When I was growing up, my mother had a special corrective phrase reserved only for me: "Nice girls don't do that."
I learned that there were lots of things "nice girls" didn't do - nice girls didn't talk too loudly or stay out too late. Nice girls didn't talk back to their parents or take their bad moods out on other people. Above all, though, nice girls didn't talk about their accomplishments (i.e., bragging) or insist on getting their own way all the time.
I heard a lot about what nice girls did and didn't do. What I didn't hear, though, was what "nice boys" did. And neither did my two older brothers, I'm pretty sure.
Act like a lady. Be nice. Don't be such a bitch.
We've all heard it, haven't we?
As a journalist and author, I've long been interested in the ways that our feelings about gender shape what we believe we can and can't do - and how the cultural behavioral expectations we assign to gender shape the stories we tell ourselves and each other.
That's why the recent flap that ensued this past week when Congressman Allen West chastised Congresswoman and DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz for not acting like a "lady" caught my eye. Apparently, she had the audacity to criticize his position on the House floor.
So, I ask you...is it "unladylike" to voice your opinion? Is it "unladylike" to vigorously do the job you were elected to do, even if that means openly criticizing a male colleague?
The reality is, women walk a fine line every day. We're expected to assert ourselves, but not be too assertive. We're expected to shine, but not at the expense of others. Oh, there are women who'll do it, out there on the edge. But they're often whispered about and, dare I say, pointed to as examples of what can happen when women step too far outside the box of what's culturally comfortable.
As mothers, we set the tone, through our words and example, of what it means to be a woman...what it means to be a "lady." I'm all for an equal and fair expectation of civility, good manners, integrity and classy behavior on the part of both genders. But being "ladylike" isn't always helpful to your career; for example, the "who me?" game of not calling attention to your accomplishments gets you passed over for a promotion you really want, while the "what do you think?" deference game of downplaying your own abilities gets your ideas quickly dismissed.
Striving to be "ladylike" can take its toll on your body image, too. The "whatever you need" attitude that so many of us grew up with - the one where we consistently put everybody else's needs above our own - is the same attitude that can have us repeatedly skipping our much-needed workout to accommodate someone else's schedule. And not wanting to "make waves" can lead to everything from eating foods we don't want to eat to dressing in ways in which we don't feel comfortable. Of course, sweating, pumping iron and being competitive with men fall squarely into the category of traditional "unladylike" behavior, don't they?
As mothers, aunts and mentors, we need to be mindful of the example we're setting for the young women and girls in our lives. Instead of being fearful that we won't be seen as ladies, let's teach our girls to focus on being seen as women with class - women who will hear what you have to say with the full expectation that you'll listen to us as well. Women who are as happy to acknowledge their own skills, talents and accomplishments as they are to acknowledge yours. And women who aren't afraid to say what they need because they know that their needs are just as relevant as anyone else's.
Healthy body image and good health in general demand that we respect ourselves as much as we respect others. Believing that you're worthy of nutritious foods, time in the gym and an attitude of kindness toward yourself starts with caring not only for others, but for yourself, too.
I know that the mother-daughter legacy plays an important role in this. My mom was a product of her mom's attitudes about ladylike behavior, just as my daughter will be a product of mine. It's up to me to shape her vision of what a "lady" looks like.