Two years ago, concert pianist Wonny Song attended a reception in Paris. The host’s 13-year-old daughter greeted guests at the door and made proper introductions. “She could speak to ambassadors, artists, business people—everyone. It really made an impression,” recalls Song, vice-director of the Lambda School of Music and Fine Arts in Montreal.
Inspired by this encounter, Song is starting a new summer program for girls. The goal of Make-over Camp is to instill poise, grace and confidence in girls between the ages of 10 and 14. For two weeks, they will learn to improve their posture, voice, table manners, conversation skills, wardrobe choices, makeup application, hostessing skills and music appreciation. “We see a lot of young ladies who can benefit from a makeover program,” said Angela Chan, director of Lambda and co-creator of the camp. “They need to develop their presence.” Marc McCreavy, an industrial designer and interior decorator, will teach the girls how to host events and decorate a table. “It’s important to learn about appropriate topics of conversation and appropriate attire,” he said.
“This reminds me of my days at French finishing school before heading off to Cambridge,” laughed Alison Silcoff, the leading force behind Montreal’s Daffodil Ball. “They taught me how to enter a room while closing an umbrella. We spent 90 minutes a day on deportment. Back then, a woman was, foremost, her husband’s wife. She was expected to host dinner parties for his business associates. But today, people realize that substance is more important than form. It’s more important to work on your career.”
From a feminist perspective, the optics are dreadful on something called Make-over Camp. “It’s a deficit name,” explained Kim Gordon, head of school at the private girls’ school Bishop Strachan in Toronto. “When our school opened [in 1867], we taught the daughters of Anglican clergy to become wives. We taught all the same things as the camp, like etiquette, grace and confidence. It’s still needed, but in the context of being successful. It’s infused in our curriculum, holistically, through general presentation skills. We see these skills as power tools for girls.”
“I’m sorry, but I cannot call a charm school feminist,” said Carrie Rentschler, assistant professor of communication studies at McGill. “Yes, young girls lack confidence, as we know from studies and books about the Ophelia complex, but the way to solve it isn’t to teach them how to be good hostesses!”
Yet some parents are desperate to help their daughters act in a more dignified manner. “Parents have asked us for this kind of class,” said Holly Potter, of Miss Edgar’s and Miss Cramp’s all-girls school in Montreal. “And our alumni are telling us to teach students table manners for business luncheons and events. We’re looking into starting an after-school program, but it will not involve walking with a book on their heads.” Sam Blyth, director of the co-ed Blyth Academy in Thornhill, Ont., shudders at the thought of a stand-alone class for poise and presence: “There are all kinds of things, outdoor things, kids that age could be doing in the summer. Let them participate, don’t just modulate their behaviour.”
The concept of makeover camp also polarizes parents. While full-time mom Heather Monaco eagerly enrolled her daughter because she’s “looking to raise a little lady,” some parents aren’t impressed. “It reinforces old, gendered expectations about ladylike behaviour,” says Tina Verma, a Toronto mother and TV producer. “Reverting to that 1950s model of repressed housewives is a way of responding to the crisis of the average household—fractured by divorce and busy schedules.”
Teaching niceties to girls alone makes sociologist Marc Lafrance irate. “It might as well be called Wife Camp! Is Betty Draper happy on Mad Men? No! She’s miserable! Things like makeover camp send the message that a girl’s value lies in being entertaining, ornamental, totally innocuous, accommodating and polite,” said the assistant professor of sociology at Concordia University. “I’m also concerned because it targets girls. Where are the boys?”
Lambda conducted a survey among its students to gauge interest in the camp. “There was zero per cent interest from the boys,” said Song. “Look, this is not a boot camp to reinforce the notion that girls should stay home. It’s not sexist. We would love to include boys, but what can we do?”
Political correctness makes the marketing tricky for anything that segregates the sexes. “When I went to the Parsons Mead finishing school for girls in England in the late 1970s, the school was already trying to hide the fact it was a finishing school,” recalled Carolina Gallo La Flèche, the corporate social engagement director at Ogilvy Canada and key organizer behind many of the museum galas in Montreal. “They called it empowering. The same thing happens today. Society has always been fearful of femininity and tries to control it.”