Popular Advice for Young Girls: Then and Now

In a lot of ways, the advice given to young girls about clothing, hair, makeup, and relationships has changed over time.

During the 1950’s there was certainly no all knowing internet for young girls to pose their questions to. As such young girls were given books that gave coming of age advice and expectations/recommendations in the realms of hygiene, personal presentation, and of course dating with the intent of eventual marriage. Thankfully in the recent years, we are observing a shift from themes such as the ones mentioned to themes of personal betterment and individuality being offered to young girls of the modern day through popular media outlets.

519f1r-PtVL.jpgEach and every 1950’s book marketed for a young female audience, no matter the subject matter, had the distinct undertones of a reminder that eventual marriage and conformity to the idealist image of the 1950’s housewife would be the ultimate goal. Each text highlighted the perfecting of the skills and portrayals of the perfect woman. While it’s true times have certainly changed in quite of few of these dated expectations, in popular culture, young women are still being compared in some ways with imagery of the 1950’s ideal woman. Luckily, if someone combs through popular teen magazines such as Seventeen, Teen Vogue, Girl’s Life, etc. they’ll be pleased to find a much broader range of inclusion and diversity in the types of advice being given to young girls.

As written of the time, girls were expected always be completely spotless, perfectly presentable in case anyone happened to be interested in them. One book even listed a type of checklist of cleanliness claiming young girls should always have “clear skin, bright eyes, shining hair, clean nails and knuckles, clothes spotless (pressed and brushed),” all in the case of a chance encounter with someone. The idea here was that to always make the most perfect first impression, a girl should always be perfect in her appearance, anything less than pristine would communicate that she was sloppy, inconsiderate, and unworthy of a second encounter. This same book How to Understand the Opposite Sex highlighted the importance of being at your most attractive so boys would want to date you. The books offer advice on how to become more attractive, to try a new hairdo or rethink your choices in makeup if a girl isn’t getting the reaction from boys she desires.

teenagers drinking soda 1950sEven the title of the book How to Understand the Opposite Sex poses major issues in the expectation that every young woman of the time would be interested in the opposite sex. As such the assumption is made that all girls must love, marry, and fall at the feet of any man who gives them the time of day. In many ways, these books perpetuate gender roles of the time that suggest men are the ones to take charge and make decisions, whereas women are just along for the ride and will follow the man’s decision making. One of these ideals falls directly into the realm of dating, specifically how each sex is expected to act when dating. For example, the book states “Girls are not supposed to ask boys for dates… The boy drives the car, pays the admission to the movies. It’s the girl who waits for the phone call and expects to be picked up at home.” There is no room allowed for deviation from this expectation within the book, the roles for each member of the dating party are as described with no other options. In the modern time, we now see a fluidity in these historically typical roles. On the websites for magazines such as Seventeen and Girl’s Life, you can see headings for articles referencing dating within the LGBTQ+ community, how to spot and stop an abusive relationship, and how girls can make the first move. When it comes to advancement in expected gender roles of young girls, thankfully this signals a change for the better.

Overall, advice outlets such as magazines and books for the modern young woman are experiencing a large cultural shift. Where in the past, someone directed to a young magazine’s home page expects to see the same shallow topics of conversation: fashion, beauty, and love. While those themes of historical femininity still persist within the internet databases of these magazines, there is a new importance placed on activism, political awareness, and social issues.

6DBCD4BC505603008A7CC42FFEDA234EWhen a person looks up Teen Vogue and wanders onto their homepage, they are immediately bombarded, not with the expected imagery of ideal body shapes, instructions for summer body diets, or the latest hair flip to catch the cutie, but rather the Teen Vogue home page highlights the issues of clean water consumption throughout the U.S. Granted, the fashion, beauty, and love tabs still exist and people can still find advice on how to send the perfect flirty text, but the emphasis of these magazines no longer lies within those types of stories. Throughout the modern day, these types of media outlets have experienced a large-scale revamp that focuses on more social issues and a deeper bettering of the individual. It is refreshing to see a shift from the superficial care of a young woman to a more holistic one, a view that puts importance on the mental, physical, spiritual health of a growing woman and that sees the importance in being culturally aware of large-scale issues to become a productive member of society.  

It is beautiful to see that large-scale media outlets are ditching the circa 1950’s ideas of how a woman should act and are embracing a more modern take on the care and keeping of a growing young woman. Although we can still see traces of the old within online articles available to young girls, such as advice on how to get him to text you after a date or how to seem the most approachable, we are also seeing a rapid rise and empowerment of young women to be whatever and act however they want to. We as a society are seeing self-worth, body positivity, self-confidence, social activism, cultural awareness, and individuality become so much more important and defining of a person than the quest of getting your crush to notice you, and that is a beautiful thing.


Joanna Santos, Women’s Museum of California Intern
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