Everything I Know About Being a Girl, I Learned at Summer Camp

With a majority of 53.85%, tonight’s post is going to be all about my experiences at summer camp.

I have a tendency to make naive assumptions, and when something doesn’t fit into my existing understanding of the world, I change it so that it does. And if something doesn’t fall into one of my categories of interest, it usually just falls by the wayside. This is why I know the top songs used to torture people and don’t understand a lot of slang. Thankfully, I’ve been growing out of these habits as I get older.

So when I went to off to summer camp, I lived very firmly in my own world. I wore black velour stretchy bell bottoms constantly and could often be caught in black leather loafers and soccer shorts. I worshipped Harry Potter and only used the internet to check my email and look at Mugglenet. I’m sure I was aware on some level that not everyone lived in as innocent a world as mine, but it certainly did not show.

The camp I was going to was all about female empowerment, the Montessori method, and being green. There was a working farm and large garden, days where we didn’t use any fossil fuel, and everything was incredibly rustic. The cabins didn’t have electricity or screens in the windows, and they weren’t weatherproofed. We had to walk to separate buildings to go to the bathroom, and the showers were lukewarm at best. On paper, it seemed wonderful–I could spend all of my time reading on tree stumps and weaving rugs.

And in the way that things go, camp turned out very differently than expected. Sure, it was wonderful in many ways–I loved writing postcards home, going for nine-mile hikes up mountains, and the evening activities–but I was not expecting the other girls.

The view from my cabin

My cabin.

My first year bunk. I slept on the bottom. And yes, I did bring a dictionary and seven books with me.

It quickly became evident just how different I was. Despite the fact that none of us actually needed to, I was the only one who did not wear a bra. And for this I was mocked mercilessly. When one girl asked me where she could plug in her hair straightener, I gave her a blank look and asked her what a hair straightener was before trying to kindly inform her that no, we weren’t allowed to have any access to electrical outlets in the few buildings that had wiring. The next few weeks continued in this fashion.

Apparently, despite the fact that all the women in shaving cream and razor ads all looked like they were in their twenties, twelve-year-old girls were also expected to shave their legs and it was ridiculously easy to cut yourself while doing it.

That first year was a crash course in both what society wanted girls to be and how to live independently. Putting on sunblock without being asked and making sure I showed up to swim lessons on time was easy, learning how to put on eyeliner was not. I was also expected to go to dances and socials and would get in trouble when I walked back to the cabin to finish a book on the history of France’s castles.

I learned that I dressed “all wrong,” and that “one chip leads to two chips and two chips leads to the whole bag, which will make you fat, Ella.” I got dragged along while they flirted with boys and persuaded to go skinny dipping in the pond at night and streak across the archery field after dark. (All three were done with minimal enthusiasm, and in the case of skinny dipping and streaking, involved the wearing of clothing.) It was terrifying and not at all enjoyable. The giggling didn’t interest me, and so I spent as much time as I could with my friend from home or two girls who liked reading as much as I did.

But the moment I got home, I expressed a desire for “cooler” clothes. My mom bought me designer jeans, and I wore those stupid tee shirts with Snoopy on them that all the other girls wore. Without an older sister or a mom who cared about anything remotely girly, I was adrift. All I knew was that I dressed, acted, and looked all wrong. So I resolved to change.

Me at twelve:

Me at thirteen:

Of course, I still looked awkward, but what thirteen-year-old doesn’t? And weirdly, I couldn’t bring myself to dislike the girls who had mocked me at camp the previous summer. There was definitely enjoyment to be had from actually caring about clothing and your appearance. Eighteen-year-old me can certainly testify to that statement. I love clothing. It’s like wearing art. You get to make a statement and convey an image just through what you have on, and don’t even get me started on how much I love a good coat (I have over five and the collection keeps threatening to grow even bigger.).

So when I returned the next summer, it was with a great deal more confidence. The girls who loved books were still there, and I ended up bonding with the “girliest” girl. I learned how to French braid hair, how to properly pluck my eyebrows, and how to put makeup on other people. And weirdly, I managed to feel like I wasn’t betraying myself or turning into the anti-intellectual, petty girls I hated. I got to be Hermione Granger on Harry Potter Day when the final Harry Potter book came out and still paint my toenails bright red.

I had fun at the dances, but when I had enough of sugar-coated pop and milling about with other equally awkward adolescents, I walked off to find a book. I poured over a copy of Vogue that someone snuck into the cabin, but abandoned the conversation about boyfriends.

It was reassuring to find my place in the definition of femininity. As much as the first year of camp often terrorized me, it pushed me out of my naive self-created shelter and into the world of societal expectations. I would not be able to forever escape the pressure, and while I was learning to cope with it, I was surrounded by adults who were encouraging me to try new things and be independent. I created my own balance and limits. I’m ultimately glad I went to summer camp and learned all of this.

Now, I say yes to the expectation to look fashionable, as long as you don’t expect me to wear anything provocative, cake on makeup, or look glamorous anytime before nine in the morning. And I say no to ever dumbing myself down or changing my behavior to get someone to like me.

I’m keeping the two polls about my content open for exactly another week and am going to continue doing a requested post every week. The third and last poll has my suggested topics, but you can always leave another request in the comments.

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.