Thursday, January 15, 2015

Yes, I am a Bitch: Some Field Notes on Sexism

Most of the time, I don't like being called a bitch.

In today's colloquial, it's insulting. It's meant to be derogatory, and is a term often used to harm. Lately, there's been a bit of talk in the feminist community about reclaiming this term, which I support entirely. My problem isn't that I've been called a bitch. I haven't, much, and I don't really care when I am.

My problem is with the way people use this term to label women that act in a traditionally non-feminine fashion. 

If I were a man, people wouldn't call me a bitch for refusing to engage in conversations with people who get on my nerves. I wouldn't be considered "cold" or "frigid" for ignoring a guy asking for my number on the bus if I feel like he's a bit of a creep. When I stand in front of a room and ask for attention, people call me bossy or rude; they consider it off-putting, because I am a woman.

A man would be praised for taking control of the situation.

I love femininity. I love being a sister and wearing lipstick, and in general I'm grateful to have been given a life as a woman. But I am not happy about the way we are still treated, as a group, by large portions of society.

Sexism is not over.

Men and women are different, and I won't deny that. Naturally, this lends itself to differences in our thoughts, actions and the ways in which we conduct ourselves. But when a girl is mistreated by a guy, so often people tell her, "well, maybe you shouldn't have been so nice to him; you were leading him on!" What is she supposed to do? If she turns around and stands up for herself, people are going to tell her off, call her a bitch or say she's uptight and snobbish.

As women we are given no in-between. If we bend to the will of society's mistreatment of us, we are left alone, but at what cost? At best, we become invisible, little pieces of the picture, bits necessary to create the whole but not strong enough to stand out on their own. At worst, our voices are squelched, crushed under the iron will of the people who believe that women belong somewhere they can be neither seen nor heard.

I read so many stories of sexual abuse where this is the problem, the reason things get out of hand... Because women, girls, are scared to speak their minds and stand up for themselves when they're being mistreated. They would rather let people take advantage of them than risk letting society tell them they're bringing things upon themselves. It's upsetting, to say the least.

Things need to change.

I used to work a a grocery store. I liked working there; I liked interacting with people and walking to work on a nice day.

What I did not like was the amount of sexism I ended up experiencing as a totally unanticipated side effect.

If I were a guy, my grocery store coworkers would never have asked me to do tasks differently than my male coworkers. My job required some heavy lifting and a fair bit of physical work. It wasn't much, but enough that I frequently had male coworkers stop me from doing certain tasks because, as they said, I'm "just a girl" and I'm "small". If a customer needed help lifting something and I was the closest employee around, a guy would be summoned instead. I once offered to help a woman load bags of compost into her car. These were not extremely heavy bags, but the woman was older and would have had trouble doing it on her own. The cashier I was working with looked at me and said, "Are you sure? You know those bags are heavy, right? And she needs five of them."

What's most upsetting is that most of the people that made comments like this were good people- they were hard workers, friendly, and generally people I truly enjoyed working with…. and they didn't even know the way they treated me was insulting.When I protested, I was met with condescending smiles, easy translated: you're just a silly girl who doesn't know what you're talking about! We'll just have someone else get those heavy bags, then.

Yeah, I'm physically small (on a side note... society also spends billions of dollars a year telling us that we should be thin/delicate/fragile objects of desire through advertising- but that's another subject altogether). I'm also pretty damn tough. I've competed at the State level for cross country twice and hold the women's record for the 5k at Chief Sealth, was the MVP of my cross country team for 4 years running and team captain for 2 of those years, have run 5 half marathons, done front tucks off balance beams (once nearly breaking my neck), landed a waltz-salchow combo on ice, gotten lost and un-lost in foreign countries, and managed my own busted knee for a week in freaking China when I really should have gotten stitches.

Don't tell me I can't lift a stack of paper bags or bring a few grocery carts up in an elevator. This is sexism.

Now onto the people I don't know well, who I can't say are just acting a certain way because they don't know any better. Let's take the guy that actually started to follow me on the way to work last summer. For the sake of his privacy, we'll call him "Joe". I happened to be walking on the same street as "Joe". He approached me to ask me about the book in my hand. This is fine; this is friendly. At the end of the street was a crosswalk and we had a short, friendly conversation until the light changed. He started off in one direction, and I in the other. I said goodbye, and he said, "actually, I don't have to be anywhere for a while- I'll walk with you a bit."

He did not ask me if this was okay, which is when warning bells started going off in my head.

He did ask me about school. Keeping my answers short and friendly, I avoided giving him any super personal information. I also altered my route to take me in a more public direction, because I was beginning to feel threatened. I would guess this man was in his late 20s, if not 30s.

I was 18, a fact which he discovered when I had to clarify that no, I had just graduated high school, not college. I was hoping this would get him to leave me alone.

It did not.

He continued to walk with me and ask me questions until he finally asked me for my full name, which I told him I was uncomfortable giving him. He asked a few more questions, which I responded to with a very frank, "I''m sorry, I'm not comfortable answering that." At this point, especially after discovering that I was at least 10 years younger than him, any respectable man would have left me alone.

He did not. Instead, he proceeded to tell me he liked to go to the beach and was wondering whether I would ever be interested in going with him, after I had made it very clear that I was uncomfortable talking to him any more. I said no, of course, and at this point I took out my phone and started texting, in an attempt to both dissuade him from further conversation and so he would know I could call the police or something if he tried anything.

He told me I was a bit of a smart-ass (notice that the term isn't too far from "bitch"). I agreed, again hoping he would go away and finally, finally he told me he would leave me alone. But he didn't. He stayed and instead told me I was beautiful several times. What, like that's the only thing that makes me worth anything, and that in saying it I should have welcomed him back into a conversation? I said thank you, politely but without encouragement. He said he hoped he'd be "lucky enough" to find me on Facebook as he walked away. I did not respond.

What kind of world do we live in that men think it's okay to walk up to a young woman and continue asking her weird questions when she has told him in so many words that she is UNCOMFORTABLE?   It is not flattering to have someone compliment you if they are also seriously scaring you and giving you the impression that they have all the power in the world, that this is what allows them to approach you and discuss whatever they'd like without consequences. Do you think "Joe" walked away feeling anything other than like... well, like whatever he'd been attempting... had failed? I doubt he left feeling relatively threatened, wishing he could scrub the conversation out of him like I did.

I doubt he even remembers that this happened to him, whereas for me it sticks in my memory like some gross piece of gum I can't get off my shoe.

The worst thing is that I hate recalling this incident because it makes me feel weak. I acted the way I did because, regardless of the fact that there was literally no one I knew around, no one that could see how I responded or who would understand the situation, I still felt this weird societal pressure to be polite to this guy. Like I would be overreacting if I acted otherwise.

I could have told him to fuck off the minute I started feeling uncomfortable and SCARED.

I could have walked- well, no, I guess he was following me but I could have RUN away.

I could have ended the conversation in a matter of seconds by acting larger than I did, by acting like I had the power to DO something.

But I didn't.

Anyone that knows me will tell you that I am not a coward. I am not the kind of person who lets people walk all over me. THAT'S how strong the desire to please is beaten into young girls; even people like me who consider themselves confident grow weak in situations like this.I read an article recently about the way girls are taught to act confident to attract guys, instead of to become more confident and self-assured themselves!

There are some people that would blame the way I dress (though I seriously am NOT a provocative dresser). There are people that would tell me that if I covered up a little more I wouldn't have this problem. But you know what? In 90 degree heat, walking a mile without shade to work, I wear shorts. And tank tops. Because it's hot and I have the freedom to dress how I want! This is not an invitation for guys to follow me, catcall, leer, or otherwise act like a bunch of 5th grade boys.

As a society we should not be teaching our women that they are dressing like sluts, or that they are sluts should they choose to look a certain way. We should be teaching our men to respect the choices of women. We should be teaching them that neither gender has any superiority over the other and thus both should be treated equally. I hate to point fingers at men specifically (and guys, I know there are so many of you out there who are great guys and would never treat any woman this way), but have you ever seen a woman wolf whistle at a guy wearing shorts in the summer?

Neither have I.

The problem isn't just in the way the jerks in public criticize our clothes, but our life choices as well. During one memorable bus ride to work, an older man seated near me asked me how my day was going and we started a casual conversation. Again, this was fine; this was friendly. What was NOT fine was when he started asking me why, at 18, I wasn't married or at least engaged. Annoyed, I told him I didn't plan on getting married ever, and was offended by his suggestion that  all women wanted to get married and have kids as quickly as possible. Instead of accepting my statement, he tried to explain to me why it was important for a woman to be married and have children, insinuating that I could not make my own choices about the matter.

I got off the bus.

In case it remains unclear to you why all these situations are so frustrating... By treating me and other women in this way, these men are insinuating that:

Men are superior to women in everything.

We are weak and incapable of any feat of strength.

We should get married and have children and follow the life plan of your average 50's housewife.

We are nothing more than pieces of ass with great legs to be ogled at and disrespected as human beings.

What is interesting to me, having now traveled internationally, is that this an issue dominated by American culture. Nowhere else in the world have I seen women treated with such disrespect as I have seen in the US, where we are supposedly so liberal. And this is not because I have been sheltered or because I have tucked myself away from places where I might be in danger. True, I haven't been all over the world, and I'm quite sure there are locales in which women are far more disrespected than they are in the US and in far worse ways. But I make a point of finding the more run-down and less tourist-y areas of the places I travel to, and I still believe that men in other countries are raised with a much greater respect for their female counterparts. I've also discussed this with classmates from all over the world, so I have a bit of their perspectives as well.

I have had a few classmates treat me disrespectfully, enough to realize that the mistreatment of women isn't, obviously, limited to the US. But it begs the question- what are we doing differently that encourages such a general mistreatment of women in our society?

This is not something that can be changed in an instant, or even within a year. It's the kind of problem that starts with teaching people to behave differently; it's a root problem, requiring a deep restructuring instead of a band-aid fix. But it can be done.

Ladies, SPEAK UP. You have a mind and a voice and the right to use both. Share your experiences, and listen to others' stories.

Everyone else? Resolve to be part of the solution, and stay aware so that you don't become part of the problem.

Sharing is one way to raise awareness, and that's why I wrote this post. I hope you finished reading this with a better understanding and awareness of this issue, and a desire to do your part in solving it.

Some might read this post and call me a bitch.

If by that, you mean a woman who can speak her mind and is willing to put herself out there for the sake of fixing her society...  If by "bitch" you mean someone who isn't conforming to your views on women.... then yes, I am a bitch. Thank you.

And thank you for reading this post. :)

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