Inspired by Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl

They say: this is how you sew on a popped button; this is how you comb lemon into your hair to coax out the blonde; this is how you bleach those fine mustache hairs; this is how you wield a razor without slicing your ankles. But porn stars and strippers are the only women who shave above the knee.

They say: this is how to step onto an escalator without catching your dress; this is the deodorant that smells like rain; slather your delicate chest with this sunscreen, even in winter. If you yawn too wide, your mouth will catch flies; if you sit with your legs open, things will get in.

Don’t stick your fingers down your pants; the waitress doesn’t want to watch you fidget with your private parts. Don’t say “vagina” at the dinner table. Call it your “front bottom,” or your “floofy;” it’s your “no-no square;” it’s a frail flower; a fishy mystery; keep it clean, shaven.

Wearing underwear with your pantyhose will prevent yeast infections. If you itch down there, slip this small egg of medicine inside your bajinga. Eat a little yogurt each day. Eat spinach when you’re on your period. Use cold water to massage the bloodstains out of your panties. Tampons clog the toilet, and choke birds when they drain into the watershed; don’t flush them. Instead, wrap your feminine products in toilet paper. Instead, bury them deep in the wastebasket where no one will see.

Don’t let boys kiss you on the bus. Don’t do drugs in that parking lot by the lake. Don’t smoke cigarettes. Don’t throw your life away with booze like our neighbor with the credit card debt.

Don’t have sex; you would disappoint your father.

Don’t have sex; we’re too young to be grandparents.

Do you love him? Well that doesn’t mean you have to offer him your virginity. You think you’re in love, but you’re too young to know how that feels.

Don’t have sex; the world is too dangerous and your mother would worry. You see, girls have to be more careful than boys. Don’t walk home alone in the dark. But if you must: carry mace, hold your keys like a weapon, pretend to talk on your cell phone, wear headphones. Are you listening? Do you want to inspire a story on SVU? Always check under your car for aggressors. Don’t traipse around in mini-skirts, or drink more than one Cosmo at the bar.

But when you’re old enough for consensual sex with a responsible partner, use a condom, pee afterward to prevent UTIs, and remember: don’t trust men with facial hair; don’t trust men with floppy handshakes; don’t trust men who resent their mothers.

Remember: boys don’t like girls who beat them at arm wrestling; men don’t like girls with hairy armpits; men don’t like sarcastic women. A woman teaches a man how to treat her. If you don’t keep him satisfied, he will leave you.

Stop slouching. Stand with your back flat against the wall to practice good posture. Quit stomping around like a hunchback. Walk with your chest out and your tummy tucked in. Walk with rolling hips. Walk in a way that stops traffic. Make strangers hang from their windows and howl like cartoon coyotes. Trust the architecture of your high heels; they were built to bear your weight.

Take smaller bites of your burger. If you eat too fast, you’ll gain weight like our neighbor with the credit card debt. Just don’t bring idiots home for dinner. Remember the knife always protects the spoon from the fork. This is how you make a chicken stock; this is how you salt a soup; this is how you get free food in a white-cloth restaurant.

On laundry day, always separate your whites and bleach your pit stains, the golden crotches of your underwear. Never clean your ears with anything smaller than your elbow. Leggings are not pants. Only streetwalkers wear that much eyeliner. Don’t over-pluck your beautiful eyebrows. Beauty is pain. Beauty is a full-time job.

You are a natural beauty; you’re prettier than those tubby sluts at your old high school; you have the lips of an angel; you will have no trouble attracting a boyfriend in college. College is where women find their ideal mate. Did you hear your cousin is getting married? Are you seeing anyone? Why haven’t you met someone by now? Find a kind man with a good job; marry someone with good genes; try not to marry a musician.

But I don’t want to get married.

You always say that, but just wait. Someday you will find a guy to take care of you. You’ll settle down in a modest home and get pregnant. You will grow fat on corned beef and sour cream donuts. Your feet will swell. You will spend hours in the hospital screaming for morphine and sucking on ice chips. After giving birth, your daughter will rest in the crux of your elbow. You may be sad for weeks; you may regret forcing a little girl into this dangerous world. But for the rest of your life, you will be responsible. You will love.

Emily Pittinos can be reached at pittinos@umich.edu.

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