A Southern Belle Redefined

“Little girls should be seen and not heard.”

Just about every girl born and raised in the Deep South knows exactly what I’m talking about. We were supposed to sit properly in our best dress and keep our mouths shut. Our opinions or emotions didn’t matter, just our behavior. Many families were judged by the behavior of their children. I clearly remember the conversations, “Can you believe they let their little girl do that? Why I’d never in a million years allow such!”

Of course this was just a side note to the family name. Your family name was everything and you were careful not to do anything to stain the name. Many young ladies learned the hard way about not being careful and following the rules of the family. Not only were we to be seen and not heard, if we did speak, after spoken to of course, we responded with “yes ma’am” and “yes sir” and our responses always had to reflect the taught family values… how dare we have our own views on anything. If one were so brazen to speak out of turn… well the consequences weren’t worth the risk.

Funny thing is, I’m sure most people think I am talking about a rich, affluent family, but I’m not. I’m speaking of your average, “keeping up with the Jones” lower middle class to upper lower class family. Those families who worked hard and rode on their morals, standards, and good name.

I was raised to “sit up straight and proper,” “keep my dress down,” and “smile pretty.” My hair had to be as perfect as the ruffles on my best dress. And surely I couldn’t play because I might get dirty and ruin the illusion.

At the age of ten, I was given my very first panty girdle to hold everything in the right place, and began to hear the droning on of how it is important to be skinny if I want a man. And how no one wants a wild girl, they all want the good girl who waits until marriage, doesn’t talk back, and knows how to fry chicken in a cast-iron skillet. I do believe my favorite lecture was to always use moisturizer – little did I know that one would really pay off some day.

The funny thing is, in the midst of all of the traditional training I was encouraged to “go to school and learn it all.” My “Uncle” Jack told me that and my family regularly reenforced it, but when it all came down to brass tacks they were more concerned about what my education would say for the family. It would show success above the measure of their contemporaries. It would show that I was raised right and would set the new standards for everyone to keep up with.

Here I am at forty-five realizing that while a lot of what I was taught was skewed it did have merit.

1. I want to do things that will, or would have, made them proud.

2. I strive to have integrity – to do the right thing even when no one is looking. Why yes, I do return the shopping cart to the appropriate stall in the parking lot.

3. I want people to think highly of me. To quote an individual I recently spoke with, “you have very high accolades in this parish*.”

4. I want to look proper and dress the part. While yes, I could wear jeans and a t-shirt to school every day, I chose to dress more appropriately for my job and display proper respect for my role as an educator.

5. Respect for your elders doesn’t stop because you become an adult and aren’t necessarily dependent on them anymore. I still say “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” and try to answer when momma calls – even if it is inconvenient.

6. I really should take care of myself because I only have one body. Exercise regularly, eat right, and moisturize, moisturize, moisturize!

I have also come to understand that when in private the rules could be “adjusted” to allow for necessities to be performed.

7. It’s ok to get dirty if you are working or having fun. Yard work and gardening is tough and messy.

8. It’s ok to talk back if the situation calls for it. We should never be doormats for anyone.

But my all time favorite rules were not drilled into our heads with words, but with actions.

9. Take care of your loved ones. Even when it’s not the fun or popular thing to do. Cherish the times you have with them because you never know which encounter will be the last.

10. Remain loyal! Yes, your family may tick you off, but stand by them. After all, they are the only family you have. And no one loves you like family.

Footnote:

* parish – Louisiana’s version of a county.

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