Before You Want to be “An Elegant Lady”, Think Twice

Nowadays, if you look on Youtube, there are plenty of Youtube channels that teach women how to be “elegant”, which is often associated with “high society” and hypergamy.

In fact, if you use the search term “How to be elegant”, you’ll see videos after videos of mostly White women teaching other women how to dress, talk, walk, eat, or even paint their nails.

These materials are now easily accessible online, making it seem like it’s attainable by everyone. Some might even argue that you can be elegant on a budget. Regardless, the promise is that if you follow these certain rules, whoever you are, your life can transform (often through hypergamy.)

I have no problems with presenting your best and dressing for the occasions. But my issue with these so-called elegance teachings is that they completely ignore the wider context and the (misguided) values they’re based on.

They think they help women, but they also perpetuate capitalism and elitism, making disadvantaged women even more disadvantaged — I will explain.

Elegance is tightly linked to social class — It’s most commonly the image of the White upper class. It’s born out of privileges.

Elegance should be distinguished from having dignity and self-respect. Having dignity and self-respect is largely about your thinking and decisions while elegance is about the impressions you give regarding your appearance or manner.

The people who are elegant all the time are the people who have money, power, and help. This help mostly comes from other less advantaged women or women of colour, who probably think it’s their fault that they’re not doing better in life when, in reality, the system fails them completely.

The allure of the “Elegant Lady” reminds me of an article by Chelsea Fagan called “The woman you want to be is rich.” She wrote:

“We may find a huge variety in the expression of the women we aspire to be, denoted like limited-edition Barbie dolls — the Career Woman, the Perfect Mom, the Fitness Guru, the Nature Girl, the Domestic Goddess, the Fashionista, the Traveler — but we must all come back to the same ultimate conclusion when we try to figure out how to be her: she costs money.

To be a stay-at-home mom with a high quality of life is a crème de la crème luxury. To spend your time performatively ridding yourself of possessions and getting back in touch with spirituality requires no debt, lots of savings, and no serious obligations. To treat your body as a second career requires enormous time and energy. To throw yourself full-heartedly into your profession as a mother means someone at home to do all that inconvenient child-rearing, at least much of the time.”

As an Asian immigrant in the UK, I didn’t know this. I got a scholarship to study at a private school in South Kensington, one of the most expensive areas in London. I then went to a Russel Group university, mingling along with kids that I thought were no different from me. But the rules we played were worlds apart.

As I struggled to fit in and get calls back from interviews for top London firms, I blamed and shamed myself. I would have loved to look better or “more elegant” like the successful White women I saw in films or on Instagram, but I couldn’t find the time or money when I was constantly worried about working part-time or finding a job after graduation (so I wouldn’t get kicked out of the country.)

Plus, being 5’2 and having a Vietnamese accent didn’t exactly scream “elegance” even when I emptied my savings account for some nice shoes and matching suits while hurting my back trying to sit in a way that elongated my body.

Now, I understand deeply that the definition of “elegance” as portrayed in the Western media isn’t for someone like me. Most of the jobs advertised in London don’t describe someone who looks like me. Sure, with money and practice, I can blend in, but it would take a lot of effort and even come at the cost of my own authentic identity.

Can a poor woman be elegant?

But, if a woman’s poor, she has a lot of more things to worry about than whether she’s elegant or not.

Most troublingly, “elegance” doesn’t let women be loud, be large, get angry, and fight back. Perhaps men could afford to be “elegant” because they’re in better positions of power while women still need to fight for their rights through means that are not considered elegant. Telling women to be dainty and quiet is a slap to female empowerment.

If true equality existed and women could hold top high-paying jobs and take half the seats at every table, “elegance” would be redefined and a matter of choice. But then I imagine, when women don’t need to be “elegant” to bag a rich husband or join the “high society”, many would rather choose to be themselves than being boxed in a definition that isn’t meant for them anyway.

If you’re a disadvantaged woman and you think learning “elegance” is the way to go, and it works for you, then you do you. But, please, don’t make it seem like it works the same way for everyone. And don’t forget to challenge the system and open the door for other women.

On the other hand, if you think “elegance” isn’t for you, it’s okay. You don’t have to be any other way other than being your true (and sometimes best) self. But keep yourself informed. Push yourself forward. Find ways to achieve financial independence. Use your voice. Fight for yourself and the next generations of women.

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