Little Tehila is sitting in her chair. She is stretching her arms while hold-
ing her skirt, thus pulling it upwards and exposing her knees. The
teacher, Tammi, responds immediately in a severe tone of voice: “This is
immodest!” she says. Tehila hurries to pull down her skirt. She bends her
back and tries to reach the floor and cover her shoes. She stays in this
position for a few seconds. [field notes, September 18, 1997] (Orit Yafeh, ‘The Time in the Body: Cultural Constructions of Femininity in Ultraorthadox kindergartens for Girls’, in Ethos, Vol 35, Issue 4, pp. 516-553, p. 526)
For girls, femininity has been something that is often performed through clothing. In the case of the above quote taken from a Haredi (ultra-Orthadox) Israeli Kindergarten, femininity is displayed in terms of modesty, reflecting the religious needs of girls to remain covered. Here, a child chastised for ‘being immodest’ responds to criticism by ensuring that she is covered as much as possible. In this way the child, who was told off for being ‘immodest’ or perhaps ‘unfeminine’ is looking to rediscover her ‘girlhood’ through covering up.
It is not just within the Haredi environment that clothing remains an important signifier of gender identity. Girls can choose which identity to display by wearing different types of clothing. Mindy Blaise talks of ‘fashion girls’, who display their femininity by wearing cool clothes, make-up and perfume. These ‘cool girls’ rejected frills and pink typical of their age and instead embraced fashion to assert their identities. Pink, of course, is a well established symbol of femininity and one that even nursery age children – boys and girls – are aware of. Like in the Haredi kindergarten, the proper maintenance of clothing is important in preserving femininity. One girl, who was covered in glue said to her friend “That center was gooey and messy. I got real messy. Don’t go there, especially if you want your clothes to stay pretty.” (Mindy Blaise, ‘A feminist poststructuralist study of children “doing” gender in an urban kindergarten classroom’ in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol 20, Issue 1, 2005, pp. 85-108)
Here, the emphasis is on the girls keeping clean and preserving their prettiness as prettiness is seen as tied in with femininity, much like how modesty in the Haredi classroom is seen as an indication of femininity. For girls then, it is important not just to dress appropriately for maintaining a gendered identity, but it is vital to maintain that image as a way to ensure they are consistently seen as ‘female’.
Mindy Blaise, Playing It Straight, Uncovering Gender Discourses in the Early Childhood Classroom, (Abingdon: Routeldge, 2005)
Mindy Blaise, ‘A feminist poststructuralist study of children “doing” gender in an urban kindergarten classroom’ in Early Childhood Research Quarterly, Vol 20, Issue 1, 2005, pp. 85-108
Ed. by Carolyn Jackson, Carrie Peachter and Emma Renold, Girls and Education 3-16: Continuing Concerns, New Agendas, (Berkshire: Open University Press, 2010)
Orit Yafeh, ‘The Time in the Body: Cultural Constructions of Femininity in Ultraorthadox kindergartens for Girls’, in Ethos, Vol 35, Issue 4, pp. 516-553, p. 526