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Feminine Identity in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

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Despite her apparent disavowal of the overtly sexual Doreen, Esther’s anxieties about sex continue to manifest themselves through clothing, as evidenced by her attempt to cultivate a friendship with Betsy, a virginal young woman from Kansas. If Doreen is the quintessential “bad girl,” then Betsy, nicknamed “Pollyanna Cowgirl” by Doreen, is the quintessential “good” girl, with her “her bouncing blonde ponytail and Sweetheart-of-Sigma-Chi smile” (6). As a model young woman, Betsy “does” fashion correctly, eventually becoming a model herself: after her guest editorship, Betsy became a “cover girl,” and Esther occasionally sees her “smiling out of those ‘P.Q.’s wife wears B.H. Wragge’ ads” (6). Betsy performs—or at least appears to perform—culturally sanctioned femininity through clothing, so Esther promises herself that she will be loyal to Betsy and “her innocent friends” and abandon Doreen (22). In so doing, Esther attends the various fashion functions and luncheons organized for the young women working for the magazine, including the ill-fated Ladies’ Day luncheon where all of the young women—with the exception of Doreen, who was at Coney Island with her boyfriend gorging herself on hot dogs—become violently ill with food poisoning. Their symptoms become evident as Esther and Betsy sit together in a darkened theater, watching a Technicolor film that features two women—one “good,” the other “sexy” (and therefore bad)—who wear luridly-colored “smart suits with orange chrysanthemums the size of cabbages” and “dresses likes something out of Gone With the Wind.” As Esther realizes that “the nice girl” will end up with the “nice football hero” and the “sexy girl” will up alone, she feels herself “in terrible danger of puking” (42). She...

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