Amy Foster
March 10, 2014 2:00 pm

I’ve written about what being a “lady” means in today’s day and age before. I’ve talked about gender. People went nuts. In this article, I wanted to explore the concept of being ladylike in more depth and why the mere word evokes such a visceral response in people. Spoiler alert: I’m defending this idea. I am not, however, bringing men into the equation this time around and I probably shouldn’t have done so in the first place for reasons that should have been obvious to me back then. Oh well. Live and learn.

I don’t like the words “well-bred”, and it is used in the description of this term, so let’s just take that one off the table. ¬†For the most part, however, words like genteel, polite, refined, cultured, elegant and sophisticated are associated with being “ladylike”, but so are modest, respectable and proper. It’s those latter notions that seem so provocative to today’s modern woman.

The other day, my daughter was on the phone going to the bathroom. She was telling this person that she was indeed going to the bathroom and it wasn’t just number one. My daughter laughed when I told her it wasn’t cool to do that kind of thing, even if it was one of her girlfriends. “Oh my God, Mom,” she said with exasperation, “you’re so old fashioned. Nobody cares about that kind of thing anymore.”

I was taken aback. My children are polite. They say please and thank you and pardon me, not just when they burp but when they don’t hear someone (I can’t stand that word “WHAT?”) Maybe I am old fashioned. Maybe it’s this age of Instagram and Snapchat that has blurred the lines of private time. It never occurred to me that I would have to teach my child not to go poop when someone is within earshot because honestly, I don’t think I’d even be able to.

I swear. I have gas. I eat Dorritos in bed. I have danced on a few tables, had way too much to drink, made out with strangers (usually in that order) and worn clothes quite happily where my boobs may or may not have fallen out if I bent over a certain way. I truly do believe it can be totally liberating to not give a hump what people think. However, I also believe that there is a time and a place for it and the older I get, the more I want to come across as ladylike (as the definition stands) than whatever the counterpart to it may be.

I like the notion of civility. I like the idea of manners and to some degree, modesty. I would like the people who meet me to come away thinking that I’m cultured and well-read and polite. I will never be a gentle soul. I don’t have that sort of nature. But, I kind of like the idea of being genteel. When I think of the word “ladylike”, yes, of course I imagine the Duchess of Cambridge and Princess Di and Grace Kelley and other, well, real, actual Ladies. However, I would also attach that moniker to Hilary Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, Oprah, Christiane Amanpour, Diane Von Furstenburg and even RuPaul. Women I admire and respect. It’s not like they don’t have opinions, even powerful opinions, but they somehow manage to convey them without belittling the opinion of others.

Is it an age thing? I don’t think so. I’m almost 100% sure Hillary Clinton would never call a person whilst on the toilet (btw undercover toilet operations where the other person has no idea what you are doing is of course sometimes unavoidable and okay). But I am also fairly sure Chelsea wouldn’t do it, either. To my mind, this notion of civility and “being proper” translates as having boundaries. Also, perhaps in this context “well bred” could mean that the way you act is a reflection of how your parents raised you. The term is gross, but the sentiment is worthwhile. No praise means more to me than when people compliment my kids. It makes me feel like I’m doing a good job and let’s face it, mothers don’t get praised enough.

I think the idea of having to be “respectable” instantly makes women cringe. What does that even mean nowadays? On the surface, it seems at the very least misogynistic. Really, though, when I deconstruct it, I’m not sure my knee jerk reaction is valid. When I am out on the town or entertaining people in my home, I am not going to swear (okay, maybe a little) or make rude jokes or wear shorts that are so short my bits are hanging out or gossip or be mean-spirited or overshare or push my beliefs on them or ask how much something cost or talk about sex or ask them about their sex lives or be overly judgmental. Or at least, I’m going to try very hard not to do these things because I might offend someone. I am going to respect the fact that even though we might be friends, we might have different values and at the end of the day, I think it’s more important for me to not mistakenly offend someone than it is for me to be an individual at any cost.

I was not born with this innate understanding. It took me years to realize that the unfiltered version of me, which in truth is pretty unladylike, given the perimeters of the definition, was outspoken, yes, but also snarky. That my liberal beliefs and values were mine didn’t necessarily make them right. They were right for me. Do you have to be “ladylike” all the time? With your very best friends? With your partner? No, probably not. However, in other social situations, it may just be the way to go. If the word “ladylike” has become pejorative then I say we take it back, reclaim it. Perhaps the definition needs a bit of tweaking for the 21st century, but still, we could all be ladies without the backwards baggage that goes along with the term.

I think being sophisticated and cultured and polite and having good taste is something to strive for. I also think that acting respectably and proper and keeping the more radical and inflammatory opinions we have about something to ourselves may be little bit boring and yes, even disingenuous at times. I also think that it will not only help us get farther along in the world, but more importantly, will often save someone’s feelings. That’s always been my own personal definition of a lady and a gentleman, as well: a person that will make you feel comfortable regardless of who or where you are in the world. Personally, that sounds pretty good to me.

Featured image via ShutterStock

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