All things bright and beautiful

‘All right girls,’ Miss Bright said, ‘Let’s begin with the way you sit.’ She stood above us on a dais to one side of her desk and lifted her chair without scraping the floor. Then rested it gently into its new position. Next she straightened and placed herself between the chair and desk. Lifting her feet slightly, with ballerina toes, her back ramrod straight, she lowered her behind onto the seat. She perched there on the edge as if she was ready to get up and leave at any minute. Miss Bright looked uncomfortable but the expression on her face, a faint smile of tranquillity, never left her for one moment.

‘Now I’d like you to try.’

Chairs scraped as twenty adolescent girls stood to adjust their seats beside their desks and each tried to tiptoe first then place their behinds neatly on the edge of a chair. Miss Bright walked around the classroom, her stilettos clacking on the hard wood floors. 

‘That’s right,’ she said to Bernadette Tuohy. 

‘A little more centred,’ she said to Rosanna Tochetto. And every girl was seated in minutes in the same strained awkward pose.

Miss Bright worked for the Elly Lukas School of Deportment and visited because the nuns at our schools had decided we girls needed to learn better manners – ours was a convent for ladies after all. I should not have attended but a week before Miss Bright arrived, Mother Ursula spoke to me after class one afternoon. 

‘There’s a subsidised place to this course in deportment, and I think you should have it.’

I was flattered to be given the chance to join the other lucky girls whose parents were prepared to pay extra money on top of school fees to enable us to learn how to become ladies. But I chafed at the idea that Moher Ursula might have offered me the place, not only because my family were too poor to afford it, but also because I needed this type of help more than most. My torn pinafore. Buttons missing from my blazer. My worn shoes. Deportment was all about appearances and appearances were not my forte.

Miss Bright’s classes ran for six weeks, a lesson each week for an hour during which she taught us the basic elements of sitting, walking, standing and saying ‘hello’. She taught us about personal hygiene, to use deodorants down below, preferably in spray form so that we might keep our bodies at their freshest best. She taught us that we must prepare our wardrobe each evening before a major event and preferably for any day so that we did not waste precious time in the mornings on our dress. 

Being prepared was the essence of her bible. Prepared for whatever might lie ahead. Stockings darned. Shoes polished each night. Everything designed to look our best for when we would take our place in the world as the bright and shining secretaries of tomorrow.

From six weeks of classes there is not much I remember other than Miss Bright’s insistence we always look our best, even late in bed at night. All of it designed to keep our men happy. Our men who expected us to be like Stepford Wives, perfectly coiffed at all times, while able to cook excellent meals, clear dishes with minimal fuss, keep a tidy house, keep children quiet, well behaved and good mannered. All of it with the aim of keeping the man in our lives happy and satisfied. Unharried in his important work in the outside world where he needed his wife to be an attribute. 

Is this where the idea of Trophy Wife or the wife as handbag came into being?  The wife as handbag. Husband as handbag. Partner as an extra limb on our bodies to give the impression we have it all.

I was an ungainly girl, my body misshapen on boarding school stodge and yet Miss Bright offered the possibility of a life as one of the characters from television land, an Audrey Hepburn or Ava Gardner, Julie Andrews. All of them beautiful and able to move around as though the strings that controlled their every movement were invisible. As though they were in charge of their lives. Only we know now they were no more in charge than I was as an adolescent schoolgirl coerced by a society that sheltered under the shadow of fierce patriarchal attitudes, which sought to keep women and men polarised and in their places.

In 1968, the year of revolution, when the world was shifting under the weight of rebellion, an insignificant schoolgirl at a Catholic convent in Richmond, I dreamed as much of my future, firstly in the stereotype of secretarial work in an office somewhere among the grey building blocks of the City of Melbourne, or secondly, as a lay missionary in some place like Papua New Guinea. My brother had joined the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart to convert ‘the heathens’, though the nuns had stopped talking about indigenous people like this. 

The convent

I knew what it was like to feel lesser than, and to aspire to more than. Along several dimensions. The spiritual dimension where I wanted most of all to be like a saint and receive a visitation from Jesus or the Blessed Virgin Mary. This aspiration waned once my hormones kicked it. It turned into a desire to join the nuns and hide behind a full-length habit. At least this way I could shift from the protective features of my school dress and tunics into the layers of fabric that hid the nuns’ bodies from view. The convent seemed a great place to be. In contrast to the next layer of expectation. To look as good as I could for a man. To please any future husband with my svelte and lovely appearance. 

Most of my fellow students aspired to this, or so I imagined among the popular ones who were hell bent on raising their school dresses to above the knee whenever we left the convent walls. Those two layers of expectation: inner godliness and goodness, and outer beauty and cleanliness became the corner stone of my expectations even as in less than three years I decided to chuck the good inside stuff out, gave up on joining the nuns, the uniform and habit and slipped into a different type of uniform. A woman of the seventies, who might try to free herself from the shackles of gender polarities into a sense of herself as a person. But I could never get away from being a woman. And it irked me.