And the Miss Barnard title goes to…

Here you are, a heterogeneous group of individuals with a variety of educational and social backgrounds. Having been exposed to the same physical educational background for several months, you are not quite as heterogeneous as you were in September 1941. That is one thing which physical education should do—give you a “common denominator,” so to speak.         

Educationally, you represent public and private schools, cities and towns and rural districts as well as [10] foreign countries.

No two of you have the same background or are the same.

Each has a certain physique, certain emotional characteristics, a certain personality, certain skills as well as certain intellectual equipment- which sets you apart as an individual. Because of this, some of are you are destined to succeed and some to fail. We hope that we can help decrease the latter.

One of you will be Undergraduate President in 1944-45.
Another will be the Athletic Association President.
Three of you will be Class Presidents.
One will be Greek Games chairman next year.
Many of you will lead in lesser ways.
Some will be dropped from college or will drop voluntarily.
Some of you will live these college years richly and deeply, giving as well as taking.
Some will lead neutral, colorless lives and give little.

You really are “war babies”—the war class—and you have a chance to make history.

Imagine living in a world where beauty trumped brains and physicality ruled the fairest of them all. Well, if you happen to be a “war baby,” you might have experienced just that (and if you are reading this post, then I doubt you’re a 90 year old member of the class of ’45—no offense, but you classy ladies were amazing in your own way)!

It’s the beginning  of autumn 1945 and once again, the Barnard College physical education instructors have called upon the senior class to assess the incoming first years. At that time, during the height and aftermath of World War II, Barnard women were treated very differently from those of earlier graduates. The wartime era had affected everyone in the country, and a rise in feminine inspiration, work ethic, and patriotism were evident results of this long and costly ordeal. Women as a whole needed to stand up and face men in the working field, to work side by side creating American-made artillery, equipment, and much more! In retrospect, they needed to maintain their “perfect” image as well. So here comes the dilemma, how can a young industrial girl both keep up with changing times but also keep to the traditional values of beauty and homemaking? By going to Barnard and taking physical education classes of course (a very serious answer to a very rhetorical question)!

Barnard had an image of the perfect girl—someone with a specific height, weight, bra cup size, hip size, shoulder length, skin complexion, “normal” medical conditions (and by normal, I mean steady heart, lung performance, and menstruation cycle—yuck! how do you define steady?!), posture and social charm. The 1940s birthed a new type of Barnard girl, the Miss Barnard girl, the idealized conception of what a suitable girl attending a prestigious liberal arts college would look like. Of course Miss Barnard could have any color hair and any color skin in theory, but she was contracted of an image serving the whole of the Barnard class—a fictionalized attempt to compile a Wonder Woman of all Wonder Women. Barnard physical education instructors gathered the image of Miss Barnard to be the average of all the girls in one graduating class, meaning the perfect combination of all physical and social characteristics, as well as all health and educational attributes. Miss Barnard 1945 was one such example of an impeccable girl, and I wonder how many Barnard women strove to be like her? How healthy was it for adults to conceptualize womanhood and define it as a standard of living? It’s quite surprising to see how the traditional mores of one American era carried on throughout further generations to uphold the affirmation that yes, a woman was supposed to be brought up in one way and that yes, society was meant to shape her. Hmm, I don’t know how Rosie the Riveter would feel about this.

The rigor to uphold a well-mannered and well-structured Barnard woman has deep roots within Barnard College history. Despite Miss Barnard being a “mythical” figure, she was still a large part of the central physical education classes. The Miss Barnard phenomenon may have only lasted a decade but its spirit carried on through more modern years. For example, the prominence of certain classes like posture date back much earlier than the 1940s (starting in the early 1900s) and continue well into the late 1960s (the last mandated posture exam was offered in 1972, in years subsequent that students were only recommended to take posture classes as an elective). Posture classes helped students to maintain their bodily shape and figure and in addition gave young women the confidence to carry themselves out in public. There were Do’s and Don’ts exemplified in these classes and such behavior would have been ideal for Miss Barnard. The purpose of these classes was to properly educate young women how to maintain themselves as they were socially meant to be and while I wish Barnard kept posture classes for the purpose of helping body structure, I would not have liked to be one of the hundreds of previous Barnard women scrutinized for not knowing how to walk properly! It’s one thing for my mother to comment on my gait but for my administrators and professors to do so?! I can’t imagine!

Now we live in a time where we are told that it’s acceptable to be ourselves and not have to pertain to a definition of who we were designed to be. But is that really true? How many previous Barnard women would have accepted this radical notion? How many future Barnard women can we hope to accept this idea? In the time we have left, I think it’s important to respect one another and our bodies such that we can help alleviate the overarching perfectionist (and societal) view of women as a whole. The (ancient) physical education platform on Miss Barnard should not be looked down upon, rather we should take the opportunity to learn from it and (while preventing the rise of future complaisant feminine molds) decide for ourselves how women should be. Miss Barnard 2013 should have whatever hair color she wants, be whatever weight, height or race; it shouldn’t matter how often she gets cramps or how full her chest is. And above all, she should be beautiful in her own unique way.


Miss Barnard 1945 standards


Barnard 1950s posture class


Barnard student awarded for best posture (1952-53)

Written by Nazia Jannat, BC’14


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