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Southern Discomfort

Catherine Lacey
140 Snaps

It’s been said you can’t go home again, the implication being that the home of our childhood vanishes as we age. It changes; we change. The particular feeling generated by that time and place cannot recur.

Maybe this feels true for those whose Bay Area suburb is now infiltrated by start-ups, or whose urban neighborhood is battered by gentrification, or whose fellow Midwesterners don’t wear cargo shorts as avidly as they once did. The teenagers loitering in parking lots seem so young and the old diner with the best pie got knocked down years ago and nothing at the mall is in the same place it used to be.

Of those who believe the can’t-go-home-again adage, I suggest that very few are from Mississippi. Other Southern states have their Nashvilles, their Atlantas, their New Orleanses—urban ports that swirl fresh blood into the population—but in this deepest part of the Deep South all we have is obstinate homogeny. (Can someone cue up that Faulkner line again? “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Thanks, Bill.)

I do not love the place I am obliged to call home. I love some people who live in Mississippi. I love the kudzu, ponds, and live oaks; I am fond of opossums, will drink a julep, have enjoyed a biscuit or two, but I do not love this place generally, and I detest the way the past—buttressed by political and social inequalities—cleaves to the present. In first grade I wrote a short story about a girl who buys a car and drives away. Nothing else happened. It didn’t matter to me where she went. Leaving Mississippi was the happiest thing, at age seven, that I could imagine.

Being born in a place so allergic to change means you can go home again, and each time I do I find with no uncertain terror that, yes, everything is just as I remember. Here is that particular violence disguised as good manners. Here is that ruthless, dominant mode of femininity that a woman either swallows or awkwardly protests. The systemic dominance of wealthy white people, of old money, is just as palpable as it was thirty years ago. All across the delta, overgrown acres come in plots of forty and hold graves of long-dead mules. None of this has changed in the thirty-three years I’ve known the way a body sweats in Mississippi.

The only thing preventing me from going home again is that I don’t want to go home again, but I can—I discovered—be temporarily banished there.

*

An email came from my agent in the autumn of 2016: someone at Ole Miss had asked her for my phone number—OK to send? I sank into my chair until I was lying flat on my back on the floor, then I stayed there a good while.

I knew what this was about. About fifty miles from where I grew up is a town called Oxford, a college town with a real bookstore and fancy restaurants. The University of Mississippi—Ole Miss, as it is affectionately and officially known—is there. It’s a very white, very football, very blond, very bow-tied sort of place. Faulkner lived most his life in Oxford, and there’s a fully funded writing MFA for which John Grisham (the town’s prodigal prince and most famous former citizen) funds a writer in residence gig—a nine-month, low-load, salaried job during which you live in a mansion that the Grisham family outgrew and donated to the cause. The residency is usually offered to an “emerging” writer—that is, someone without a stable income or health insurance or anything better to do—and since the university tends to pick writers who’ve emerged from Mississippi, I knew I was in some peril of being offered this complicated gift.

From the floor, I responded: “Oh fuck, sure.”

*

Though Oxford is a college town, Ole Miss students are not known for their studiousness. The most important cultural happenings are elaborate tailgates before football games. Recent studies rank Mississippi as the least educated state, the least literate state, and the state in which the fewest adults read literature for pleasure. To be an avid reader here is to be weird, and to be a writer, Lord save you, is to be even weirder. Yet there are also a number of artists and writers—aspiring, emerging, and established—who happily call this place home.

Visiting Oxford as a child, I sensed it was a town very different from my own, fifty miles to the east. Now, having lived here for nine months as an adult, I can see that part of this difference is the defiant group of readers living proudly within a culture vehemently indifferent to the existence of literature—a belonging created by otherness. Communities arise most organically from being anomalies.

And yet after I arrived, when locals asked me, “How are you liking it here?,” I felt a strange weather of emotions pass over my face. I answered these questions with lighthearted positivity or utter doom; I said it was pleasant to live near my family; that my city dog went feral in the fields; that I was productive; that I had a few remarkable students. I said, “Oh, it’s been fine.”

But this answer always felt incomplete. In Mississippi I was constantly trying to suffocate an unnameable rage. But why? The state’s problems continued whether I was present or not. I would be from there whether I wanted to be or not. What was it about being here that upset me? I wrote a line, deleted it. A childhood memory arose; I put it out of mind. I remembered all the horrid shit the state legislature was up to. I sat in the Grisham mansion, an estate temporarily given to me so I could have the space and time I needed to write whatever it was I needed to write, and yet I could not find the words to convey what I felt should have been a clear feeling, as I’ve been a Mississippian and a person who writes words on a page for as long as I can remember. The problem was that if I opened the front door and stepped outside, I found myself in Mississippi, where I was perpetually dizzied by something other than the heat.

Now it is clear. The source of my disquiet is the same thing that lures so many in.

It’s the white girls.

*

One night after attending a reading at Square Books, I ended up at a reception for the author that was hosted in the house where Faulkner lived before Rowan Oak. Alone in the room said to have birthed Absalom, Absalom!, I leaned into a wall and ate a deviled egg, feeling, for a moment, that I was from somewhere. The house smelled like a grandparent; it was older than any of mine. Soon the place filled with the writers, musicians, and residents who give Oxford its character.

Emboldened by the deviled egg, I talked to a friendly older man I’d seen around town in weird hats. He lacked an accent, so I asked him where he was from (the Midwest), how long he’d been in Oxford (decades), and what it was about Mississippi that had drawn him in and made him stay.

At this he didn’t hesitate: “The women!” They always looked presentable. Girls in his hometown would go around with their hair in curlers. But here—not a goddamn curler in sight. The women in Mississippi were put-together.

Though I am a woman, both he and I knew that I did not belong to that group of women. My hair was unstyled; my clothes were utilitarian. I thought I recalled putting on a thin swipe of eyeliner, but beyond that there was no evidence I was trying to formalize my femininity. I wanted to tell him something about how complicated it had been growing up among all those presentable women, but he was a little hard of hearing.

A passive understanding grew between us. Yes. Why should anyone be forced to consider what a woman does to make her hair look so lovely?

*

Playboy magazine once declared the female student body of Ole Miss to be something the entire editorial board would like to pin down and inseminate en masse. (I’m paraphrasing.) Along with its annual ranking as a top party school, the university has a persistent reputation for Hefner-approved coeds, and the dominant aesthetic of many women at Ole Miss seems in keeping.

In full makeup at the gym or in high heels at the football game, Ole Miss girls1 spend a lot of time exclaiming to other Ole Miss girls about how cute they look, asking where they got that dress. Ole Miss girls have fresh blowouts, perfect manicures, glossed lips, and a suspicious number of monogrammed accessories. They spray-tan, they wax, they have recently gotten into pressed juice and yoga. Agreeable as all hell, Ole Miss girls nod slightly as they listen, and when idle they wear the leaden gaze of a model staring off-camera. Ole Miss girls endorse and respect the holy hierarchy of Ole Miss sororities. They are expert at posing for group photos, are openly looking for husbands, and speak with their own melodious permutation of Southern vocal fry.

The force field that exists around this particular brand of Southern femininity is enormously powerful and persistent. Flipping through old Ole Miss annuals, she’s always there—the Ole Miss girl, recognizable and consistent. That smile! But who is she and what is she smiling about?

On campus, Ole Miss girls and their male counterparts occupy space from a place of security and authorized power. They stride along walkways in packs, shout their hellos, lounge comfortably on benches, lawns, stairs. They are utterly at ease. All is right in their world. One afternoon I was forced to pause my graduate workshop when my students could no longer hear each other over the noise of what I assumed was a class on break. From a nearby lecture hall, hundreds of Ole Miss girls were spilling out into the hallway in excited clumps. “What class is this? Where’s the professor?” I asked. It was, I was told, not a class but a sorority recruitment event—the girls had been authorized by the university to gather inside an academic building and loudly chant about the supremacy of their sororities. Another day I witnessed two Ole Miss girls snickering and pointing at a young woman wearing a contextually unusual outfit—feminine, but the wrong sort of feminine, an ensemble that signaled this young woman’s queerness. Listening to them jeer, I was reminded that these women were old enough to vote.

The dominance of the Ole Miss girl, however, did not arise spontaneously. It is an exemplification of what I see and understand to be a uniform that the majority of Southern white females oblige and uphold.

It is traditional for Ole Miss fans to dress all in white at the first football game of the year; a colleague of mine, Kiese Laymon, unaware of the dress code, attended this game in a black Run DMC T-shirt and camouflage shorts. He looked out at all the breezy white linen and mused, “I’m wondering who, and what, pays the price for ritualized Southern comfort and uniformity.” This is something I’ve also been wondering, from a different vantage point.

There are several forms of ritualized Southern comfort and uniformity, but I will take on only one of them: the Authorized Southern Female Uniform.

*

The culture of the white woman in the American South is distinct in many ways from that of her northern and metropolitan counterparts. The Authorized Southern Female Uniform is her costume. The ASFU, I should note, is a stereotype—it is the Southern white female aesthetic taken to its extreme. Southern women may pass on some, but not all, aspects of the ASFU. It is a guiding aesthetic, a code of behavior, a system of beliefs, and comprises several rites of passage.

The ASFU wardrobe is limited almost exclusively to clothing that flaunts the female form. It includes plenty of A-line and shift dresses, form-fitting everything, lots of pink, prints, florals, a respectable amount of linen, jangly charm bracelets and bangles, a tailored button-down white shirt best worn with a well-tailored pair of jeans, Lilly Pulitzer dresses, off-the-shoulder blouses, white peasant blouses, off-the-shoulder white peasant blouses,2 certain kinds of black slacks, block heels, nude heels, kitten heels (generally just a lot of heels), skinny white pants cropped at the calf, a few pieces in seersucker, and, as soon as possible after college graduation, a noticeable wedding ring. The ASFU for girls at Ole Miss (a premiere ASFU university) includes roughly a thousand oversize T-shirts (each one commemorating a sorority-sponsored party or event) worn over shorts. The T-shirt’s bagginess imparts modesty but also a teasing ambiguity, inviting the uninitiated to wonder, Is she wearing just a T-shirt?

A woman adhering to the ASFU should strongly consider dyeing her hair blond. If blond hair makes no sense for her complexion, she should still give it a try, at least once. If she insists, she may experiment with certain rich shades of brown. She will keep her hair long (and/or wear extensions) unless she has an extenuating circumstance (slow-growing, brittle, or thin hair) or if she has decided, consciously, that a short hairstyle is how she will mildly differentiate herself from other young women, though she understands this will decrease her pool of potential husbands. She will either straighten her hair daily or master one or more curling techniques. Copious hairspray should be applied to maintain the hair’s buoyancy in the Southern humidity. She should wear a shield of foundation and pressed powder; a lot of black mascara, black eyeliner, and a well-contoured eye shadow; pink or tawny lipstick (red is understood to be a little “too much”), and blush to match.

She will be quietly sexy, almost silently sexy; she will exude sexiness at just the right frequency to attract the right sort of attention. She will be “put-together” anytime she is visible to another person, and she will apologize profusely should anyone catch a glimpse of her before she has managed to fully put herself together.

The ASFU includes its own calligraphy: a handwritten script with an abundance of curlicues, often set down with paint pen in bright, metallic, or football-team-coordinated colors. This font—which turns any word into something of a visual joke—is used to emblazon initials, sorority letters, or nicknames onto plastic cups and other tailgating paraphernalia, picture frames, throw pillows, canvas totes, and a raft of other objects.

There are many behaviors a woman in the ASFU should refrain from, some of which are codified into the bylaws of sororities and debutante societies. (Should a young lady be discovered violating these laws, she risks expulsion.) She should never be seen chewing gum, smoking cigarettes, or drinking straight from a beer bottle. She should not be heard cursing, mentioning her ill health, disparaging the Church, or speaking of politics. There is almost nothing that will rouse a complaint from her, and though she may drink heavily at social functions, she must take care not to appear to be as drunk as she might become.

The ASFU does not reward intellectual pursuits; it is more or less indifferent to any manner of career success. The ASFU prioritizes being married and having children over having a viable income or personal pursuits. A woman in the ASFU will enjoy football even if she does not enjoy football.

To wear the ASFU is much like being a synchronized swimmer or a bridesmaid—always graceful, always smiling, always looking nearly identical to the women to your left and right.

I am a white girl, but since I was unable to wear the ASFU, I spent my girlhood in Mississippi in contravention of my gender. Without the ASFU, I was less a white girl and more a white thing.

I cannot and should not claim any sort of high ground for this; my lack of adherence to the ASFU was mostly a result of circumstance. On the first day of elementary school I stood in the girls’ bathroom, looking at myself and my friend C in the mirror. She had perfect blond curls, dimples, a doll’s face, a flouncy dress, and bobby socks. I was—I knew even then—plain. I said as much to C, and she insisted that I was pretty too, that we were the same.3 I knew very well that we were not the same, and though I was jealous of her, there was no forging my looks. We were aimed at different futures. I told my mother I wouldn’t wear dresses to school anymore, explaining that I couldn’t hang upside down on the jungle gym. I traded the official uniform of my gender for the ability to move freely, because I knew I would never be able to convincingly play the part.

At seven, I didn’t need a name or definition for the ASFU to understand its importance. Nearly every woman around me was costumed in it, and the more complete her costume, the more complete her power. Children can easily identify the hierarchies between adults. No matter where she grows up, power is the first language a child learns.

In the years before puberty, I wore my brother’s hand-me-downs during the week and consented to a dress or pantsuit for church. But around middle school, the allure of belonging became stronger, as is often the case. Clothing and makeup consumed the girls around me. Weekend slumber parties became times for makeovers, and I, braless in an old T-shirt and soccer shorts, was often the chief object of these transformations. The before-and-after Polaroids are burned into my memory; never has a twelve-year-old in lipstick looked sadder.

To be a girl in Mississippi was to feel an obligation to cooperate with the preexisting idea of how one should behave. Regardless of how fraudulent dresses and heels and makeup might have felt, I did sometimes try to wear an approximate ASFU, but either it didn’t fit or I didn’t want to fit into it.

Now that I’ve spent more of my life away from Mississippi than in it, the ASFU doesn’t operate as a force in my life so much as a strong current around me. Whom does this costume really serve, and who is perpetuating its existence? Where did it come from and who is paying for it and how might it change?

The ASFU exists to heighten a woman’s femininity and agreeability, and it is reasonable to assume that the aesthetic descended from the traditions Southern culture has used to arrange and encourage marriage among the monied. Since I rejected an invitation to be a debutante in the town where I went to boarding school, I’ve remained curious about what, exactly, I passed up. Was it just a long series of parties, as I’ve heard? Or was there some secret handshake that I missed out on learning?

*

In the mid-’90s, the photographer Annie Leibovitz took a portrait of debutantes from the Delta Debutante Club, in Greenville, Mississippi. The young women, in gowns, pearls, and gloves, look bored and stately, as if they were standing on some high precipice, watching their lives unfold before them—their debut followed by courtship, marriage, motherhood, future debutante balls, and death. Looking at this photograph in a book I checked out of the Ole Miss library, I was reminded that despite feeling a world away from these debutantes, these girls, now women, might live nearby. Their daughters could be preparing for their own debutante balls.

Debutante balls and comparable traditions are held all over the world,4 traditionally to “debut” a young woman of marriageable age into her society. The Southern tradition began in the antebellum era, to subtly arrange aristocratic marriages between young plantation heirs and heiresses. The debutante costume—both then and now—is a white formal gown, one that could be mistaken for a wedding dress, worn with long white satin gloves.

There was no phone number, email, or mailing address listed for the Delta Debutante Club, but I found a hotel that had hosted one of its balls in recent years. The hotel manager would not confirm that her venue worked with the Delta Debutante Club, but she said she could pass along my phone number and name. Perhaps someone would call.

A month later a voicemail from a confused woman appeared on my phone. Someone had given her my number and she didn’t quite know what it was that I wanted. I called her back, trying to muster the Southern accent of my youth. I made a point of telling her that I was from Tupelo, and gave my parents’ and grandparents’ names, before I told her I was a writer whom Ole Miss had invited for the year.

“Oh, OK,” she said. She was already losing patience. She asked, indirectly and politely, as a Southern woman should, just what the hell I was after.

I tried to explain my curiosity about debutantes. Yes, I did know that debutante clubs were quite private, and I respected that and I would never want to violate that privacy. It would be a human-interest story, I assured her; something literary, not an exposé. I was a Mississippian, I reminded this nice lady, and, by the way, I had some cousins who had lived in Greenville at some point, I thought; did she know them? She didn’t.

She told me that outsiders just didn’t understand. They thought debutante balls were outdated and frivolous. They thought they were about selling young girls off to be married. They were none of those things, she told me. Yes, I said, I know that must be true, but then what are they instead? What is a debutante ball today?

It’s a tradition, she said, and there really aren’t very many traditions anymore. It’s a way to be connected to the past, she said, and it’s a way for the community to come together. It’s all those things and it’s so much more than that. I told her I would like to write a piece about exactly what she’d just said: that a debutante ball is so much more than what outsiders think of it. I forgot for a moment that I was, in fact, an outsider, knocking heartily on a closed door.

Had she ever seen that Annie Leibovitz portrait of the debutantes? “Oh yes,” she said. She remembered it very well. A terse silence followed. The truth is, she said finally, talking to the press had never brought the club anything but trouble. She promised to mention my request at the next meeting and call me back, but I was unsurprised never to hear from her again.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Southern debutantes were not strangers to the press. Their names, photographs, parents’ names, and sometimes their addresses were printed in the local paper to mark the rite of passage. A 1984 New York Times Magazine piece reported that while debutante balls were on the decline through the ’60s and ’70s, they made a resurgence in the Reagan era, when the president “reintroduced the principle that having wealth and flaunting it are proper social conduct.” Yet at the same time, the social organizations that arranged the balls became increasingly secretive about their selection process, traditions, and guest lists. No longer were the debutantes announced in the newspaper. For a 2012 essay about the most elite Southern debutante balls, published in the journal Southern Cultures, the writer Cynthia Lewis found hardly any women willing to speak on the record. One woman insisted that debutante culture was not “loaded” at all, though she spoke with the promise of anonymity.

My hometown rebranded its debutante tradition years ago as Charity Ball. It permits young women to wear gowns of any color, neither requires nor discourages satin gloves, and will ostensibly debut any girl, provided she can find a local business that will make a sizable contribution in her honor to the Junior Auxiliary, the exclusive women’s organization that runs the ball. Anyone can buy a ticket to the event. The attire is formal but the dinner is usually barbecue. Though in high school I was able to evade a full-on debutante ball, I was strong-armed into Charity Ball—a single evening in which I was required to max out my femininity. I wore a dark burgundy dress, one that said Fuck off as loudly as allowed, and was paraded across a stage as the emcee read my name. Then I went backstage, took off all the makeup, and went home. My family’s hardware store made the donation in my honor, and when the Junior Auxiliary had us write thank-you notes to the businesses that paid for our sponsorships, I wrote my dad a damning missive.

A Southern debutante ball can be recontextualized any number of ways, but it cannot be separated from its antebellum roots. In its origin lies the tradition’s original purpose: to worship the delicate white bodies of delicate white women, to immobilize those bodies in corsets and hoopskirts and layers upon layers of cotton, to keep those bodies within the control of white men, to employ those bodies as vessels to create more Southern, wealthy, white people who will, in turn, continue the rituals that birthed them. But it’s a lot of fun. It’s for charity. It’s tradition.

*

The thought crossed my mind that if I wanted to know about the ASFU, it would be easier to infiltrate one of the several sororities on campus than to sweet-talk my way into a debutante ball invite.

For a moment I wondered if I could masquerade as an alumna who wanted to stop by her sorority house to reminisce, or perhaps I could pass as a prospective sister, maybe a nontraditional student who had spent a gap decade in the Peace Corps. But when I imagined myself smushed into a Panhellenic party, ignorant of the social codes, I remembered I’m not an adventurous sort of journalist, and I’m not even really a journalist, much less an investigative one. I am just the writer in residence.

Anyway, I had already read some embedded reporting from a real-life Ole Miss sorority sister, one Mary Marge Locker. A few years ago Locker wrote a column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency that followed her recruitment into and dismissal from the TriDelts. Her offense: being too drunk while wearing a gold sequined romper, and spilling sorority secrets in the aforementioned column. Her sentence was delivered by a tribunal called Standards, the gauntlet any sister must face if her behavior is found to be lacking. Her ensemble, they said, was “a little bit much for someone who was in your… your state.”

When I read the column about the meeting with Standards, I recognized the feeling—as if I, too, had been summoned to justify my behavior to a group of impeccably groomed women. I had never been part of anything like a sorority, not even Girl Scouts. Yet the feeling of being on trial for my behavior was one that saturated my girlhood in Mississippi. It’s one of the most essential qualities of the ASFU. Any woman wearing it holds a whole jury in her gaze.

*

My grandmother was once mortally offended when a close family member served her chicken salad in an unpeeled tomato. Great concern arose about the sanity of this woman. If she’s not peeling her tomatoes—for guests!—how else might she have given up?

Though my grandmother Martha married late (she had been nearly thirty, she reminds me), she married into a respectable family. My grandfather ran a hardware store founded by his father and lived in a big house built by his father. After seven years and two kids, my grandmother and grandfather divorced, a shocking thing in 1950s Mississippi. A clause in the agreement stipulated that if either of them dated again or remarried, they’d lose custody of the kids.

The reason for the divorce had long been obscured (I have been told both that Grandmother was “difficult” and that perhaps Granddad was physically abusive), but when I asked my grandmother a few years ago, even she didn’t remember. I tried to coax it to the surface: “You were married seven years… then what?” “Well…,” she said, brightening with a memory, “we were married seven years, then he died.” Better to be a widow than to fail at marriage. Of course, my grandfather continued to be a pillar in his community, on the board at the local bank, his name well-known and respected. My grandmother moved out of town and worked in the dignified (or defeated) silence of a library.

Failure meant that she had to wear the ASFU all the more aggressively. She held a regular salon appointment, kept ludicrously thin, dressed impeccably in sweater sets and brooches, went to church every Sunday, and expressed no outward emotions other than a calm acceptance that this was her life. She loved crime fiction, John Grisham in particular. Before my father married my mother, a divorcée herself, my grandmother coolly warned her son that he was making a mistake, laying out a list of hazards in a handwritten letter. Your children will be delinquents. She’ll try to steal your money.

In her nineties now, Grandmother is living her second childhood, her former intensity blunted by Alzheimer’s, though she still gets her nails and hair done.5 As she slowly fades, her adherence to the ASFU is also fading, but if she were cogent enough to know about my friend Mary Frances, it might kill her on the spot.

Mary Frances, my sole remaining childhood friend in Mississippi, has made it her business to disrupt the ASFU at nearly every turn. Though she joined a sorority in college, she was offended by the rules dictating her behavior—how she wasn’t allowed to drink straight from a beer can or smoke in public or do anything “off-the-wall.” “They expected us to be a bunch of Suzy house makers in our aprons and pearls,” she tells me, “but the frats were allowed to do whatever they wanted.” The double standard nauseated her, and she quit.

During her early twenties, Mary Frances lived away from Mississippi, working as a singer and dancer on cruise ships, though when she visited home she still sang in the church choir. On one such trip a young man proposed to her and she, an outspoken Democrat unafraid of conflict, married this sturdy Republican and soon gave birth to two daughters. Where I’ve rejected the ASFU in its entirety, Mary Frances has always done exactly what she wants, circumstantially conforming to some expectations while blowing others up. Now she teaches dance and music classes, and after she puts the kids to bed she “slaps on some leather goes to sing at the bar.”

Though she was never blond and has always keeps her hair short, she does, for the most part, observe the makeup and wardrobe of the ASFU—albeit with her own spin (for example, leather). On a recent afternoon, her mother-in-law, a pigmentologist, stopped by the house with a request. She’d been tattooing her eyebrows on and needed help doing a part she couldn’t reach. Mary Frances, of course, was game—she tattooed her mother-in-law’s face, then let her return the favor.

At once defiant toward our small Mississippi town and completely at ease within it, Mary Frances has always been a conundrum to me. The people who know her from her lounge gigs are baffled by her more conservative friend and habits. Those who know her from church or Junior Auxiliary are subtly dismissive of her music career, waiting for her to focus exclusively on her children.

The ASFU has never existed for its own sake. The ASFU is the way the South creates women who will be wives and mothers in the correct way—clean and calm and quiet, reliable and untethered to the outside world. A woman who’s only as good as her bosom, a crucible for future white Southern culture. Mothers have and always will pay the price of the ASFU. Of course, the stringent expectations placed upon mothers (but not fathers; never fathers) are not unique to the South. As Sheila Heti observes in her excellent novel Motherhood, “The most womanly problem is not giving oneself enough space or time, or not being allowed it… But doesn’t having children lead to the most miserly allotment of space and time? Having a child solves the impulse to give oneself nothing. It makes that impulse into a virtue.” A young adulthood in the ASFU is akin to the training bras of puberty. Once motherhood is upon a young woman, the ASFU is meant to calcify completely, to mold her into her new role. All that pomp and circumstance were always leading here, to this point, when a nice Southern lady begins serving the next generation of debutantes, sorority sisters, and brides.

Some years ago, several of my parents’ friends threw me a party to celebrate my engagement to a Very Nice Man, but the marriage lasted less than a year. One of the things I dreaded about my residency and temporary return to Mississippi was the dismay and disapproval of this bunch of curious (gossipy) Southerners, shallowly buried in exclamations like “My gracious, don’t you look like you’re doing well?” Yet by the end of the year, the scorn had not arrived, and I realized that by rescinding my marriage, I had rescinded my potential to be a mother, and since I’ve exited my childbearing prime, apparently choosing career over family, I have been exempted from the standards that women with children are held to. I am, again and always, a white thing.

Over the phone, Mary Frances agreed; while her brash behavior used to be criticized for being “not how a young lady should act,” now her children are the reason held up for why she should conform. She survives by having a thick enough skin to remain indifferent. Indeed, I have witnessed Mary Frances drinking straight from a beer bottle, and she has texted me about the remarkable size of her child’s bowel movements, and she has never pretended that the costume of the ASFU is seamless.

Late in my stay in Oxford, Mary Frances stopped by to visit, with kids, husband, and cousins in tow. She immediately apologized for her face. It had been a rough week, so her mother-in-law had shown up with microdermabrasion equipment, administering care by way of needles and chemical peels. It looked like Mary Frances had done a nosedive onto a sidewalk. She laughed at her own reflection. She didn’t care who saw her. Tomorrow, or perhaps the next day, she was told, she’d be radiant.

1. It should be noted that though some women of color attend Ole Miss, and some even belong to sororities, an “Ole Miss girl,” at least for the purposes of this essay, is a white girl.
2. These blouses and their many permutations have a striking resemblance to the little white gowns babies wear on their baptismal day.
3. To insist on another girl’s beauty even when it is not there is an exemplary ASFU behavior.
4. The Queen of England abolished the tradition in her courts in 1958.
5. When I visited her with my boyfriend, she asked him what church he went to, and, not wanting to offend her with atheism, he said, “Buddhist,” an approximate truth. “Baptist?” she asked. “Buddhist,” he corrected her. “Baptist,” she confirmed, and when she asked again, then again, and again, every thirty seconds for the rest of our visit, he knew the correct answer.
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