I can only assume the pieces of advice on class I’ve seen floating around Pinterest must have originated from some little pink book kept safely in your great-grandmother’s sock drawer, right next to her sanitary belt and dish-washing gloves. Advice ranges from gems such as “Your clothes should be tight enough to show you’re a woman, but loose enough to show you’re a lady.” (Edith Head) to simple commands such as “Stay classy” and “No. 1 Rule of Being a Lady: Just Be Classy.”
Let’s start with the obvious: the word classy refers to social class. Its antithesis is trashy in all its unpolished glory. When we use the word classy, we’re saying “You behave in a manner that I believe puts you in the upper classes of our society” *cue mustache twirling* Sounds like a compliment, right? I guess if classism wasn’t actually a relevant issue in our society, we could use classy with charmed, old-timey fondness and leave it at that. You’re a real class act, doll-face…
But classism is still a blazing inferno separating and condemning people based on race and income every day. If you call a black man classy, what’s the implication? That he’s just a really reliable friend or “a credit to his race?” Are you coming from the assumption that black people are always inherently trashy and this man stands out from that crowd? I feel dirty all over when I see someone publicly striving for classiness or dishing it out as a compliment, because it goes both ways. It’s not just “You belong to the upper class,” but “You definitely don’t belong to the impoverished and underrepresented masses–good for you!”
The desire to distinguish oneself as classy also seems targeted most especially at women in an attempt to uphold patriarchal (and often racist) ideas. The quotes about showing enough—but not too much! smack of body shaming and victim-blaming. The sexualization of the female body being tied to class is a tug-of-war between revealing and withholding different parts of our bodies from avid male eyes. Classism is being constantly written and defined on women and, if you think about it, our society somehow manages to fetishize both the trashy and the classy in the same breath.
Just look at the corset; an outdated, but perfect example of class and female objectification. We have a plantation owner’s wife in her corset, her body crushed and squeezed to fit the fashion of the day: beautiful, alluring, pure in her buttoned-up elegance. On the other hand, we have poor white sharecroppers and black slaves in their loose tops, breasts hanging free as they work: uncultured, sexual and just as coveted in their unbridled state. The important thing to notice here is that both images were sexualized through the white, male gaze that governed the culture. You may also notice that whether a woman is perceived as classy or trashy is often used as grounds for rampant victim-blaming.
Classiness doesn’t just restrict what we wear, but also our behavior. “Never kiss [a man] before the first date,” and “Be smart…but not a know-it all,” are common pieces of ladylike advice. Women who are quiet, always dress to the nines and never kiss on the first date are worthy of admiration and protection. Women who are sexually active, speak their minds, don’t really care how they look when they leave the house, well…they don’t really fit the patriarchal cookie cutter of what an ideal woman ought to be. But the truth is, no matter how well we each try to fit these standards, society as a whole is willing to throw us under the bus, should the need ever arise. When assaulted, lawyers beg the question of women’s sexual history, their clothes, their attitude. As employers, women are branded bitchy and annoying, mocked and disliked for stepping outside of the narrow confines of ladylike behavior.
This is why I see inspirational posts about “stayin’ classy” as such a disturbing and dangerous illusion. Classiness is defined by the male gaze and a white-dominant social structure, not by women. When I see a woman striving for classiness, I am acutely aware that what she’s looking for is not the seeming empowerment of herself as a woman, but approval: a sign that she is fitting into the current male idea of what is proper, what is expected of women and what, inevitably, will set her apart from women who have “bad hair,” can’t afford the it bag and, inevitably equate to trash. Or, even more sinisterly, distinguish herself from women who society tells us ‘deserve’ sexual violence because of the way they present themselves to the world. We may not be wearing corsets anymore, but what’s proper for a woman’s body and behavior are still being defined and constricted every day by the men around us and by the women who internalize the patriarchal line.
The implication of ‘be classy by shaving your legs, wearing a bra, covering up,’ etc. is always, always—that the woman over there with hairy legs, free breasts or a low neckline is trashy. The word classy is designed to shame other women and other people by omission, to place ourselves higher by standing on those who don’t conform or who can’t thrive. But wearing a little black dress or shaving your legs doesn’t make you better than anyone else. Being abstinent or waiting until the 3rd date to have sex doesn’t make you a higher caliber of human being. And everyone is entitled to the same amount of respect, whether your skirt falls below the knee or whether you walk naked down the street in a pair of awesome heels.