The Lost Art of ‘Ladylike’


I recently read an article on “TFM” that made me feel quite nauseous. It’s a manifesto for the ‘perfect girlfriend’ – highlights of the article include ‘nothing is less attractive than insecurity. Except maybe love handles’ and ‘lie about how many people you’ve had sex with.’ It encourages a woman to cater for all the factors that would make one perpetual frat bro’s life luxuriously hassle-free, receiving oral without the mention of ever giving it himself, not having to hold himself accountable for any of his own mistakes and being free to walk around with a sneer and a snapback, content in the knowledge that he can do pretty much whatever he likes. This is something which, I might add, women have been encouraged (at best) and forced (at worst) to do for centuries. Minus the questionable head gear.

This got me thinking. I made the mistake of tweeting my frustration at this article and got immediately abused by a bunch of people – male and female – who told me, “Maybe if you absorbed some of what the article said, you’d get laid more.” It’s the fact that another girl said this to me that really stung. Shouldn’t we women stick together? And shouldn’t we encourage dignified behaviour amongst ourselves?

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (a wonderful woman, the first US Supreme Court Justice to officiate a same-sex marriage) once said, “My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant to be your own person, independent.” I have been pontificating a lot, recently, over what it means to be a lady – how it seems almost difficult to advocate ‘acting ladylike’ while also being an ardent feminist. I think I’ve got there now, and the catalyst for this was that sad moment that I saw one girl’s response on my Twitter feed, standing up for the obnoxious wishes of a young man who seems to make a living out of eloquently worded bullshit.

It got me thinking about all the wonderful women I know who would not bend to a man’s desire for her to change her body or act a different way just because he wished her to. It got me thinking of all the much-celebrated quotes from icons like Marilyn Monroe, precious strings of words that have permeated the hearts of so many vulnerable modern women that they have been splashed across many thousands of phone screens and Facebook covers. Words that inspire women not to conform to the “man’s world,” to celebrate her uniqueness.

It saddens me so very much to live in a society that doesn’t idealise personal gravitas and agreeable behaviour so much as it celebrates lewd jokes and degrading remarks. It’s a sensitive topic I know, and I’m approaching it with caution because I am a fully convicted feminist, and I don’t want to rub anyone up the wrong way by even suggesting that wearing short skirts are ‘asking for it,’ or that posting ‘sexy’ photos of yourself makes you a bad person. Because I don’t believe any of those things.

What I’m saying is, we live in a world that in many ways gives women more power and freedom than we’ve ever had before. But it’s not perfect, not yet. We still get publicly shamed for objecting to opinions of those who would objectify us. We still have to cringe in the street when men cat-call and wolf-whistle. However, it’s a fight that I believe we can win. And how do I best propose we win this fight?

We act like ladies.

To call someone a “lady” is inherently a term of respect; once upon a time it was used to specifically address aristocratic women, women who were the female equivalent of a lord or a gentleman. It hearkens back to a time where the social food chain was rigidly defined and rigorously upheld – these days, we are fortunate to have an all-round better standard of living and a burgeoning middle class, but there are still lingering remnants of this era. The intrinsic respect and power that connote the word “lady” is one of them. You’ve got to appreciate a word that makes a woman untouchable and awesome, in a world where ‘bitch’ and ‘slut’ are thrown around in everyday conversation between guys and girls alike.

Think of it like Sara Crew in “A Little Princess” who chants, “All girls are princesses!” What she’s saying is that all women are valuable, that we’re all worth it, that we should be admired and respected and treated accordingly. And she’s right, you know.

But it’s hard to feel respectful for women sometimes, because we’re free to choose how we act, and sometimes women don’t act like they want respect. They act like they’ve been ground down by the misogynistic mill of society, which still exists and still pervades our lives on a daily basis, through the media and through people’s actions towards us. We take our well-deserved independence and throw it away, instead becoming lewd caricatures of the women that men would have us become. Being sexy and dressing down isn’t the problem. It’s the attitude that goes with it.

Pour example. It’s hard to feel an awful lot of respect for, say, Miley Cyrus, as she grinds up against Robin Thicke in front of millions of people, dancing around in little more than her birthday suit. I’m not saying this gives anyone an excuse to abuse her; it’s just disappointing to see a woman morph into a ludicrous public joke when she is perfectly capable of deciding to rise above that. The girl’s got guts, and I love her to bits, but I can’t help but feel let down by a member of the team. A very influential, high-profile member of the team, at that. Miley is a highly intelligent, beautiful woman with an amazing vocal talent; that particular night, she acted in a manner that left her little or no dignity to play with. And that is, quite frankly, upsetting. When a girl’s got all this stuff going for her, it’s tragic to see her let go of herself in such a way that it just makes her vulnerable to repugnant jibes. Miley’s got the intellectual prowess to know how to use her talent well, putting the ball in her court by fashioning a facade that is simultaneously powerful and desirable, rather than taking a perfectly good thing and turning it “bad.” And then making that into a bid for publicity.

Ladies are, by definition, respected. They are ballsy and daring. They don’t desperately seek popularity by chugging beer or dry-humping foam fingers. To be a lady is to say “no” to all that, and to have fun and seek wellbeing out of respect for oneself. It’s about rejecting the pack mentality and finding comfort in your uniqueness; furthermore, it’s about not giving everything away to a society that would abuse you. Don’t throw yourself to the dogs, tame them. To be a “lady” is no longer a signifier of pedigree or wealth, it’s a term of power which can be extended to women of all cultures and backgrounds.

But to gain the respect we’re owed we’ve got to put our big girl pants on, look after ourselves, and look after other women around us. Ladies don’t start fights with one another and shriek at each other or look for scapegoats to clean up their mistakes. Ladies work hard. They make the most of their appearance, if they wish to, because they’re doing it for themselves and their own sense of pride, and not for anyone else. They make the most of their talents, because they want to leave a mark on the world around them. They fight through troubled times, they see things through to the finish. They push themselves to their limits. They dream big and act like anything is possible, because they know it sure as hell will become possible if they fight hard enough.

I do believe that all women are free to act as they wish. I also believe that there is no excuse for misogyny and rape. But the fact is, the bad wolves still exist, and we need to learn not to be ignorant of this fact. We need to teach ourselves, our peers, and our daughters not to be naive and instead to learn that the best way to earn respect is by putting our actions, words and appearances to good use. We need to harness the power that lies within being “ladylike.” We need to rise above the onslaught of filthy messages we’re sent by the media on a daily basis, instead of being enslaved by it. If you’re going to show skin, go right ahead, but make sure you know it’s yours and disassociate yourself from the people who would objectify it. If you’re going to call someone out for doing something you dislike, make it an informed debate rather than a shrill, chaotic catfight. If you’re going to have sex, do it because you want to. Take charge of your life and act how you wish, but be aware of yourself, always.

That’s power. That’s what’s going to earn respect not just for you, but for all women. We are better than the heckling and the name-calling, the cruel insults and the sexist jokes. The whole point of feminism is that women need to help each other out to get what they want; we can do this, if we put on a united front and act like the ladies we are. Or, as Elizabeth Taylor would put it, “Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together.” Bravo to that.

View Comments (5)
  • I love my mini skirts. And I love not being a ho. It’s being proud of my body and understanding that wanting to have sex with me is not a compliment I have to to repay. I expect respect from people around me, and don’t acknowledge those who treat me otherwise. It is a personal choice we Women have to make. Great article! :)

  • I very much appreciate the idea that, as women, we should try to build each other up. More often we are encouraged to tear one another down, as shown through “cat fights”, gendered put downs like “slut” or “ho” (see comment below!), etc. I am not entirely sure your dialogue on Miley Cyrus is constructive to your main point. Still a fantastic read though!

  • “shouldn’t we encourage dignified behaviour amongst ourselves?”

    Great statement! Part of today’s cultural attitude is linked to the fact that undignified behavior has become too acceptable in our society (like how no one dresses up to go to dinner anymore, or when going on an airplane…). We live in an environment where what is often undignified is not only acceptable but at times expected (as in the case of the “eternal frat boy” you mentioned…). Unfortunately, such things won’t change unless it is a concerted group effort.

  • I agree with you. However, there are people who are actually happy doing things like what Miley Cyrus did. That doesn’t mean it’s right, but neither is it wrong if it makes them happy. Now with that said it would probably be beneficial for those individuals to evaluate why they enjoy those actions because perhaps it is due to society and/or things they faced growing up as a child that steered them towards feeling more acceptable in enjoying those endeavours. Past that though I wouldn’t do it, I’d want women (and men) I know to treat themselves right, but if someone truly enjoys something that perhaps I or another would find debasing, if I or they were to do it, then let them be. It’s what they want to do.

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