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.

Ella, Crazy Ideas, and Analyzing the Merit of Twilight

I have always been prone to over-the-top ideas. As my family and friends can all testify I get at least one of these a week. All of a sudden, I’ll come racing into a room or call someone usually speaking a little faster and more animatedly than the average person ever should because “I’ve got the most amazing idea! You’ve got to hear it!”

Most of the time, by the time I’ve finished pitching it, it becomes entirely clear that whatever it was is completely impossible. No, I cannot go to Burma (my eight-year-old dream). No, I cannot start running a summer-time day care center underneath the deck (I was ten). And no, I cannot coerce anyone into letting me cut their hair (one month ago). Yet, without fail, another idea comes along that seems shiny and wonderful enough that I just have to pitch it to everyone, “because it’s going to work this time, you’ll see!”

So this afternoon while doing college applications supplements, I started thinking about what fascinates me so much about young adult literature and happened to glance over at my bookshelf. As I scanned over the titles, I noticed the Twilight series, books that I have not touched since I was fourteen and in eighth grade, having written them off as poorly-written, trite, and sexist. And then I got an idea, a beautiful, beautiful idea.

I’ve read a lot of articles recently about the series because the latest movie has come out, and nearly everyone’s assessment of Twilight and the films seemed to match my own–that they were an embarrassment to literature and sullied the genre of young adult fiction. But as I stared at the books’ spines, it began to occur to me that maybe that might not be true, that maybe it was horribly judgmental and unfair of me to be so derisive. They just might have some sort of merit, after all.

What if I sat down with the books and movies and then wrote an essay or article about them. Is sexism really at play? Why is it that most feminists don’t like the book? Why do people think that Meyer’s religion plays a role in the book? And how on earth did a story about centuries-old, sparkly vampires and a girl whose heart always seems to be beating erratically (I would have dragged her off to a cardiologist less than fifty pages into the first book) become so popular? There has got to be an explanation for this other than people enjoying a story of forbidden love. And I am determined to figure it out.

Two hours later, my mother came home to discover me annotating with sticky notes, furiously scribbling in a notebook, and searching JSTOR for more information. I had already sent Cecelia a text message in which I struggled to refrain from using capitals to express my boundless enthusiasm, “because seriously, this is going to be the best thing ever.”

Of course, now is a very inopportune time to fall down the rabbit hole of an exciting new project. I have a million things to be taking care of. No one is going to be happy if I don’t do the laundry, finish my college applications, take care of the cats, or send out a Christmas newsletter that says, “some things happened this year, and no one died.”

So I’ve put the tempting books and notebooks in the guest bedroom’s closet and am going to try very, very hard not to open it back up again until I truly have the time to throw myself full force into the project.

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.

In Which Ella Announces Her Fondness for the Laundry, Considers Becoming an Indian Laundress, and Talks a Little About Feminism

I belong to that strange band of people that legitimately enjoys doing the laundry. We’re a funny sort that like the smell of dryer sheets and comparing detergents in the aisles of grocery stores. In fact, I have gone to multiple grocery stores just to find a certain type of bleach. I also take the smell of my dryer sheets very seriously.

And unlike some of my other strange preferences (i.e. pickles with mango sorbet), I know exactly why laundry appeals to me. As much as I enjoy tasks that involve thinking, I love things that involve repeated, methodical actions. It’s a welcomed break from reading and writing. For once, analytical thought is not essential. The pressure of proving that I’m smart entirely disappears. Doing laundry properly just requires a careful balance of bleach, stain removers and lifters, detergent, softeners, dryer sheets, soap, and color catchers, and a whole lot of scrubbing. And I am an expert scrubber. Give me a bar of Naptha Soap and a bucket of water mixed with Oxi-Clean, and I can get a stain out of almost anything. (Except for dried acrylic paint, which seems resistant to everything.)

Sometimes, I have these dreams of moving to India and becoming a laundress on the banks of the Ganges, scrubbing brilliantly colored saris on large rocks. But then I remember exactly how destitute that lifestyle would be, and I reconsider. It’s still a nice thought, though. Those pictures in National Geographic make it look so beautiful.

And then there is the folding, which sometimes seems to go on forever, especially after I’ve done seven loads. But that’s always my time to watch TV, something I never do otherwise. The bantering of sitcoms drowns out the whispering of socks being folded over each other and my annoyed huffs when a pile of undershirts topples off of the couch, thanks to the cats.

I get a little sad when it’s all clean and stacked neatly in the baskets, ready to return to the dressers and closets, but the good news is, like any other form of cleaning, the mess seems to regenerate almost instantaneously, and I find myself repeating the process less than a week later.

Tomorrow, I iron, which is nearly as much fun when there’s spray-on starch involved.

Sidebar: Sometimes, I think that my delight in these traditionally female domestic chores is an affront to the modern independent woman and feminist ideals, but then I remember that it’s exactly the opposite. I enjoy these tasks because they genuinely appeal to me and not because tradition told me so. I also like putting together furniture and carpentry, and I even know how to install door handles and locks (which, admittedly, sounds a lot more impressive than it actually is), which are “male” chores. I do the laundry and iron because it’s fun, and it makes my mom happy, never because I “belong in the kitchen.”

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

On Being the Only Girl

Whenever we have to break up into groups at school I usually end up working with the same group of girls. Tal, Lily, Cecelia, and I do make a great team and we have fun, but being in the same group for every project doesn’t really lend itself to creating new experiences. Besides, I spend loads of time with them outside of school.

So today, when my AP Lit teacher told us to break up into groups and construct a timeline of the history of literature based on our memory and whatever other resources we could find in the classroom, I didn’t scurry across the room to my friends. I stayed put. And sure enough, Noah and Micah turned to me and said, “Hey, wanna be in a group with the two of us? I think that Miles and Ethan are going to be joining our group, too.” And I said, “Okay!” Then, I turned to see Don and Milky/Champ pull up desks, too.

And it was great. Miles pulled out his iPhone to look up lists of important texts, a few of us nabbed some tenth-grade textbooks, we stole our teacher’s Abram’s Literary Terms, and I was the scribe, because I said that I had decent handwriting. Of course, the moment that I started trying to write everything that was coming out of people’s mouths, it turned into a disaster. (Well, not really, but it wasn’t especially pretty.) There was loads of laughter, some football talk, a few arguments over whether or not Marx deserved a space on the timeline or if “Greek Dramas” was too vague, and lots of funny stories being passed around. And when we got to the Anglo-Saxons, I proudly told everyone that dear Pippa can recite large sections of the Canterbury Tales in Middle English and was the very best in her class.

When our teacher walked around, she couldn’t help but laugh at our group. It looked like we were adhering to gender stereotypes (though of course no sexism was really at play). I, the only girl out of a group of seven, was sitting in a desk that was both shorter and older and scribbling away as fast I could as the boys shouted out authors, works, dates, and movements. If I knew shorthand, the picture would be complete, and my hand would have been much happier.

And when the bell rang and the screeching of metal desks against the linoleum floor  made me want to cover my ears, I though, I really need to do this more often.

So there you have it. Not only did Ella return to school after not going for over a week, but she also stepped out of her comfort zone and was the only girl in her group in AP Lit.