Substance over style

There isn't a lot about women that hasn't been flayed open and explored. From the big Erica Jong stuff to how blush on your chest enhances the cleavage, they've seen London, they've seen France, they've seen women's underpants, and everything else that used to be a trick of the feminine trade.

But I have one secret that I'm sure other women share: I still don't know how to be a big girl.

I don't mean big as in independent, empowered and other Utne Reader jargon; that's soul survival and comes naturally the first time anyone tries to cheat you in life's poker game because you got dealt the ovaries. I mean being a lady. A lot of us just don't get the hang of it. We've tried getting into cars without revealing to everyone that we didn't shave all the way up, tried to gesture delicately at parties without knocking someone else's glass into their teeth. We want to be, if only for an evening, one of those broads who looks comfortable in pantyhose. Or one of those broads who doesn't say "broads." Just for a day.

Go ask Alice

In an effort to erase 33 years of sailor mouth, sneakers and sitting like a monkey about to give birth, I took a one-night class called "The Art of Sophistication." The class was taught by Alice Tall, a former news anchor and current WMFE talk-show host, and was subtitled "Become a Fascinating Woman and Attract Respect, Confidence and Love." In other words, for $32, you could buy a new coffee-maker or discover secrets that ought to make every penis in a 10-mile radius gravitate toward you like a divining rod, and respect you to boot. What's to wonder?

Alice Tall has just that sort of Chanel-suit, anchorperson look I'm after. And at the outset, the class is fun, like playing tea party. We learn to sit, stand (roll over, play dead), how to dress (like an anchorwoman, an anchorwoman on location or the mother of the bride), how to write thank-you notes for things like a friend taking you to lunch (mine said, "Dear Elizabeth, Thanks for that bagel, it kicked ass"). We learned proper table etiquette in order to avoid what Miss Manners calls "fork anxiety." We learned that if you keep telling yourself you are a lady, you will believe it and act like one on your own. We got free moisturizer from Clinique and learned that having humor and humility about everything that we were learning would go a long way.

But what had a lot of mileage in my mind was a story that Alice told at the beginning of the class which, for all the talk about refinement, carried an undertaste of snobbery, like an embarrassing panty line. After going over the definitions of what we were about to become -- "cultured, knowledgeable and finely experienced" -- Alice told a story about being in the hair salon. One of the employees, a young lady with bright-blue hair, took off after saying goodbye. After she'd left, Alice's hairdresser made a crack about the blue hair and "no class whatsoever."

Portrait of a lady

Everyone laughed in that knowing, smart-student way at this bit of whimsy -- except me. I didn't get it. In my etiquette book, judgment based on hair color is about as class-free as it gets, but what do I know? Television stations have not "paid tens of thousands of dollars to make sure I know how to communicate," like they have Alice, who did tell the story well.

This was very straight-up communication, but then we learned some of the subtleties of that art. Be definite and use admiring words like "courage" and "strength" when talking to men, because they fall right for it, and, when complaining, use "I" and not "you." Don't say "You suck," say, "I think you suck"; it softens the blow (my example, not hers). Ninety-nine percent of it, we were told, is attitude. Yours should be upbeat. You have to hold in your emotions, especially at work, even if you feel like crying. "If I have a bad day, you'll never know," Alice says. I gather the key to communication is not to actually tell anyone anything.

Then we get to character, a chapter containing sensible advice that could make a lady out of anyone, even a man, even a sock. Don't talk about your sex life; it grosses people out. Don't gossip; people won't trust you. Be confident, but don't expect perfection in yourself or others. Always be in control, and never let yourself get drunk at parties.

Oh well.

Oh well.

It was nice trying for a while. And I have some of it down. I rarely gossip and certainly don't expect perfection in others. But the rest just isn't worth it. I really like passionate displays of emotion, popular or not, and I really like blaring, unnatural hair color. And as far as control, I think people are a bit like goldfish, spiritually speaking: They will only grow as big as the space you put them in. Being a lady is too pinchy, too confining. It's a much better feeling to just go ahead and be a woman.


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