Why Women Can’t Lighten Up

Disclaimer: I wrote this last January but wanted to give it time to cool off, to get some distance from it, which deserves reflection and commentary in its own right.  But please know that I did not take liberties; all of this happened, and all of it in one day.  Specifically, January 29th, 2015.  How do I know?  Because I just triangulated three crucial parts of the story: (1) The Terps Men’s Basketball team lost horribly to Ohio State 80-56; (2) The episode of This American Life I reference aired on Sunday January 25th; and (3) I checked my work calendar and had an afternoon meeting with the client I reference.  Having said all of that, go on with the borophyll.

Today is much better than yesterday.  Yesterday was not so great.

At 7:15 A.M., I stood on the corner of 16th & P waiting for the light to change so I could continue with my run while a man stood two feet behind me and audibly told me what he thought of my ass and what he’d like to do to me.  Not with me — this wasn’t an invitation to dinner or the zoo — there was no consent or acceptance.  This was just his public declaration.  He didn’t even say hi first.

On the other side of the street, I watched the clock tick down, but there were still 20 seconds.  This is a long light on a prominent road.  You know, the one that leads to the White House, which I could see from where I stood.

The little red hand hadn’t even shown itself yet, which was fitting.  No one told anyone else to stop.
The man continued his soliloquy.  I stood there and took it, like I always do.  I say “always” because this isn’t rare.  Any woman can confirm this.  I pretended I didn’t hear him, which was easy because I had headphones but hard because I did hear every word.  I ignored it, applying the old schoolyard methodology of “if you ignore it, it’ll go away.”

I played it masterfully.  Paid this dude no mind.  Ignored the whole incident and didn’t mention it to anybody because this wasn’t unique.  But more importantly, because I’m tough.  Because I don’t let bullshit losers get to me.  Because I’m a strong woman who knows the world is unfair and that I have to be bigger than this.

I was minimally angry.  But where do I put it?

At 10:25 A.M., one of my colleagues posted this image in a company-wide Slack channel.

were hiring new ux designers right

Another colleague replied, “a russian designer in hawaii. checks out.”

I cringed on every level.  Why was this woman showing herself this way, but more importantly, who the fuck cares?  What made my colleague think it was an appropriate thing to communicate?  And while I’m skeptical of the perfectly catfishy bio of a busty dreamgirl from Hawaii via Russia, I also wonder why having a nice rack disqualifies you from being talented or credible.  In my heart of hearts, I hope this woman is a fucking boss who doesn’t apologize for being hot.

It seems unlikely, but why?

At 10:44 A.M., I told my colleague that it made me cringe as a woman and his colleague, and he immediately and sincerely apologized, said point taken, and thanked me for bringing it up rather than letting it stew.  It was absolutely over it, and I felt fucking great about the interaction.  I felt like that is how we make progress together: caring and understanding each other.

It wasn’t awkward during or after that moment.  And if the day had ended there, I think I would have felt like a winner.

Then at 5:25 P.M., my favorite client — who had never shown me anything other than respect and care for who I am or what I do — went to snap a photo of what we’d drawn on a whiteboard using his iPhone, and when someone suggested he use Siri, he responded with, “I don’t trust women.”  He smiled and said just kidding, and I’m sure he was.  But let’s replace women in that joke with another minority group.

“I don’t trust Blacks.”
“I don’t trust gays.”
“I don’t trust Jews.”

Can you even imagine saying that, during business hours no less?  Sweet heavens, I’m horrified just thinking of it.  And yet, I’ve heard men I love and respect make jokes about women belonging in the kitchen.  Is it any different if it’s off the clock?

I scowled, but no one noticed.  I didn’t say anything because this is a client, and this is a client I really like.  In an instant, I weighed it against all the other interactions I’ve had with this man and realized that this was the outlier.  I still like him.  He’s still great.  He didn’t say anything about me personally, right?  Just about women at large, the group I’d been trying to distance myself from for decades by being “one of the guys.”

one of the guys movie
This movie is underrated, y’all.

But then where do I put this?  This little orb of anger.  I just let it slide, right?  Because I’m tough.  Because I’m bigger than this.  Because I’m a reasonable woman who works in business.  Because I can’t let this get to me.  I Lean In, is that right?

At 6:15 P.M., I walked home, listening to this week’s This American Life Podcast, in which a woman writer, Lindy West, was trolled in awful, horrible, disgusting, inhumane ways.  People saying they don’t usually rape people as fat as she is.  Some asshole who created multiple Twitter accounts to harass her, including one impersonating her dad who had just recently died.

TAL episode
Click to listen.

At 6:25 P.M., the next story started, one about “vocal fry,” uptalking, and other stereotypically female vocal patterns that enrage and annoy radio listeners.  I listened hard and couldn’t even detect what the issue was.  But apparently, it’s so grating that people write in to the show en masse, saying it ruins the credibility of the reporters, the program, the craft.  As if the content doesn’t matter.  It’s the container in which it’s transported.  The voice.

This had never been an issue for me.  My voice is clear as a bell, medium-pitched, and doesn’t drift off.  But still, this animosity exists and I never even thought about it.  When I open my mouth and say words, people are actively but subconsciously tracking whether my voice, tone, or affectation makes it worthwhile to listen to me.  As if it might be better to just stay quiet, no matter what I have to say.  So, where do I put this again?

By 8:00 P.M., it was halftime and the Terps were losing terribly.  I was in a really bad, completely irrational emotional state.  This is my brain on sports.

Josh and I started talking about This American Life because he wanted to tell me how sexist the story about vocal fry was.  He was so offended and pissed off about it.  We agreed loudly in the way that someone from New England and someone from New Jersey communicate best.  I loved that he didn’t know he was a feminist.  We agreed so fast that the Terps hadn’t even come back out from the locker room.

With the remaining ten minutes of halftime, we turned to the story of internet trolls going after Lindy West.  This was when Josh — who had made me dinner so I could pay full attention to the game because he “felt like he hadn’t made dinner in a while,” and who bought me a supply of apples when he “thought I was running out” because he is thoughtful and considerate and a good fucking listener  — said he found the woman annoying.

He explained that if you’re a writer in the public space, you need to expect trolls and negative comments.  You don’t even have to read their comments.  You can ignore them.  You have to be tough.  You have to let it slide.  You can’t engage with them.

Of course, this is when I yelled at him that I didn’t think he could ever possibly understand.  I stopped the conversation.  I gave up.  I didn’t explain.  I didn’t know what to say and wished Atticus Finch could come tell him to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.  Or run a mile.  Or run a few miles and then see how sick, how despondent, how fucking angry it makes you when you feel like you can’t do anything but “let it slide” when a street troll tells you he’s going to put his fingers inside you.

I wasn’t actually angry at him, but I was still angry.  I thought he couldn’t possibly understand where I was coming from, so I just stopped talking about it.

But where should I put this?  Any of this?  I didn’t know, so I just shoved it in a box and brought it with me to bed.

I got up this morning and ran again, obviously, because I’m tough.  Earlier and longer than usual, because I’m tough.  I didn’t know I brought the box with me, but I did.  I carried it with me, heavy in my heart and on my mind until I opened it on mile 11 and started unpacking the whole thing.

See, it’s not the single incident.  It’s the full story.

It’s the same thing that happened with Hollaback’s controversial but eye-opening street harassment video.

It’s not the single dude calling us beautiful or baby, or telling us to smile. It’s that the shitheads and the people we care about may think our voices are grating, or joke that they don’t trust our gender, or imply that if we have a nice rack we probably don’t have anything else. They do it casually, one at a time, until we can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.

It’s that it happens all day, everyday.  Without our consent.

It’s that people tell us to “ignore it” and “let it slide” but that doesn’t mean the behavior stops.  It just means that we carry it with us.  Which makes it particularly ironic and infuriating when people tell women to lighten up.

It’s mostly that we’re fucking angry that we have no place to put all this shit.  And we shouldn’t have to carry it because you shouldn’t have put it on us in the first place.

5 thoughts on “Why Women Can’t Lighten Up

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. You’re right about that not-so-little-box of shit. It can become quite toxic and shade one’s life experience. Your post described my teens and twenties – an exhausting packing away of all the unexpressed anger, until it became toxic.

    Now older and more assertive, it doesn’t go in a box, it goes back in the perpetrator’s face. I’m less likable and agreeable, but happier. And as you pointed out in your work experience, sometimes saying something is not as confrontational as one imagines. Sometimes people are just dense and need a little on-the-spot reminder of who their audience is.

    1. Much appreciated, Michelle! You’re right. If we take the time and energy to explain or rebuff these things that are varying degrees of unacceptable, that’s the only way people might take it to heart or even understand our perspective. And more than that, it actually feels better. It can be difficult to muster that kind of energy when it’s a constant barrage, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Thanks for reading!

  2. I personally think that the more you speak against it outloud to the guilty parties, the less it happens. After 62 years of living, that’s hows its worked out for me. Speak up. It doesn’t even have to be in a rage. It can just be stated, clear-eyed, firmly, confidently because all that is right in the universe will back you up… right at them that their behavior is totally unacceptable. Don’t even have to use names. Your obvious lack of respect for the behavior will be quite clear.

  3. Unlike you, I’m always angry and lighten up. If anyone angers me, I’d beat the tar out of him or her and refuse to accept any punishments.

    As for weakness, all people have to accept ‘cuz being strong is overrated.

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