Do I need to "act like a lady" to be respected as a woman?

“Act like a lady” what does that even mean? Though it is something a lot of girls have heard growing up. That’s actually what Rose was told in Titanic before she decided to say f*ck it (and do Jack rather than spending the rest of her life with the boring man she was promised to.. Ew.) Now it’s Samantha’s turn to explain how “acting like a lady” first forged her, until it actually made her suffocate.

Illustrator unknown.

Illustrator unknown.

The pedestal that women have been placed upon for generations has been one of modesty and purity and it originates from the expectations that society has historically put on us to be examples of these virtues.

The expression “act like a lady” played on repeat in my head when I was a child. Growing up, my mother always told me to make myself fit to be the partner of any prince that may walk into my life, from how I held my fork at dinner to controlling the volume of rambunctious laughter to not using curse words. It seemed logical at the time, as my mind was filled with images of Disney princesses being whisked away by prince charming into happily ever after.

The idea of how I should act, how a woman should act, to be “fit for a prince” was ingrained in me, as I’m sure it was and still is for other young girls. This preparation can skew the idea of what it means to succeed in life and how to succeed, by supporting the idea that the more one subscribes to these standards the more attractive you will seem to a man—as if that’s a goal to be accomplished in life.

In middle school, I dared to incorporate the word “fuck” into my regular vocabulary. My brother and I made a pact not to tell our parents that we were cursing, because I was afraid that it would seem unbecoming of a young lady. I was figuring out what type of woman I wanted to be, and often my thoughts conflicted with what I had always been taught. At that point, I defined being a lady as maintaining as much of my “purity” as possible, like wearing makeup (but not too much!) and being overly polite and accommodating to others, sometimes at the expense of my own feelings. I started noticing the difference in expectations of behavior for my brother and I. He would have never been asked to incorporate more color into his wardrobe, for example. I wondered, “Why is my level of womanliness defined by whether I decide to wear jeans or a dress?” “At what point must one sacrifice who they are, for the comfort of what others have deemed “ladylike”?

As I matured, I eventually let go of the idea that fitting into this mold of what it means to “act like a lady” validated my femininity, and assumed modern society was on board with this mentality as well. Imagine my surprise when, years later, my then boyfriend heard me say “What the fuck?” for the first time and responded with “That just doesn’t sound right coming out of your mouth.”

To which, in different tone, I replied… “Are you fucking serious?”. Truthfully, I began to doubt myself, wondering if my use of expletives would make me unattractive to him and if my mother had been right all along about everything else. What a fool I was…

I can’t imagine that this is a thought that would have crossed the mind of my boyfriend, when several “putain!”s poured out of his mouth. A man who swears isn’t seen as abnormal, so when a woman decides to do the same, she is often deemed to have masculine tendencies. Honestly, sometimes there are just no other words to fully express how one is feeling, then to just let out a curse word…or a few…or a combination. So, the double standard that a swearing woman is less becoming than a man who swears can also be interpreted as an attempt to suppress our expression to please our male-dominated society’s ego and give further power to this generalized definition of femininity.

Women are guilty of shaming each other into these molds as well, when we judge each other for our fashion decisions and ways other women choose to express themselves; which is why it’s imperative for us to support each other in our diversity and encourage individuality at a young age, whatever that may be. With social media infiltrating every fiber of our lives, and often promoting unrealistic expectations of ourselves, this is especially important.

For me, femininity is subjective. The origins of the word itself lie in the Latin word femina, simply meaning woman. Nothing else attached. To be feminine is to be whatever those who identify as female make it to out to be. It is not limited to a particular style, the way you speak, or whether you choose a pantsuit over a skirt. It’s what makes you feel good about yourself and expressing who you are-- filter or not. I accepted my personal definition of what being feminine means, and any “prince” that I allow to enter my life, has to be cool with all the creative language use, minimal makeup, and messy buns that come along with me.

by Samantha McCartney