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June 3, 2019

Ladylike: a Bad Girl’s Guide.


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Warning: naughty language ahead!


I received feedback on some of my writing recently that the words I wrote and the stories I told weren’t very ladylike.

The person who sent me the email didn’t like the harsh language I used and felt that the story was a little too intense, that details could’ve been left unsaid or glazed over.

Being the lady I am, I typed out, “Fuck your book review” (in the subject line of the email—very classy), but then deleted it, archived the email, and dropped the topic altogether.

Or at least I tried to. My mind kept wandering back to the email and the accusations. Was it true? Was I really not a ladylike writer? I was a lady, and these were my stories, so by default they were ladylike stories. But the more I thought, the more I questioned: as a lady, was there some limit to the amount of truth I was allowed to share?

I don’t hate poise or common courtesy; Lord knows my future children will say please and thank you and put their napkin in their lap when they remember. But that politeness is such a small sliver of “ladylike.” The napkin rings of a five-course dinner are quite cute, but also fundamentally unnecessary at the core.

How dare we say that someone is not who they should be because they weren’t sweet enough for our taste, or were louder, braver, more passionate than what we have defined as comfortable?

I had to have a serious talk with myself after this incident about what a lady was and whether or not I wanted to be one. I was reaching people with my writing, but my topics were not traditionally feminine; they were raw and uncomfortable. They made the reader wince occasionally and think about things they would prefer not to.

I suppose that is how we like our ladies: someone who makes us comfortable even if she is not. But, as all you rebel ladies know, when a fire is extinguished inside a passionate person, when we force them to keep an idea inside…well, that is about the most unladylike thing I have ever seen.

When I listed the ladies in my life that I most admired, they rarely came with a close-lipped smile and small talk, rarely without a phrase or topic that could get them fired up until they were red in the cheeks with tears in their eyes. The most ladylike people I knew were often not ladies at all. They were salt that burned when they found a wound. They were spice in the world, and they were the soul of sweat and every tear.

Those were the ladies who I wanted to be like. And they did not make me feel comfortable.

So, I wrote it down, because that’s what writers do: create new definitions of where we are going in a world that still wants our girls to be ladies and our boys to be everything but that. 

If I were to be a ladylike writer, then the word needed some redefining. I decided, from that moment forward, “ladylike” was no longer a measure of sweetness and politeness, but instead of bravery and passion. Not a measure of comfort, but instead a measure of how successfully they push you out of your comfort zone. Not a measure of femininity, but a measure of empathy, and of the ferocity that lady works to light our world.

It is wonderful when these qualities of the new and the old definition overlap—the comfort and the courage, the sweetness and the passion. But when your bravery is not polite (and it will not always be polite) and we have to choose a side, well, then, bravery wins. Every single time. When your passion isn’t so sweet, when it is tear-stained and gritty with chipped fingernail polish and ripped jeans, then, by these standards, that passion is wonderfully ladylike.

How can we ever accuse someone of not being a “lady” just because her ideas and stories seep out of her pores and out of her eyes and her mouth in a magnificent swirl all over the floor? How long before we admit that telling our daughters and sisters and lovers to button up and straighten up and tighten up is the result of our own insecurity, when what we have wanted to say all along is, “Speak up, you fearless child! We know you have something to say!”

To all my bad girls with fire, who have been told that you or your work or the body you live in or the words you preach are unladylike, I leave you with this:

If the things you say are the result of deep-seated love; if your body cradles you on your journey and reminds you of strength; if your goal is art; if your goal is kindness; if your goal is bravery even in the smallest, most delicate voice…

Then fuck yeah. You are a lady.

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