By Kate Fridkis
I Am Embarrassed By How Much I Am Affected By the Way
Men Talk About Women
Everything has been good. I am six months pregnant and the crippling morning sickness I dealt with has faded to a faint, nightmarish memory. Things seem to be moving ahead in my career. I like my new, round body. But suddenly, in the midst of all this niceness, I began to feel dim, suppressed. The kind of feeling that sneaks up on you and you can’t trace it and it hangs around your neck for a while, staring up at you with glazed, bleary eyes until you have to excuse yourself to sit down and mope.
“What is going on?” said my husband, Bear, a little baffled, as I moped from one room to the next, turtling, tucking myself into my shell in the evenings and poking my head out only to watch some bad TV.
I started trying to explain. It might be this or this other thing or I’m just really tired right now or I need to take a long bath or something else. It’s the pregnancy. My back. Oy vey! My sciatica! And then I said something without thinking about it and I knew that’s what it was. It was this guy, and the way he talked about women.
No names. But there is this guy, and I had been around him a lot recently, and he is always talking about women. He is always talking about other things, too, but it’s like the paprika on top of deviled eggs — come on, you don’t really need it, but it is always there. And when he does it, other guys do it, too, just to participate, I think. And sometimes I sort of do it, too, just to participate.
It is so classically uncool to get offended over the casual comments guys sometimes make about women.
“Oh, Tom’s girlfriend? Yeah, she’s hot! She’s, like, 18. He did good.”
Every woman who gets mentioned gets mentioned based on her appearance.
“Wait, Lena Dunham’s the fat one, right?”
“Remember that cashier girl at the Shop Rite? The one with the chest? How could anyone forget about her…”
The thing about this guy is that he’s really very nice. And I bet that’s usually the case.
He’s really very nice and he’s kind of nerdy, and we’ve known each other for a very long time, and I think that he is always sort of trying to bond with other guys by talking about women, because he’s not sure how else to do it. And I don’t know if that’s really an excuse, but when I’m trying to let things go and be cool and be nice and I don’t want to be the one person objecting, I let myself believe that it’s excuse enough.
The thing is, I like this guy. And I know he’s not trying to hurt anyone. But he made me feel like crap.
And suddenly, I am telling Bear, really intensely, “You know our daughter will be judged by men like this, every day of her life. People will think the most relevant thing about her is the way she looks. And who knows what she’ll even look like? It’s totally arbitrary! And yet, it’ll determine whether she’s the butt of the joke or gets the chance to be someone’s fantasy. Like those are the options! Why are those the friggin’ options?”
Bear tells me that he hardly even notices when the guy is saying these things. People say a lot of stupid things in passing. Words/wind, that whole thing.
I think about how we’re all supposed to always brush everything we don’t like off, and move immediately on, because that is how you stay focused and sane and acceptable. Getting mired in hurt feelings is poor tactical maneuvering.
And Bear is trying to talk about how there’s so much more to it — that even if there’s that split-second evaluation on a reptilian-brained, biological level, it is far from the whole story. It’s not even the part that matters. And look at his office, it doesn’t seem like the women are being evaluated constantly based on their looks at all. He can reel off a list of things that people are known for, after working together for a while, after getting to know each other.
“But it’s just so pervasive and huge and constant,” I am saying, possibly about to cry, feeling like one of those women people like to call crazy, “And it never matters enough to focus on it, and we’re all supposed to just get over it, but that stuff that doesn’t really matter? That’s the stuff that builds up until it’s what makes you feel worthless or worth something. And that’s what people do to girls.Everyone gets to comment on the way they look, even if it’s just for a second.”
I don’t know if I am making any sense, but I am furious. I am absolutely uncool about it.
“You’re right,” says Bear, gently, seeing how much I care. “This stuff matters a lot.”
“It’s not fair!” I say. “I don’t want her to have to deal with it.”
I don’t want me to have to deal with it.
I have been feeling good about myself, and when I feel good about myself, it’s the whole package. My writing seems to be going well. I like the projects I’m working on, I feel like I’m moving forward. I love my home, my husband, my family, my cat, my shaved ice machine that provides me with endless heaps of ice that I eat greedily without syrup because I am always craving ice these days. I like my unruly hair, which seems to express interesting things about my soul, and I like my unusual face, which is rebellious and recognizable. I want to show my daughter how striking I am. So, why can this guy get to me? Why does he have that ability?
I think maybe it’s because his comments suggest something that scares me in a big, burrowing-to-the-bottom kind of way. His comments suggest that the first and only thing that needs to be said about a girl or a woman is something about the way she looks. I am terrified of that. I am afraid of the way I look being the only information that registers about me. It seems so helpless, so empty. It makes me feel flat as a piece of paper, like I can be torn up and then flutter away.
I remind myself that even the guy who is saying these things, constantly, about women, doesn’t really believe that it is the whole story. After all, there are women he loves and cherishes. His mom, his sisters, his fiancée. He has just learned that this is some kind of convenient social shortcut. He isn’t thinking about it. He isn’t thinking about the pregnant woman who hated the way she looked enough to get a nose job, sitting right there, just a couple feet away.
He isn’t thinking about the little girl baby inside her, who will be born into a world full of people who talk about women like there aren’t women in the room. Like women aren’t regular people. Who make women feel like being cool is about being one of the guys, and that being one of the guys is the same as not ever caring. Who make women feel like anything else is the same as being crazy.
I know, I know, I tell Bear, that we all exist on this level, regardless of whatever else is going on — the level of registering other people constantly based on basic visual information about their appearances. Their sex appeal. Their attractiveness. But it is not the only level, and we don’t have to limit ourselves to it, and what we say about other people, regularly, in public, can involve a little sensitivity. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. This is where the fine line between observation and prejudice resides. And I don’t want to have to play it cool. Maybe it’s better to admit that it hurts me, that is has an impact. Maybe it’s better to let myself be fully, inconveniently human. Maybe we’d all learn more if we all did that in front of each other.
“I’ll say this much about Hillary Clinton,” the guy says, “that woman needs to have some work done on her face.”
Someone laughs half-heartedly, the conversation begins to move on.
But I say, “Hold on. Is that really the point? Is that the relevant thing about Hillary Clinton?”
I say this awkwardly, in mixed company, being obviously affected, in honor of myself and my unborn daughter. I don’t want her to grow up in a world where people are always reminding her that the thing that matters most immediately and constantly about her is the way she looks. But if I can’t control that, I want at least for her to grow up in a world where her mother can speak up, and point out how stupid the whole thing is.
She’s going to grow up with a very uncool mother. It’s probably better that way.
He doesn’t respond. He is looking away. I think he knows it’s not the point. Or maybe he just isn’t listening. Maybe he’ll never listen. But maybe I’ll just keep saying something anyway.
A version of this piece appeared originally on Eat the Damn Cake, where you can find a lot more from Kate.
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