A couple of decades ago a woman friend said this to me: “I’m always suspicious of a man who talks or writes about women’s issues, because there’s a good chance he just wants to sleep with smart women.” I suspect/hope things have improved somewhat since then, but I still take her comment to heart. I’m aware that it’s more than a little presumptuous for a man to talk about certain gender issues — partly because they’re usually issues created and perpetuated by men, and partly because it can easily come off as a guy telling women how to feel and what to think. And most women I know have had enough of that.
Still, I have thoughts and opinions (too many, some people think) and writing about them helps me clarify stuff that’s loitering about in my head. Stuff like this: a couple of days ago something awkward and unpleasant happened to a friend of mine. With her permission, I’m repeating what she wrote about the incident on Facebook:
This afternoon a total stranger commented on my (non-existent) pregnancy. I was sad and surprised to find that I felt not amused or irritated, but ashamed. I’ve never much minded my soft little belly; I really, really love food and I love beer and if this is the physical result I’m okay with that, as I live a life full of joy. But all of those good feelings were suddenly wiped away in two seconds after the woman spoke. I wanted to run out of the restaurant and hide, to cry in my car, and then to come home and work my abs relentlessly, to diet, to change my body, not for me, but because I felt, somehow, like I had done something wrong that I needed to fix, to apologize to her. It was weird, and it hurt, in a lot of ways.
What struck me most wasn’t that somebody said something thoughtless and hurtful. I expect people to do that, because humans fuck up on a regular basis. What struck me was her immediate reaction. This is a smart, confident woman; she’s active, capable, physically strong, determined. And she’s always seemed entirely comfortable in her body. And yet her immediate response to that absurd comment was shame. Her many friends responded to her FB post in a couple of ways. First, they reassured her that she looks great (which she does, but which is really completely irrelevant). Second, they excoriated the stranger for being insensitive and clueless (which she may have been, but which I think is also completely irrelevant). I love the fact that everybody offered her instant, spontaneous support.
But I think it’s also important to recognize and address the ugly fact that her immediate response to that thoughtless comment — that she felt shame — is an indictment of our culture. I think it’s important to keep acknowledging and discussing the fact that our culture routinely undermines women by keeping them focused on and distracted by an irrational beauty standard grounded in a body image that’s largely unattainable. And to compound that problem, the culture not only makes women think that whatever body shape they actually have is somehow wrong, it also suggests that whatever is supposedly wrong with their bodies can — and should — be corrected.
Again, look at what my friend wrote:
I felt, somehow, like I had done something wrong that I needed to fix.
This ‘fix it’ notion is pervasive and insidious, and only serves to further sabotage a woman’s sense of worth — and when I say pervasive, I mean seriously pervasive. We’ve created entire commercial industries that are basically devoted to fucking up a woman’s self-worth. Cosmetics, fashion, dietary products, surgical enhancements.Women are taught to ‘fix it’ by wearing the right makeup, by buying the right clothing, by eating less (or eating more), by having invasive surgery on perfectly healthy bodies. Consider, for example, the astonishingly complex, culturally masochistic relationship women have with shoes, then apply that to ALL their clothing decisions. Then also consider that women’s clothing generally costs more than men’s clothing — and women’s styles change more often, which means their clothing has to be replaced more often. That sucks on its own, but it sucks even more when you consider women generally get paid less, yet their wardrobe costs more (and have you ever looked at the cost of cosmetic products?). All this serves to keep women more poor than men, which makes them more dependent on keeping a job, which makes them more susceptible to putting up with shit from their employers.
And it’s not just their bodies and their clothing women have to fret about. Our culture judges them on their voices (too shrill, too masculine, too loud, too soft), on their laughter (laughs too loud, shows too many teeth, laughs too often, doesn’t laugh enough), on their emotions (too emotional, not emotional enough, too angry, too nice, too aggressive, too timid), and Jeebus Jeebus Jeebus how is it that women are able to keep themselves from climbing a water tower with a high-powered weapon and shooting all of us?
But they don’t. To me, this is the most remarkable thing of all — the amazing capacity of women to deal with all that and remain resilient. Look again at what my friend said:
It was weird, and it hurt, in a lot of ways
And it hurt — and it hurt in a lot of ways. But later that day, she’d moved on. I don’t know, but I suspect today if she feels any shame at all, it’s shame at having felt shame for something she had no reason to feel shame about.
I want to end this by saying something positive. I want to say that things are getting better for women — and it’s actually true. Or at least partly true. Reproductive rights are in jeopardy, women still lack pay equity, and the fashion industry continues to create clothing for women with a complete absence of usable pockets. But there’s a woman running for President of These United States. Despite three or four decades of being knocked down, she’s refused to stay there. Of course, even as president she won’t be able to buy clothes with pockets.
But as president, she won’t need them. So there’s that.