What I learned when I dropped out of charm school

I went to charm school twice as a kid. The first time, it was required at the Midwestern school I attended, and we studied atextbook on how to be charming.  We took lessons on how “to be attractive and pleasing to others” and learned the perfect haircare regimen. We were told to avoid “a bulky, flabby figure,” “a deadpan face” and “boisterous rowdiness.” You could distill the lessons I learned to: “Know your place, which is in the corner, being agreeable and pretty.” I was so eager to get everything right, though, that I signed up for another charm class the next year at the local mall. That course was less of a philosophical gut punch. It ended not with finger-pointing but with shoebox-decorating, so that we’d have a place to stash our beauty supplies.

Charm school is meant to instill confidence and elegance in young women. And for some girls, it can be a really positive experience. For me, it taught me that it’s more important to know who I am than how to make nice. Here are all the things I learned when I dropped out of charm school.

Pleasing others isn’t the point of life

The problems with growing up learning to please others seem obvious, but so many of us still have this message buried deep within us. It can get activated even when we’re well aware of the tendency, playing out like a scene in a creepy science-fiction movie. Suddenly our will is not our own, and we’re trying to please someone else instead of living of our own accord. You can’t figure out what kind of person you’re going to be when you spend your time figuring out what other people want you to do. Charm school instills people-pleasing as some kind of virtue, which short-circuits girls’ abilities to discover their own skills and use them, to know that their opinions and talents matter, to feel OK making noise and making mistakes. The irony is that once you take those liberties, you’re more likely to be genuinely charming, and to make the world a better place while you’re at it. A charm school dropout feels free to defy expectations because she’s figured out what’s best for her, and what the best thing is for her to offer the world.

Poise isn’t always the answer

I had one of those World War II-era “Keep Calm and Carry On” retro posters when they started circulating a few years ago. Then I decided I was finished being calm. Being calm in the face of adversity is great. But in the face of life? Not always great. I was tired of the persistent “everything is fine” gloss. I wanted to get excited instead of keep calm. That’s about the time I got over my snobbery about using exclamation points too. Why not?! Throw in an interrobang while you’re at it. Calmness isn’t a virtue any more than people-pleasing is. I decided to go ahead and experience what scientists often call “emotions.” Get Excited and Do Your Thing might be a better poster. Not that emotions are all unicorn dreams and rainbow beams, of course. Pain is part of life, and charm school doesn’t know how to deal with it. Charm school puts a  veneer on top of darkness instead of facing it. Experiencing and expressing emotions isn’t a weakness. A charm school dropout acknowledges her emotions and knows that they help keep her on course.

Because kindness trumps politeness

It’s not that how you treat people isn’t important. It is. But for so many people, politeness is a superficial avoidance routine. You’re responsible for your end of any interaction, but that doesn’t mean never getting real. It just means getting real in a way that you aren’t giving yourself license to sling your own emotions around instead of dealing with them. If politeness is a cover-up, kindness is an inside job. You can stand up for yourself with kindness. The Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa wrote that when we “experience the goodness of being alive,” we take better care of the world and each other. A charm school dropout treats others the way she wants to be treated, a maxim that goes beyond any religion. And, by the way, she’s kind to herself as well. If that sometimes involves a pedicure amidst a week of defying expectations and saving the world, so be it.

Being perfect is like smelling plastic flowers

Plastic flowers may look nice from a distance, but there’s no mistaking them for the real thing up close. Wouldn’t you rather wander around a garden than walk down the fake flowers aisle of a craft store? If I may be obvious, bona fide flowers thrive and grow and bloom only after their roots get down in that dirt. Charm school creates an alternate reality in which everything is shaped smoothly. But avoiding the dirt and manure comes at a high price. The Jungian analyst Marion Woodman says that those who become, as she phrases it, “addicted to perfection,” don’t trust the world, so they fill in the gap between the real world and a polished fantasy with addictions. When you aren’t rooted, you’ll reach for something else to make you feel connected. A charm school dropout puts down her own roots instead. She knows that authenticity outshines perfection every time, messy dirt and all.

Every girl’s story matters

The writer and director Nora Ephron gave a graduation speech in the mid-’90s in which she encouraged her audience to be heroines and not victims in their stories. When I heard that, nothing had ever felt more important. I recognized that I had acted like a victim, awaiting approval instead of taking responsibility for my life. And I saw that I wasn’t even living my own story. I was concerning myself with everyone else’s and letting myself off the hook. I wanted to be the heroine of their stories. Wanting to help others (and then be able to turn around and blame them, of course) is a handy way to avoid living your own life, and I wasted a fair amount of time on it. It can be a tricky pattern to spot, buried beneath all that noble-sounding language. I needed to figure out my story, and then take a leading role in it. In that moment of knowing I didn’t need anyone else’s approval, my own story began. A charm school dropout is like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, realizing she had the power all along. And she’ll keep the red shoes, thank you very much.

Susan Blue lives in San Francisco and is writing a book about her experiences. She’d be charmed (in a good way) if you follow along on Twitter. Also, she has Charm School Dropout merit badges for you!

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