?)

This rigidity lasted a few months, until I got tired of correcting people when they - without fail - assumed she was a boy. I finally, resignedly, dressed her in the flowery pink onesies we'd been given just to stop the constant misunderstandings and mis-assumptions, but I continued to be interested how differently people treated her when she was dressed more like a boy.

As she grew, we bought her trainsets and Legos and, reluctantly, baby dolls. Despite our allowing a pink flood of girly things into our home, she never really embraced the princess craze like many of her friends, and she exclusively wore dresses for awhile only because she couldn't stand to wear anything with a waistband. She has always had short hair and likes it as short as possible to limit the number of times I tell her to brush it. No clips, no headbands. Her favorite colors were yellow and orange for years and they have been red, black and white for over a year now.

In short, she is not a girly girl, and she embraces that.

I embrace it too; in fact, some days it feels like a triumph. Other days I think if I hear one more kid tell her her red sneakers are "boy shoes" or her hair is “short like a boy,” I will scream.

We’ve been battling a little lately, much to my chagrin, over her clothes and hair.

Sometimes, I tell her, it’s respectful to dress up a little. You don’t have to wear a fancy dress to Stella’s birthday party, but how about finding a shirt without a stain, a pair of shorts that actually fit you and brushing the obvious knots out of your hair?

I don’t care about my clothes, Mom, she’ll say. I don’t care about my hair.

I'm ashamed to say I worry about this. What will the other girls think? What will they say? Girls can be so mean and she struggles a little socially and wouldn’t it be easier for her if she looked just a little more clean and put together and, well, girly?

I tell myself that my insistence on stain-free clothes and brushed hair is really about teaching her what it means to be a good party-goer, a kind friend, a respectable person. But I wonder where the line is between a lesson in good personhood and a lesson in good womanhood. Would I be concerned about her appearance in the same way if she was a boy?

She looks to me for information about what it means to be a girl, to become a woman. What is expected. What is possible.

This is a heavy responsibility.


Spring 1998

Bambi stopped asking me if I wanted to see pictures of her vagina after I said no enough times. She stopped teasing me about my ugly comfort footwear when I asked her to. She stopped asking me about my favorite hairstyles when it became apparent I really didn't care much at all.

But she didn’t stop getting rides from me or pestering me about wearing makeup.

We got along fine, I guess, though we rarely spoke about anything serious. She wanted to talk about her boyfriends and the other surgeries she wanted and the latest fashion trends. She’d gossip about the private lives of people in our class endlessly but if I asked her anything too personal or deep about herself, she’d pointedly ignore me.

I was often struck by how dissimilar we were. With her endless talk of fashion and her flirtatious demeanor, it was like she had embraced all of my least favorite aspects of femininity. I was pretty sure she didn’t actually like me at all and was just using me for my car. I had gotten to know her enough to realize that the shallow, brittle persona on top actually ran rather deep or maybe it was so thick it rendered the serious, soft, thoughtful parts of her inaccessible. But I continued driving her to and from school out of habit, out of duty, as our course neared its end.

One day, a few weeks before our classes ended, she wasn’t waiting on her usual corner for me to pick her up.  I circled a few times before giving up and heading into class without her. She called me later, angry that I hadn’t waited for her.

“Girl,” she growled, “you are so stuck-up and mean sometimes.”

“Excuse me?! I’ve driven you to and from school for months without fail! I’ve never once been mean to you!”

“You should have waited for me.......And you should let me do your makeup so you stop looking like a greasy man.”

“Jeez, Bambi, drop it! I don’t need you, of all people, to tell me how to be a woman! What do you know about being a woman anyway?”

It was unfair and mean and what I’d been yelling inside my head for months.


E has embraced pink from day one.

Is this nature or nurture? Was she born this way or was she around more girlish things from the very beginning because of her sister, because she's the second, because we're more relaxed parents?

Does it matter why she loves pink?

She likes princesses and fairies and anything little, cute or pink. She's a different kind of kid from her sister. She's a different kind of girl.

I can't help but wonder if life won't be just a little bit easier for her than for her sister because she's more traditionally girly, because she adheres to those not-really-invisible rules a lot more closely than her sister.

This makes me sad. For both of them. For all of us.


Bambi and I lost touch immediately after school ended. It was mutual, I'm sure, and we never recovered after our one and only fight.

I wonder about her from time to time. Where is she now? How is she doing?

After years of feeling badly about our fight, about what I said, I have come to some peace with it. It's honest and true that Bambi didn’t know much about being a woman, she was, after all, in her infancy as a woman. At the time I met her, she’d observed and wondered from afar for years, but she’d only been able to embrace womanhood, to own it for herself, for less than a year. And like my daughters will as they get older, she was experimenting at the extreme edge of femininity. Does this behavior fit me? Am I like this stereotype at all? Do I like makeup? What does flirting feel like? Do I need to giggle all the time to be liked?

Of course, Bambi also has her own personal preferences. She's allowed to like makeup, just as much as I’m allowed to view it as a necessary and annoying evil. She’s allowed to like fashion, to giggle, to flirt. And I'm allowed to suck at all those things.

My relationship with Bambi taught me a lot but mostly this: I get to own what it means for me to be a woman, and Bambi gets to own what it means for her. We all get to chose. Including my girls. They will get to chose.

I will watch and wonder and hope.

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