The Pleasures of Adornment and the Dangers of Sexuality
IN THE CLASSROOM, girls were told that they would do well if they acted more like boys; at work, young women were presented with female role models whose achievements were measured by male standards. In preparing for a socially approved marriage, on the other hand, women were told to accentuate their femaleness.
This message emerged after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and no broad social consensus existed on the proper way to present oneself as a woman. Much of the advice literature said, for instance, that beauty and personal adornment were important and natural concerns for young women. Yet the advisers also warned that good looks were not as important as good health and proper behavior, and that certain types of beautification were morally questionable. The relationship between physical adornment and female sexuality was a matter of public debate, as was the whole question of sexual morality for unmarried women. What sort of attire and makeup are socially acceptable? When women dress up, what messages do they convey about their attractiveness and availability, and who is the intended audience? Does a connection exist between adornment and female vanity, between a woman's vanity and her sexual downfall? Sexuality, young women were told, has its time (adulthood) and place (marriage), but multiple dangers awaited the adolescent girl who chose to explore it. This warning was driven home by tales that graphically described the fate of young women who strayed from acceptable codes of behavior. How should a young woman pick her way through this enticing and dangerous territory and emerge safely from adolescence as a respectable candidate for marriage? In short, how should she present and manage her sexuality? On this topic, advice for young women, much of it contradictory, abounded.