I knew it would happen someday. But seriously, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
The Southwest jet I was flying on the first leg of my return trip from New York was beginning its descent to the Baltimore airport. I was in an aisle seat to accommodate my claustrophobia, the anxiety meds and the empty middle seat creating a pleasant haze of well-being. Until a flight attendant, a man well into his fifties, approached to tell my seatmate to raise her tray table for landing.
He placed his hand lightly on my shoulder.
“Excuse me, young lady,” he simpered, before leaning over me to address the real young lady, the teenager by the window.
“Miss,” he said to her, and I felt the buzz evaporate and the color drain from my face.
My first young lady.
It’s a ghastly rite of passage, the anticipation of which fills every woman of a certain age with dread because it signifies exactly one thing: the man who says it—and trust me, it’s always a man—thinks you are old. And not only does he think you’re old, he thinks old age has turned you into a simpleton who actually believes he has mistaken you for a sweet young thing. It is perhaps the most condescending thing a man can say to a woman and yet they continue to do it, generation after generation of clueless men congratulating themselves, thinking they’ve made a mature woman’s day by likening her to a pubescent sex fantasy.
Now that my own young-lady moment had actually arrived, I can tell you: it was even more humiliating than I’d imagined. After a few random compliments that had eased the sting of my 53rd birthday and reassured me that perhaps I have a few more attractive years in me after all, I now felt a hundred.
Through the long descent, the hard landing, the taxi across the tarmac to the gate, I fretted over the epithet as though it had been an intentional affront. It wasn’t of course—just the cheesy attempt at flattery of a man who knew nothing about women. But I felt I had to say something, if only, perhaps, to spare his next female passenger the indignity of what I was pretty sure was a signature line. So when the “Fasten Seatbelt” light went off, I rose from my seat and slipped into an empty row near the front of the plane to await my opportunity.
It arrived quickly, when the offender moved out of the walkway and into the first row to begin preparing the cabin for the next flight. I walked to the front of the plane, slid into row two and, when he looked up, touched his arm and leaned in close.
“ I have a friendly tip,” I said.
“Sure,” he replied eagerly.
I leaned closer and whispered in his ear. “Women over forty do not like to be called ‘young lady.’ It doesn’t make us feel young, it makes us feel old, and whoever told you it was charming is a social oaf.”
As I moved back to gauge his reaction, he laughed and tried to pull me in for a hug, but I stiff-armed him.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“It’s just a habit,” he said—a bit defensively, I thought.
“You should break it,” I said.
As I moved back into the aisle to deplane, he followed me.
“But the alternative would be to call you ma’am,” he insisted. “Women hate that, right?”
I turned and looked at him. Women hate being patronized, I wanted to say, but I was done.
“Call me miss,” I said.
The middle-aged female flight attendant standing by the door was grinning, clearly amused at the exchange. “’Bye,” she said with a wink as I left the plane.
A step outside the door I turned around one more time.
“Goodbye, young man,” I said, fluttering my fingers in a wave. The female flight attendant cracked up.
As I made my way to the gate for my connecting flight, I realized I should probably thank the misguided flight attendant for one thing: the blog post would practically write itself.