Mama always said, “Be sweet.”

“Be sweet now!”

“Y’all be sweet!”

“Love you! Be sweet!”

This is the admonition every Southern girl hears from her mother as she leaves the house to go just about anywhere.

“Be sweet.”

Why? Because despite their angelic looks and Miss Manners comportment, girls are not inherently sweet at all. And their Mamas know that. They were, after all, once girls themselves.

Girls are, in fact, downright mean and hateful to one another. I know. I did three years of hard time at an all-girls school.

“Be sweet, my ass…” I’d think under my breath. “If I’m sweet, these vicious hussies will eat me for lunch.” And so it begins.

Too fat. Too skinny. Ugly. Knock-kneed. Pigeon-toed. So dumb. Too smart. Country. Hick. Wrong socks. Flat hair. Too slow. Too fast. Big bow. Little bow. Homemade lunch. Homemade clothes. Lesbo. Tramp.

You name it, and a girl can seize on it like a terrier on an old tube sock and make your life miserable because of it. Forget being sweet. Mama might as well have hollered “Y’all survive now, ya hear!” as she dropped you off.

I’m sure being sweet does have a place in society, especially when it comes to the elderly, small children, and most animals. And I try to be sweet as a general rule. After all, Mama says I should be.

But it’s hard.

Sometimes I don’t feel sweet. Sometimes I want to just say something like, “For God’s sake don’t wear those pants again. You look like a mattress stuffed in a condom.” But that’s not very sweet.

Sometimes I want to say, “Why do you yammer on and on and on? I will drive an ice pick into my ear if you don’t shut up.” But that’s not very sweet.

Sometime I want to say, “You drooling moron, how can you be so utterly stupid?” But that’s not very sweet either.

Here’s the thing of it. All these unsweet things? I sometimes want to say them to other girls (and boys too), but I mainly say them to myself. And that’s not very sweet.

Here’s what Mama never did say: “Be sweet…to yourself.”

Easier said than done.

I have a sneaking suspicion that all the mean girls — and women — are mean for a reason. Bad hair day. Bad marriage. Bad life. Who knows? Here’s what I do know. Whatever makes mean people mean really has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

I wish I’d known that when I was eleven.

We have to try to be sweet, though. If we can’t be sweet to ourselves, how can we go out in the world as daughters, wives, mothers, and professionals and be sweet, or at least civil, to others? And if we are sweet, maybe it will be catching. Maybe that mean girl just needs somebody to tell her that all the horrible things she says to herself just aren’t true.

Unless of course they are. But that has nothing to do with sweet and everything to do with reality. There’s a difference.

Like I said, I try. I don’t always succeed.