What does it mean to be a lady?
I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the idea of being a ‘lady. It wasn’t something I could ever really put into words, I just knew that it seemed limiting, an anachronistic term of another age. The question of what it means to be a lady for me, was answered early on, and quite firmly. As I would adjust my too large school uniform skirt and rush down the stairs to my bus stop, my mother would stop me. Where are you going without earrings? Are you a boy? That last question became extremely familiar to me, as common as asking my name. Any time my mother or my aunties asked me that, I was hit by an intense longing to be a child again, far off from the awkwardness of adolescence with one foot planted in incoming adulthood while the other hovers uncomfortably in childhood. Girlhood felt right, it felt like where I belonged, where skinned knees and laughing loudly were important character traits, not weaknesses. In this new world, where so much of a ‘girl’s public face is a false veneer of politeness, I didn’t fit in. And I didn’t want to.
I started my complete divorce from being ‘ladylike’ about four years ago. I was on the cusp of graduating, combining the endless hours of studying for my finals and running around in circles making sure that I had all my documents in order to register for Law School in Nigeria. I was on my way to complete another stupid requirement for Law School (and trust me, there were many of them) when Fela’s “Lady” started filtering through my ear phones on Spotify. It sounded different, it felt different. Of all of Fela’s songs, this was the only one that I heard that filled me with irritation and annoyance, I would flick one finger across the screen changing it and when I still listened to CD’s before streaming took over, would forcefully press skip. Looking back, I guess what I felt was his perceived condescension. “Who was he, I thought “to make fun of how a woman must act in this world, especially this conservative society to get a little respect?’ I truly found the song offensive, and I understand anyone, any woman who would. After all, we were the ones that straddled the worlds of lady hood and who we actually were, through no fault of our own. I just didn’t feel like being mocked on my own time. Apparently wanting a seat at the table and asking a man to wash his own damn plate, thank you very much divorces you from womanhood in Fela’s world. I remained thoroughly unimpressed.
For the first time in a long time, on that cold and wet bus, I listened to the song in entirety. And I laughed. I laughed because everything Fela professes a ‘lady’ does are the very things that ladylikeness discourages. Smoking cigars? Sitting at the head of the table? Insisting (not coyly asking) a man to open the doors for her? Fela’s lady sounded all types of fun and nothing at all like an actual lady. The song is an entire checklist of everything that is frowned upon in the name of acting ‘proper’.
Forcing myself to think over my earlier life, I don’t think I was ever introduced to womanhood. There was a lot of how to act but not the acceptance of who I was.Everything I was taught it seems, was predicated on a certain set of characteristics, characteristics that I don’t agree with. Not because they are necessarily bad, but because it isn’t who I am. I’m not demure, coy or conservative and I shouldn’t be coerced into being so because of some Victorian -Esque idea of who I should be and how I should act. If someone is naturally reserved, more grease to their elbows,but no one should be forced to take on personality traits that aren’t natural to them under some ill gotten notion of ladylikeness. Another reason why it bothers me so much is because it’s built on the expectations of what a man wants. Don’t wear a bou bou (a loose dress worn popularly in West Africa) because he won’t marry you. Don’t wear skirts that are too short because it’s slutty. It’s even in the ‘harmless’ and ‘funny’ first date stories. We all know them, order a salad and the fried chicken even though that’s what you really want. It’s almost like we can’t see how we are intentionally bleaching the vibrancy of our personalities in fear of what others will think. A lady isn’t just an avatar for polite society, they are for men as well. A woman doesn’t actually need another woman to be prim and quiet and coquettish. Being perfectly compliant in public life isn’t only to maintain one’s reputation amongst women, it’s to attract the attention of a well suited man. The only trap is having to stay that way forever. Constantly split into who you actually are and who you have been conditioned to be. To deviate from such a norm is to face harsh disapproval from your fellow female peers and disgust or even rejection from the man on your arm.
Being a lady I have found is a futile pursuit. It always has been and it always will be. There are a couple of reasons for that but one of the main ingredients of its uselessness is race. Race applies to everything and this is no different. Lady Hood is a white phenomenon, truly. Crossing your legs, never speaking over men and being sexually repressed are not things that truly apply to my culture. Neither does humility, for that matter. Almost all the aspects of being a lady that women older than me have sworn are inherently Yoruba are not. They stem from the Victorian Era in Britain and have mutated and changed over time. In many ways, British women weren’t invited to the table politically (unless you count the Queens) but Yoruba women always have, from the Iyalodes which is a chieftaincy title that is usually reserved for women to actual female rulers such as Ooni Luwoo Gbagida who was the Ooni of Ife, the cradle of Yoruba civilization. Even basic beautification rituals have been conservatively tinged. A nosy uncle or aunty seeing your tattoo will be the cause of your grief for a long time but it was often common practice. The tribal marks that have been seen as a modern source of embarrassment are technically tattoos. The scarification is commonly on the face which is supposed to state where you’re from without actually having to say it but they were also done on the limbs or torso for none other than fashion purposes for women. Tattooing, political activity, humility and of course the common stereotype of being ‘sharp mouthed’ are far, far, from what is considered ladylike. But when the things mentioned above are the basis of your culture you’ll always fall short and that’s because it wasn’t made for you.
A lady may not take to the streets and protest injustice but a woman will. A lady may balk at the thought of learning how to drive at a time when it’s banned but a woman will. A lady may concern herself with coming off civil and polite even when she’s been slighted but women don’t have time for that. A lady may define herself by an inflexible set of archaic rules but a woman won’t. A woman will wear what she wants whether people think it makes her ‘unmarriable’ or not. You can only be a limited number of things as a lady, before the guilt of not acting ‘properly’ begins gnawing at you, but if you are focused on being the happiest and healthiest woman you can be, the possibilities are truly endless.
I refuse to cut off pieces of myself in order to fit into what it means to be a good lady. My femininity and how I present it have become completely divorced from lady hood. If one day I decided to wear sack dresses and never wear makeup I would still be a woman and I would still be worthy of everything I desired. ‘Niceness’ and ‘lady hood’ and being ‘chivalrous’ are well meaning ideas in theory but they are ultimately useless.
What I think is we should teach children, boys and girls is things that are useful and that will make them decent human beings. Kindness and generosity, looking out for their fellow man, how to use a checkbook and the importance of appreciating Prince’s music. We have spent so much time teaching girl children especially to not be loud, assertive or questioning in direct and indirect ways. These things always come back to bite you in the ass later, usually in your boss’s office where you find yourself tongue tied at the prospect of asking for a raise whereas your male colleague who has the exact same workload as you pretty much demands it. To truly be free let’s let go of what a lady is and embrace the woman that you are, no permission needed. I already have and life is much more fun and joyful on this side of things. I hope you’ll take my hand and join me.
By: Yoruba Mermaid
See also: No Good Woman Exists Under Patriarchy