Must We Stay Ladylike During a Pandemic?

June 25, 2020.

Or really, another other time?

It occurred to me, after being locked in my bedroom for approximately twelve thousand days, that “ladylike” is a shitty concept.

I read something today while performing the vital task of mindlessly scrolling through social media while dealing with raw terror. Anyway, the tweet I read used the word “ladylike”.

Hey, wait a minute. Wait? Why is that something we are told we should aspire to always seems to be rooted in shame? Of “not enough”?

How often do we ever hear the words “ladylike” meant in a positive way? Hardly ever. I think the only time I hear “ladylike” as a compliment, it’s directed to a girl age 4 or under. “Oh my goodness, she is so ladylike.” If you are over 4 years old and the word is applied to you, then the person speaking or writing probably isn’t showering you with compliments.

What the fuck is ladylike, anyway? What does that even mean?

If we hear the words “ladylike” applied to us, chances are, the intent of the words spoken are used to invoke shame.

I remember being rebuked by a teacher in the 7th grade for not “sitting like a lady.”

She was my math teacher. I think her name was Mrs. Fortney, but it was over 40 years ago, so I can’t be too sure of that. I remember what she looked like, though. She had that sort of “Hey, guess what I just did? I sucked on a lemon” look about her. She walked by my desk and dropped a note on it. It said “Learn to sit like a lady.” She looked down her nose at me and slightly shook her head. I remember feeling flushed with shame.

You know how I was sitting? In a way that felt comfortable to me. But being a girl, I was supposed to conform to a certain standard and, if I did not, then I was not a lady.

I remember how embarrassed I was when I got my note. I’m certainly glad I didn’t take her judgement of me to heart. Because now, I’m good with not being thought of as particularly ladylike. Which is awesome, because a lot of my habits and behavior fall pretty short of “ladylike”.

Ladylike is just another word used to make a woman feel ashamed or less. “Lady” can also feel minimizing, can’t it?

Have you ever been called “pretty little lady”? I have. At my previous job, I had a boss who said that to me often. I wanted to set him on fire. He wasn’t complimenting me. He was letting me know my place.

And before you rush to judge what I just said, trust me on this. His speech denigrated women all the time. He referred to the males in the IT department as the “guns”. Being a woman meant I couldn’t be a “gun”. Hahaha. Like I want to be a gun. Or need to be referred to as such. I can’t imagine going through life where it’s considered a compliment to be called an object that is designed to kill things.

I guess the point is this. I’ve existed many years without once looking at the word “ladylike” and considering it as an example of a word woven into our social fabric to keep women in their place. Words which exist to make us feel bad about ourselves. We just accept the word as a normal, neither here nor there word. But it’s not. Ladylike is used to make us feel bad. Ladylike is an example of language being constructed to put a thumb on women.

Well, I am not ladylike. I have no interest in being ladylike.

What I am is a woman. Using language to try to suggest I am less than a woman because my actions or words or appearance don’t conform to someone’s standards is bullshit. You can take “ladylike” and shove it up your ass.

I am certainly not suggesting that each of us should not conform to behavior that is most comfortable to us. There is nothing wrong with sitting with our ankles crossed. There is nothing wrong with being demure or soft spoken or any of the other traits that are generally associated with ladylike behavior.

But there is also nothing wrong with indulging in a belching contest with your kid.There is nothing wrong with cackling like a witch when you laugh, which, apparently, I am told I do.

There is nothing wrong with cursing, which is amazing because without cursing, I’m afraid my head would pop off. Cursing, for me, releases my built up steam the way a whistle on a tea kettle releases steam.

I scratch when I itch. I am good in mismatched clothes and old Chuck Taylors. It’s not that I don’t appreciate dressing up sometimes. I do. It can be fun. I can also promise that even though I might be dressed a bit more “ladylike” than usual, I will still probably make rude gestures and tell crude jokes.

The world is changing and it gives us an opportunity to make other changes as well. We can look at the language we use and the ideas that we’ve held as true our whole lives and decide, is this helpful? Does this make me a better person? Or is this just something I’ve been told my entire life to keep me in my “place”? Because my place?

My place is what I want it to be. I am not required to keep my voice down in order to be thought of as womanly. I am not required to keep my opinions to myself or to not rock the boat so that others will feel that I act with the proper amount of decorum one needs to be a lady.

I guess a good question to ask ourselves is this? What has being “ladylike” gained us? When has it helped us? What has not making waves gained us?

And I wish I could tell Mrs. Fortney, or whatever her name was, that as I write this? I am sitting indian style. All these years later, and this is still the most comfortable way for me to sit.

My knees disagree slightly, but they need to learn to be less whiny.


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Michelle Combs
Michelle Poston Combs writes humorous and serious observations on life, menopause, anxiety, and marriage on her site, Rubber Shoes In Hell. She lives in Ohio with her husband and youngest son. She stands at the precipice of empty nest syndrome which she finds both terrifying and exhilarating. Michelle programs computers to pay the bills. She counters this soul sucking endeavor by contributing to Jen Mann’s anthology I Still Just Want To Pee Alone, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Better Homes and Garden, Grand, Vibrant Nation, Erma Bombeck's Writers Workshop, New Jersey Family Magazine, and Listen To Your Mother.

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