Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Art of the Belle

Every endangered species deserves its day in the sun. We know the pandas are dwindling, sea turtles are fewer and far between, and the poor polar bears are on some very thin ice. But there is one rare creature near and dear to my own heart that deserves a little recognition today: the Southern belle.

When you hear the term Southern belle, more than likely the first image that springs to mind is Scarlett O'Hara, and things like fluttered eyelashes, coy giggles, and gentlemen callers. We've obviously moved out of the age of corsets and hoop skirts and ruffled parasols, but there are still a few Southern belles left walking among us. For some famous examples we all know, think of beguiling actresses like Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, and Reese Witherspoon. These women all possess a certain charm, exude a special warmth, and have an ease about them that sets them apart from the rest of the Hollyweird crowd.

I suppose some of you are going to tsk, tsk, and take issue with Reese Witherspoon being knighted a belle, considering that unfortunate incident last year when her hot temper introduced itself to the Atlanta police. While this is definitely not a belle on her best behavior, I am willing to forgive and forget Reese's drunk and disorderly moment in the spirit of Southern sisterhood and put it behind us. I think we have all been in danger of being overcome by mint juleps or champagne cocktails in the hot Southern sun at least once in our lives. Evidently, even our dear Reese is not immune.

What is it that makes a girl a belle? While charm is certainly part of the equation, what else does it take to earn that promising title? Simply being Southern, while it is a blessing in and of itself, is not enough. Let's take the ever-barefoot Britney Spears or the twerkingly talented Miley Cyrus into account. These "ladies"--and I use that term loosely--are in a league of their own, and it is not belle territory, I can promise you that.

Times have changed, and the art of being a Southern belle is different than it once was, but there are certain fundamental characteristics of this creature that will always ring true. The recipe for a true belle ultimately consists of equal parts tradition and good manners. It's not the Southern drawl that makes the belle (although that certainly never hurt, and if you've ever heard me talk you know I have a smidge of a drawl myself); it's the quality of her traditions. Around here, it's not so much what you do, as how you do it.

In the South, we mind our manners. We bring hostess gifts, we RSVP in a timely fashion, and we don't chew gum in public--because we avoid any risk of being tacky. A Southern woman would rather be called fat than called tacky. You see, a fad diet can probably help whittle your waist, but except through an act of divine intervention or a fairy-good-taste-godmother, tacky is forever. Think about that if you ever find yourself tempted to wear cheap white shoes (especially before Easter, Lord help your soul) or show cleavage in the daytime (never, evah, ladies).

Even though I am now well into adulthood, I still say ma'am and sir. Quintessential words used by belles include please, thank you, and excuse me. If and when a belle forgets someone's name, she gracefully covers herself by using terms like "sugar," "darlin'," or ""sweetie."

A good belle understands the importance of being charming and flirtatious, in a coy and innocent way. It is never belle behavior to throw yourself at someone, but Southern women know that there is no crime in being feminine. Just last month, I managed to bat my eyelashes, smile sweetly, and apologize my little way out of a speeding ticket. According to the officer, that was about $450 worth of Southern charm (perhaps having a lead foot is also a Southern belle trait). Never let anyone tell you that it doesn't pay to make eye contact, keep your cool, and be nice. After all, everyone knows you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

This next one, especially in my book, is a biggie. Southern belles send thank you notes. Let me stress this: handwritten thank you notes. It is never too early to send a thank you note, and it cannot, should not be done via email, or--heaven forbid--text message. I was horrified several months ago when a new neighbor texted me a thank you for a pie I brought over as a welcome gift. Not only that, but at the time I had not yet been forcibly shoved into the world of the iPhone, so she unknowingly sent it to my landline. The answering machine in our kitchen was blinking, and I pressed play only to hear a robotic voice stammer in broken phrases: "Thank you...for the...peanut butter pie. It was...great and we appreciated...it...so...much." It was horrifying. The experience scarred my psyche and I haven't been able to make a peanut butter pie since. If you have moved into my neighborhood recently, I apologize for my lack of hospitality; I am suffering from PTTD--Post Tacky Text Disorder. I would rather have been ignored or insulted, because that is certainly no way of being thanked.

Southern belles know that it's important to look the part, and that means dressing up. If you attend a college football game and there is a chance you could be mistaken for a member of the coaching staff, you are not a Southern belle. You may be a lovely, wonderful person, but not a belle. Mind you, it doesn't have to be an actual dress; Southern belles know how to harness the power of lip gloss and a cute pair of shoes. My mother won't walk her dog in clothes that don't match her sneakers. I, personally, have been taught that an ear without an earring is naked. You will not catch a belle in Walmart in her pajamas. Some of us still enjoy the phenomenon of big hair (I know I certainly do), while others prefer a more simple look. No matter what her personal style, a belle always makes sure to put her best foot forward.

I can't discuss the Southern belle without also adding that they are undoubtedly feisty. In the South, there may be times when we are down, but we are certainly not out. Belles possess a self-confidence that allows them to be spunky and assertive (notice I did not say aggressive). Southern women aren't shy about going after what they want, but belles know that it doesn't have to come as a winner-take-all prize. We keep our heads held high and avoid rudeness at all costs. Because of this confidence, this Southern strength, the true Southern belle also feels welcome to break the rules, and does so with a sense of good humor (and a quick glance that her mama is not around to see). There is no cookie cutter for creating a belle--just a world full of gracious, endearing, fiery women with a drawer full of good stationery and a purse full of lipstick options. Now, put on a little color, suck your stomach in, and go out there and give 'em belle!

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