I am going to reveal something that I have never told anyone in my adult life. In fact I don’t think I ever told anyone! I am a Wendy Ward Charm School Graduate. Yes you heard me, Charm School, and yes, I did graduate! My best friend, Mary, who was tall and gorgeous and looked like she was in her 20’s when we were only 14, was going and if she was going, so was I. By the way, I wasn’t tall and gorgeous, I was short and curve less and flat chested and looked more like a boy. My parents hope was that Wendy Ward Charm School would make me look and act more like Mary and less like her younger brother John who was also my best friend. That would have been okay with me too, at the time.
For those who don’t know about Wendy Ward Charm School, it was “ A Wonderful 6-week Finishing and Fashion course offered for Girls 4-19. “ Mrs. Jessie Ventura, the wife of Minnesota’s former governor was a graduate. There were Wendy Ward Charm Schools all over the United States in the 60’s. The classes at my Charm School took place somewhere in the bowels of the old Montgomery Ward building on University Ave, in St. Paul in a room that had no windows. We went every Saturday for six weeks and every Saturday I was scared to death. My group was all girls in their teens and I think they all wanted to grow up to be models.
We learned the social graces, poise and self-confidence, correct posture by walking with books on our heads, proper grooming, how to dress, how to sit properly in a skirt so nothing showed. We learned how to walk the run way, with our foot in the “one-o’clock” position, poised at ready to stand and look alluring, or to turn quickly and make a graceful exit. I haven’t use the skills since that time, except the proper way to wash your face! We concluded with a fashion show wearing Montgomery Ward fashions that we picked ourselves, because by then we knew what it meant to be beautiful and what you can wear to enhance it. We learned all of that in six weeks! They gave us a Wendy Ward Charm School manual so we wouldn’t forget. I wish I could find it now.
As a young girl and well into my late teens I was a tomboy. I had to learn how to survive with three brothers and becoming a “boy” was the only way I found that worked. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a dress, though I was forced to wear one a few times. I always had dirt under my fingernails and band aids on my knees. I could climb trees, build forts, catch frogs, pick up snakes and eat weeds better than my three brothers and all the boys in the neighborhood. I was very disappointed when I reached the age where I had to start wearing a shirt all the time. I wasn’t Charm School material! I wasn’t interested in how to apply make up and lipstick or pluck my eyebrows.
What Charm School actually did for me was get me on that slippery slope of what society thought was true beauty. What stuck with me out of all that I learned was the awareness and embarrassment of my own flaws. I wasn’t charming and poised when I was finished nor did I have great posture and self-confidence. I learned that I had a square face, and that wasn’t as desireable as an oval, but there were things you could do with your hair and make up to make it look more oval. I bet you didn’t know that you were blessed if you had an oval face and high cheek bones and were cursed if you had a square one. I learned that tall with long legs, like my friend, was better for modeling than short and nondescript, like me. I learned that there was a standard for what beauty was, and I didn’t fall into that standard. Television, magazines and the media and my three brothers re-inforced that.
I came out of Charm School feeling more like the Ugly Duckling, than Princess Charming. For a lot of my adult life I had a skewed prospective of what beauty was and like many women I was seeing a distorted image of myself when I looked in the mirror. This shallow sense of beauty still goes on today only now there is airbrushing and advance technologies in make up, there is hair extensions and liposuction. Women are still falling into the mirror of the beauty spell and so are young girls. The subject comes up often with adolescent girls that I work with in therapy and it puts me on my soapbox about what beauty really means.
So…what is true beauty anyway, and how can we break the social spell?
Footnote: More About Wendy Ward Charm School:
The Wendy Ward Charm School was part of a national initiative launched by Montgomery Ward’s in the mid-1960s to tap into teenage fashion trends in different parts of the country. It grew into a national phenomenon at Ward’s stores across the country.
There were weekly fashion shows in Montgomery Ward’s first floor cafeteria, where the girls modeled clothes they chose themselves. The graduation ceremony consisted of a full length runway show, held in the lower level of the store and featuring the girls in a choreographed show that showcased Ward fashions for teens.
Girls in the program also had the chance to be selected for the Pacesetters Teen Board a role which combined local appearances and promotional work with community service projects. Pictures of the teen board members hung in the center of Ward’s juniors department, and they became role models for their peers. That was the coveted prize we were all trying to win! Dang, I wanted to win that so baaaad!