What is Ladylike?

My initial step in exploring the definition of ‘ladylike’ was to turn to Google, which greeted me with ‘ladylike: appropriate for or typical of a well-bred, decorous woman or girl.’ Below was a list of synonyms, some of my favourites being: genteel, refined, well-bred, cultivated, polished, decorous, proper, correct and courtly. Now not to be rude to any of my fab female friends, but when describing them, or describing myself, I couldn’t and probably wouldn’t use any of those adjectives. Mainly because those words, flattering as they may have been amongst a society domineered by Henry VIII, are not qualities that most of us girls long to possess.

As far as I’m concerned, a lot of the words on the list – ‘courtly’ being the clearest example – ring painfully true of the way in which females were taught to behave during Tudor times; a genteel, decorous, well-bred girl would have made a charming child-wife to a similarly refined gentleman that her father deemed suitable. Society may have evolved dramatically since then, but there still remains a pressure on females to behave in a ‘ladylike’ way. The word is not just a descriptive term, but yet another court in which women are tried for crimes of fashion and misconduct. And, more often than not the media frequently remind us that women usually ‘fail’ to register on this ‘ladylike’ scale.

Shockingly (but not that shockingly) I found The Sun a chief culprit in scrutinizing the un-ladylike behaviour of celebrity women: ‘Not flipping ladylike Cara! Cheeky model makes rude sign’ – news, really? I myself have never heard the term ‘ladylike’ used in a way that’s flattering, or, for that matter, credible. If, as a female celebrity, you do manage to comply with this idea of ‘ladylike’ it’s amazing, a novelty in fact, the newspapers will sing your praises. Well done you, Kate Middleton, you wore the right dress: ‘What a ladylike look!’ Bravo! If only we could all be as ladylike as you.

After some further investigating, I turned to the often-unreliable Urban Dictionary. Shockingly (and this time I mean shockingly) I did not guffaw or shrink away from my computer screen in repulsion. The meaningless definition cheered me up after a pretty depressing research task. Whilst I’m grateful for the lessons in how to be ladylike, if I’m going to use the term, I’ll decide myself what the defining criteria of it is. Maybe I’ll assign it to someone who’s done something undeniably incredible as she downs a pint, she seems more flipping ladylike than someone who looks ‘polished’ and ‘correct’ for her charity benefit.

I am not critiquing the women who openly choose to embody the traditional meanings of the term, I take my issue with the media for continuing to pressurise us. If it is really out of the question to leave us alone, try praising us for our contributions and ourselves, rather than for our fashion choices and hand gestures. ‘Ladylike’, and ‘gentlemanly’ for that matter, don’t hold the same out-dated and stereotypical meanings as the words initially did. These gender-specific terms have, like so many other adjectives, become subjective and personal.

Urban Dictionary’s definition of ladylike simply reads ‘ladylike isn’t defined. Can you define it?’

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