Updated: Aug 18, 2020
You are twelve; you must put all the dirty clothes in the basement beside the washer and dryer, but not before separating colors from whites. Ladies must know how to do laundry. Ladies must hang up dresses, skirts, and dress shirts. Other clothes must be folded immediately to prevent wrinkles. Ladies must not wear wrinkled clothes. You must shampoo your hair the weekend before picture day.
Grandma must fix your hair. You hate the way she snatches at your baby hairs, pulling them tight to perform the perfect cornrow. You must sit on the uncomfortable couch pillow for a little longer because she wants to put colorful beads on the tails of your dark brown braids. You want her hands to cramp up this time, just long enough to give your head a break from the violent tugging.
She's watching her Soaps but you must not complain. Ladies must not complain. Pick out your dress the night before so you won't rush in the morning. Ladies must wear dresses for special occasions. Pick out one that matches the color of your hair beads. Ladies must always coordinate. You must wear stockings, though they're uncomfortable and confining, but ladies must wear stockings with dresses.
For picture day, ladies must smile brightly when the annoying man behind the camera tells them to. You must hold that smile as the cameraman tilts your head in weird directions. More to the right, a little to the left, slightly up, a pinch to the left. And when you don't get it right, you must smile when he walks over and positions your head for you. You don't know how clean, or dirty, his hands are, or where they've recently been, but you must smile. Your braids are so tight it's hard to summon a genuine, award-winning smile, but you manage, because ladies must smile through the pain.
You are seventeen; you must keep your grades up and apply to college, but not the bad ones close to home. You must ace the ACTs and if not, retake them until you receive a sufficient score. You must be smart. Ladies must be smart. You must not worry about boys because schoolwork is more important. Though you are told you can start dating at seventeen, your mother would prefer you not to. You're scared to date anyway. Scared the first guy that likes you will run away when he meets your controlling family. He must be smart, they say, and plan to go to college. He must dress nice, no wrinkled clothes, no sagging pants. He must be tall and a man of color. Ladies must date presentable men.
You are scared because you like someone who doesn't measure up to the ridiculous criteria. He can be your date to prom but nothing long-term. Ladies must have dates for prom. You must shop for a dress early because last minute shopping will only leave you with an ugly dress. Ladies must wear beautiful, elegant dresses to prom. You must choose a dress that works well with your caramel skin tone and flatters your curves and your petite height. You must buy a dress that flares out, then you won't look as short. You choose a seafoam green dress, one with a train; not the cobalt blue one you dreamed of wearing since ninth grade. It’s strapless, which your mother doesn’t like but she has to admit it's beautiful on you.
Your prom date takes a swatch of the dress, wanting his vest to match it perfectly. Your mother watches his interactions with you in the prom dress boutique, suspecting that he might be your boyfriend. Her suspicions are correct. After prom, you must come home. You must not think about, talk about, or engage in sexual intercourse. You must save yourself for marriage. Ladies must not have premarital sex. You must wear make-up and your hair must be done because lots of photos will be taken. Ladies must always look nice in front of a camera. Pictures are permanent.
Soon after prom dress shopping you must shop for a graduation dress. Though it will be hidden under your gown, you must still wear a nice dress. Ladies must always wear dresses on special occasions. You must wear high heels because a dress is nothing without the perfect pair of heels. You hate heels because they terrorize your flat feet. Your feet will hurt, but you must wear them because ladies must walk through the pain.
You are twenty-one, but you may not drink on your birthday, because you are in your mother's house. You must listen to your mother, don’t disrespect her by drinking under her roof. Ladies must always respect their parents. You must stay home and enjoy the company of your family. You must miss out on the typical “21st birthday festivities” because you must not go out on your birthday. It's not your fault that your birthday is December 25th, but you must suck up whatever bad feelings you have on this day. You must smile and act as though everything is fine. Ladies must not wear their emotions on their sleeves for everyone to see. You must not be selfish and only think of yourself on this day. You must be grateful for what you have and show it every chance you get.
You may drink when you're back on campus with your friends, but don’t tell your mother. Yes you’re legal but she’s anti-alcohol. You also keep quiet about the piercings and tattoos, because she’s anti those too. You don't want to hear the multiple speeches of why a lady shouldn't scar her body with holes and permanent ink. So you hide them. The ten piercings are hidden by your hair, which is thankfully long enough to cover your adorned ears. You get the first tattoo on the back of your shoulder, a matching one with your sister. It's in the perfect spot, easy to hide. Your little sister is paranoid about lying so she spills the beans on Operation Tattoo. Your mother is mad, but surprisingly not as mad as your grandma.
You must not let college turn you into a wild child. You must keep up your grades if you want that journalism job after college. You must work hard to graduate on time because you don't have the money to stay an extra year. You must prepare yourself to say farewell to the friends you've met over the past four years. You must not cry when saying goodbye, though it will be painful to leave the ones you've grown to love. You must work through it because ladies must work through the pain.