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Jamaica Kincaid's "Girl" has several mentions of "the slut you are bent on becoming":

always eat your food in such a way that it won’t turn someone else’s stomach; on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing benna in Sunday school; [...] this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming; this is how you iron your father’s khaki shirt so that it doesn’t have a crease; [...] this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming; be sure to wash every day, even if it is with your own spit;

What's up with this? Why is this point repeated so many times, and in this derogatory way? From context, the person being spoken to is rather young - early teens at the latest, most likely around 11 or 12 years old. This isn't generally the way that a mother would speak to a child at that age, at least in my experience.

Why is this repeated so many times and this demeaning tone, particularly when taking into account the age of the recipient of all this advice? Is this a cultural aspect?

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In Girl a mother supplies advice to her teenage daughter about how to behave like as a woman. The important thing is not the daughter’s chronological age as such, but that she is at the point of changing from the “girl” to whom the piece is addressed, to a woman. This a highly-significant point in a girl’s life, traditionally marked by the onset of menstruation (and is also a major theme of Kincaid’s novel Annie John). At this time the world starts seeing and treating you differently, and a female must also change her behavior. For example, one piece of advice given is:

don’t squat down to play marbles—you are not a boy, you know;

Playing marbles is perfectly acceptable for a young girl, when both sexes can mingle freely (and glimpses of underwear are not important), but should not be done by a young lady. It is childish behavior that must be put behind you.

The text is rendered in a way that mimics speech: the mother is giving pieces of advice as they occur to her. Sometimes as she says something, it will occur to her to modify it, and maybe to tack on a rider to it. It does not have the form of a well-rehearsed talk. For example:

this is how to love a man, and if this doesn’t work there are other ways, and if they don’t work don’t feel too bad about giving up;

The pieces of advice are separated with semi-colons rather than full stops, just indicating brief pauses for thought or to take breath, again indicating the verbal nature of the piece.

Much of the advice is concerned with domestic knowledge, how to cook, sew, garden etc. In addition to this, however, the mother includes moral advice about reputation. Although it is not explicitly stated, the setting is Antigua, where Kincaid herself grew up, and this must be taken into account when considering the culture the mother and daughter are living in. The mother is not just concerned that her daughter will be a good wife when she grows up, with a full range of domestic skills, but also that she is seen by the community to be an upstanding member of it rather than a “slut” - the word that the mother uses several times - who is viewed as indecent and immoral by her neighbors. The first time the word “slut” appears is in the advice:

on Sundays try to walk like a lady and not like the slut you are so bent on becoming;

“On Sundays” probably indicates going to church, when the daughter will be in the public gaze of the community. At these times the mother cautions her daughter to walk in a ladylike like fashion. The phrase “not like the slut you are bent on becoming” is almost certainly a piece of humorous overstatement. Probably the daughter has started to wiggle her bottom as she walks, or something similar, to get attention from boys as part of her newly-developing sexuality. I believe it is fairly common for mothers to resort to this kind of exaggeration to get this point across. Certainly the daughter does not seem to be offended, only interjecting later when her mother accuses her of singing benna in church.

The next place where the mother uses the word “slut” is:

this is how to hem a dress when you see the hem coming down and so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming;

Here the word seems really to indicate just a slovenly or unkempt appearance, the sort of look you achieve by not suitably maintaining your clothing. This again creates a bad impression in the community.

The final “slut” instance is:

this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming;

Again this is a warning of not behaving inappropriately around men. While coquettish behaviour is fine in a young girl, it most definitely is not fine in a young woman.

Because of the brevity of the piece, we do not know much about the mother’s attitude to the society in which she lives. The list of advice seems to indicate that she supports the patriarchal nature of Antiguan society, in which women are prepared for their roles firstly as good daughters, then as good wives, and then as good mothers. This is of course true of many other societies around the world. Alternatively it may simply mean that she wants her daughter to have an easy life, by showing her how to fit in. By following her advice, the daughter will be thought of well by the community and that will make her life easier.

The word “slut” should not be taken too seriously. It just stands as a proxy for the kind of woman the mother is warning her daughter from becoming - dressed in a slovenly way, trying to elicit attention from men, and generally behaving inappropriately in public. This kind of advisory talk between a mother and her daughter is probably fairly universal, although the exact terminology used will almost certainly vary.

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  • Not to detract from the rest of the answer, but I'd have assumed that the "don't squat down to play" advice has more to do with girls wearing skirts than maturity.
    – Matt Thrower
    Sep 1, 2023 at 12:17
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    I think the two are related. No one minds if a 7 year old in a skirt squats to play marbles. It only becomes of importance when sex enters as a factor. Sep 1, 2023 at 12:23
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It is intended to be insulting and demeaning, as an indicator of how the person speaking regards the girl spoken to. You are noticing exactly what the author intends.

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