The girls shift in their seats to get a better look at Nicky Smelser's posture: shoulders back, body straight as a 2-by-4, legs crossed right-over-left so tightly that only the contours of her calves proved there were two limbs there.
"Now everything is hugging together," Mrs. Smelser says, smiling at the 11- 12- and 13-year-old girls attending "Finishing Touches," one of the etiquette, beauty and self-confidence courses she teaches at Leggett's Department Store in Westminster.
Mrs. Smelser tells the girls job interviewers will be impressed if they use this dignified, lady-like sitting position.
"That only works if the boss is a man," whispers 13-year-old Megan Byers.
"Yeah," says Kellie Cocilova, 11, sitting in front of Megan. "All you're doing is showing your legs."
Kellie's assessment of today's lesson would give heart to those who fear beauty and manners courses like this one and others in the area are teaching girls to focus on self rather than self-esteem. Critics say etiquette courses promote deference to others' opinions and hamper development -- especially of adolescents.
Advocates of the courses say girls who take them develop self-esteem by learning how to be comfortable with their looks and socially confident.
Linda G. Wilder Dyer, 38 and a former model, is the Virginia Beach, Va.-based creator of the manners courses. "Pretty Me" is geared to girls ages 6 to 11; Finishing Touches is designed for girls 12 to 17.
Mrs. Smelser, the fashion coordinator at Leggett's in Westminster, has taught the classes there three times a year since fall 1991. The courses are held several times a year in 53 Leggett's and Belk's department stores in eight states including Delaware, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. The most recent set of courses started Jan. 12.
Some stores will test a new class this month. "Boys at their Best" offers lessons in manners, etiquette, self-esteem, good grooming, nutrition and sportsmanship.
"The basics are the same, but instead of a fashion show at the end there will be a reception," Mrs. Dyer says. "I don't feel that the boys would be comfortable on a runway doing a fashion show."
Mrs. Dyer says her manners courses put firmly in place the scattered pieces of girls' self-esteem. "Self-confidence is so crucial for everything we do.
Manners and etiquette are things parents no longer stress the way they used to. With everybody working, there doesn't seem to be time."
Indeed, many parents feel the courses are an inventive way to teach necessary lessons.
"There's nothing wrong with learning about makeup and hair and manners to get self-confident, feel good about yourself," says Susan Stielper, whose daughter Erica, 13, completed the course in October.
"If learning good manners and good appearance is the way to get it [self-confidence], then so be it," Mrs. Stielper continues. "She won't get anywhere without it."
But educators and women's rights advocates say courses like Ms. Dyer's give fashion and beauty tips to young girls with no emphasis on building character.
"I don't think this course builds self-esteem or teaches girls to express themselves. I think it teaches them to repress themselves," says Marion Crook, author of "The Body Image Trap," a book about teen-age girls and eating disorders. "I think it encourages self-centered passivity."
Putting the pieces together
Pretty Me students settle into their seats on the first night of the course. A few are quiet, but others chatter away as Mrs. Smelser moves to the front of the room.
"Let's think of 'Pretty Me' as a picture puzzle," Mrs. Smelser tellthe girls. "We will put all these pieces together to make a pretty me, to make us the best we can be."
Ms. Smelser describes the course outline: skin care and makeup, hair and nails, health and fitness, table etiquette, fashion rules and wardrobe-building and fashion careers. The girls will meet once a week for the six weeks to learn these lessons.
If there was such a thing as a pretty pill, one that would make you more popular, would you take it?" Mrs. Smelser asks. The girls nod.
"Well, you all have this pretty pill inside you," Mrs. Smelser tells them. "It's developing self-esteem and feeling good about yourself."
And so begins the girls' struggle to learn telephone etiquette, how to make introductions and how to write thank-you notes -- all described in their respective handbooks written by Mrs. Dyer. The hands-on lessons, such as applying makeup and dressing up, will come later.
During the final classes excitement mixes with camaraderie as the girls rehearse for the fashion show that will serve as their graduation. They strut one by one down a mock runway in the classroom. Few girls will leave without phone numbers of several new friends.
It's a long way from where they began -- from practicing the proper way to sit on a stool to coming to terms with their strengths and weaknesses, individuality and their commonalities.
During the courses, girls in both Pretty Me and Finishing Touches discussed the insecurities of adolescence and maturity, such as 10-year-old Megan Arnett's nail-biting, Erica's wavy blond hair turning green in chlorine and Kim Campbell, 12, believing her thighs are too big. Elizabeth Rhodes, 13, confided that she doesn't like her glasses.
And given the choice, admits Brenda Hovanec, 13, she would rather be a goalie than a lady.
"I really don't like being beautiful, but my mom thought it would do me some good," Brenda tells the class, her legs crossed in a near-perfect sitting position. "I'd be much more comfortable in my soccer uniform, rolling around in the mud."
Ms. Smelser looks surprised, but quickly composes herself. "It's not that you're not interested in being pretty, and it's good that you're well-rounded. We're not here just to be pretty, but to make the best of ourselves."
Megan Byers says she's OK the way she is, but her makeup skills could stand a little improvement.
"As for confidence, I pretty much already had it," says Megan, 13, a Jodie Foster look-alike who wears her independence as boldly as her crocheted vests, bell-bottom slacks and clogs. "I'm not doing this to improve my self-esteem. I wanted to learn more about makeup."
According to Mrs. Dyer, appearance issues are only a small part of the courses. But many of the students in Mrs. Smelser's Finishing Touches class say they joined the class to get beauty tips.
Megan, Brenda, Erica and Kellie, for example, say they most enjoyed the makeup and clothing lessons. Kellie says those reminded her of a slumber party "because when people spend the night, that's all we do."
"I loved it," says Erica. "I loved learning about what colors look best on me, things like that."
Brenda says, "I liked looking at the clothes and deciding whether they were for me." She says she enjoyed those parts even if she would have rather been playing soccer sometimes. ". . . It helps people to see what other people think."
Whose confidence is this?
"[The girls] have to think about whether this is for me or this is for somebody else," says Joanne Hanrahan, director of the Women's Institute at Notre Dame College. "Am I becoming a pretty me on the outside or am I developing an appreciation of myself on the inside?"
Ms. Crook says a fashion show is not the type of activity that builds girls' confidence in their abilities.
"The task of a child at 8 to 12 years old is to learn to become successful at activities," Ms. Crook says. "To learn to skate, or do woodworking, or mathematics, to become coordinated and comfortable with doing different things.
"I think that if you send your child to this class you're replacing this valuable learning time with senseless brainwashing conformity."
Janet Helms, a psychology professor at the University of Maryland College Park, says etiquette courses fail to encourage girls' abilities, which leads them to subordinate positions in their adult lives.
"When they get older, they are going to make traditional choices seen as girl's careers," Dr. Helms says.
"They will become nurses and teachers, service-oriented positions where they don't do anything that will intimidate the men."
The girls say they understand the criticism of the course, but feel they are not being given enough credit. They feel they can choose which parts of these lessons will most appropriately apply to their own lives.
Girls applaud fashion show
Autumn Beam, a Finishing Touches graduate, feels the courses can infuse students with confidence about things other than appearance.
"I think the fashion show will help us be comfortable with ourselves," says Autumn, 12, adding that you have to be satisfied with yourself to stand in front of a crowd.
Mrs. Dyer, 38, modeled for more than 20 years before devoting all her time to the etiquette business. She says she believes her courses fortify girls against the images they see in society's mirror.
"To those people [who say appearance shouldn't be stressed in the courses], I say take a look at the real world," she says. "I mean if you were interviewing a person who was wearing chipped nail polish, had dirty fingernails and didn't look as if they had combed their hair, would you want to trust that person to handle your most important project?"
Susan Stielper described her daughter Erica as an introvert before the class, but says the child is forever changed by the experience.
"I was worried that she would think that 'all this is the stuff that I have to know because I'm a girl and I'm supposed to be a certain way.' But that's not what I'm seeing." Mrs. Stielper says.
"I'm seeing her enjoy knowing how to take care of her skin, and do makeup and her hair and understand how to stay healthy. I see her making friends and having fun with it."
Eileen Cocilova, a machine operator for a printing company and Kellie's mother, says she was concerned the course would teach the girls to be "a pretty piece of fluff," but was satisfied they were never "labeled."
Mrs. Dyer says, "The bottom line is that what we are teaching is a total package. I don't agree that what you look like on the outside will determine how successful you are.
"Your self-esteem is what's important, but, in all honesty, if you feel good about yourself on the inside, you're bound to want to look your best on the outside."