Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sweet Sixteen?

My third daughter turned sixteen this week, and it made me wonder where this phrase came from.  "Sweet" is not the term I'd use for most sixteen year-old girls.

So I looked up on wikipedia.  They list a number of traditions I'd never heard of happening at a sweet sixteen party, like the Shoe Ceremony (the father gives her heels, bringing them in on a pillow like Cinderella), taking off her flats and placing the heels on her feet) and the Tiara Ceremony (where the Mom comes with with know), both to commemorate their little girl turning into a woman.  I wouldn't know these things personally because I've never been to one of these parties (never mind thrown one) but it sounds like fun.  And expensive, like a wedding.  Ciara preferred to go out to a Chinese restaurant with her friends, her father ensconced in a separate table, near by.  That worked for us too.

It's an American thing, apparently, of celebrating this particular year.  The first song about it was from 1960 so it's relatively new, and there have been a bunch of songs since, keeping the theme going.  There's nothing similar for boys.  Odd, that.  In most cultures there's a ceremony celebrating coming of age for both.  In Jewish culture it's 12 for girls (bat mitzvah) and 13 for boys (bar mitzvah).  In China, girls have a Ji Li ceremony at 15, boys a Guan Li ceremony at 20.  Both ancient cultures seem to recognize the need boys have for a little more time.  Only Filipina girls (at age 18, Début) and Latin American countries have a ceremony only for girls, the  15-year-old's quinceañera or Baile de debutanteswhich gets back to the origin, of this as a debutante or coming-out ball.  These started in England two hundred years ago, but these days most European countries just have a bash, at eighteen, to celebrate being able to legally drink, usually without parents.  That seems to be the party most kids are interested in.

So, the phrase is for a party and not a temperament.  That makes more sense to me because girls that age are in the absolute throes of rejecting their parents (and especially their mothers) in a way that feels, if anything, hellion-like.  My daughter wants me to give her rides everywhere, all day, but does not like me to sing in the car, walk near her in public, give her any advice, comment on her outfits (or even see them if she can help it, taking off for dances with her dress in her pocketbook) or ask questions about her social life.  She also isn't much interested in my life--it's an unofficial Don't Ask, Don't Tell kind of phase.  Though I'm not sure she knows totally who she is, she knows for sure what she isn't: anything at all like me.  I'm glad to help her out in this way, as the anti-reflection of her being.

I've grown to like this level of spirit.  Sixteen-year-old girls could rule the planet, I think, with relative ease.  Katniss is 16 in The Hunger Games, and I'd put my money on her for President and politician-in-chief.  .  Cher from Clueless can hand the social world in her skilled but compassionate way,  Hermione from Harry Potter can handle academics, Joan of Arc the spiritual needs of the world (and the warfare for that matter), S.E. Hinton the writing (she wrote The Outsiders at 16, which I still can't get over), and Bella from Twlight can take on all the threats from otherworldly creatures that girls this age are seemingly concerned about.  For love and happy endings I'd go with Ariel in The Little Mermaid.  They are a determined, confident bunch.

And none so more than Gabby Douglas, the Olympic gymnast who rocked the first week of the games with her win in the all-around, and evident nerves of steel.  Her confidence is nearly as remarkable as her skill, and even though she eventually did falter under the immense pressure during the individual events, the poise she showed in the interminable post-event interviews was so striking it made me wonder: what if you could continue to learn and grow and mature but still keep this utter, optimistic faith in yourself?  How great would that be?

As it turns out, Gabby's public relations challenges were not only discussing her own performance, that of her teammates and of her future, all with aplomb, but also her hair.  In case you missed it (though I'm not sure how), there's a big controversy about Gabby's hair.  There's a Today blog entry that summarized it: Gabby's Mom Defends Gabby's Hair but the main issues are that it's straightened, and gelled back, and looks like all the other girls'.  Apparently, there are a number of African-American women in America who would have preferred that the first black American Olympic all-around gymnast have hair that was natural, or braided, or straightened but not in a ponytail (short and styled), or if in a ponytail then glossier, smoother, more perfect really, with no fly-aways and nothing looking like a hair piece (which apparently it's not) on the end.

Maybe next time Gabby can take a poll to try to please her fans (or critics), though it's hard to imagine how she'd look or do any better than she has at these games.  The hair controversy is emotional, so it's not rational--Chris Rock tried to illustrate these points in his documentary Good Hair because he so pitied his daughters and the contradictory, vitriolic messages they got on what they should do with their hair.  The movie is funny, and sad, and clearly a no-win situation at this point.  Every black female will get looks and comments from other black females regarding their hair, and this is the struggle on top of figuring out what to do with it, getting to the stylist, conditioning it, straightening it or not, adding a weave or not, and then how to pay for it all.   In this sidebar drama, Gabby came out on top.  She said her hair doesn't matter.  Soon, I suspect she'll stop talking about it all together.

Because sixteen-year-old girls pretty much do as they please.

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