“You look thin. Did you drop a pound?”
It felt like a Jeopardy category: Dumbass Statements for 800.
The answer: “What is something you should never say to a woman.”
Let’s go again, Alex.
At first, I didn’t say anything.
I continued wiping down my exercise mat while Dave adjusted the tennis ball behind his lower back, twisting his hips in a stretch. We had struck up a casual friendship at the gym in the mornings. Initially, the thought of carrying on a conversation with anyone at six-thirty in the morning made me wish I could sleep off the pounds in a hyperbaric chamber like Gwyneth Paltrow and skip exercising entirely. But then I realized there was an upside to chatting with someone next to you on your cardio machine about movies and the weather: it made those thirty minutes of sweat and angst go by in a blink.
“Oh, wait, should I have not said that?” Dave said before I could respond. “Was that not cool or something?” he teased, shooting me a grin.
I considered his comment.
The barely comprehensible happened on November 8. Today it still feels like I am living in a corporate sexual harassment sensitivity training video gone horribly wrong.
Like a lot of educated white women, I had to confront my own anemia in my politics, especially when it came to my feminism. November 9 was the siren call to political sobriety that I, and probably others, badly needed. I realized that it wasn’t enough to “be” about the big ticket plays on Team Feminism’s roster—wage gap, reproductive & women’s health rights, workplace harassment/discrimination, social and legal justice for trans people, for marginalized women. It was not enough to simply agree with the smart and brave critics like Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Lindy West, and Roxanne Gay that I admire.
I had to quit being a feminist benchwarmer.
“Actually,” I said as I balled up my paper towel, “women don’t like feeling that the focus of our self-worth lies exclusively in our bodies or looks.” Eyebrows tilted skyward. He stopped twisting around on the mat and sat up. Clearly, this was not the answer he was banking on. He choked out a laugh and then he saw the look on my face. This was not banter. This was not a drill.
What followed was something I like to think of as The Five Stages of Male Ego Panic:
Defensiveness: “So, what? Don’t you like compliments? I can’t compliment a person!?”
Blame: “You’re overreacting. If I told my sister I thought she’d lost weight, believe me, she’d be thrilled. Don’t you think you’re being just a bit dramatic, here?
Not All Men: “Not all men think like that, I mean, I certainly don’t think like that. I respect women.”
Also All Men: “Men struggle with this too. We get judged for our looks just as much as women, you know.”
Unintelligible Retreat: eye-rolling, snorting, head-shaking, half-formed sentences: “That’s the thing with all of this…” “See, everyone’s gotten so sensitive….” “Okay, whatever…”
A variation of this kind of exchange between men and women plays out every day all over America.
Whenever a woman pushes back against these limiting, dangerous beliefs that drag down our movement toward gender equality, she has to hump her way through terrain gutted by ignorance, ego, and in some cases, straight up rampant misogyny.
The reward is not in winning an argument (Hey Facebook thanks for making that impossible!) or even shifting someone’s mind. The kinetic force of change is forged in, to borrow from Senator Elizabeth Warren’s example, the persisting. It’s in a woman’s refusal to be silenced as we also witnessed in the delicious dismantling of the Bill O’Reilly Sexual Harassment Emporium that strengthens her power. The tenacity to dig your heels in and refuse to go away; the unwillingness to concede in order to sanction someone else’s comfort and shitty belief system are the qualities that feminists need to cultivate in the face of leadership working to reverse our historical gains with every stroke of the pen.
He kept interrupting, but I kept talking, which was a radical act I would not have engaged in a few months ago.
With my Ph.D. in gender studies, this 101 Crash Course in Gender Equality would be a breeze. I imagined Dave was one of my male students who had taken the course because he thought it would be an easy pass, “just sit around and talk about women and shit, right?” Nope.
Historically women have always been positioned as commodities. I pointed out. Our bodies carry sexual, political, and even economic currency. The disparity in the way women and men are valued helps to create the impossible standards that women can never meet. We’re simply interested in being seen as more than the sum of our literal parts, I explained, patiently, letting his eye-rolling and chortling go unacknowledged.
The more uncomfortable and agitated he grew, the calmer and more confident I became. I was reminded of something that my graduate school advisor told us as doctoral students. She said that our job as academics was to push back the frontier of ignorance. No big thing, really. I knew what she meant, but it was the first time that I actually understood what she was asking from us: to not allow silence to speak for you, to fill that space with your intellectual integrity; to raise your voice and keep it raised.
“You can say I’m wrong all you want, but that doesn’t change what’s true,” I told Dave, in an effort to put a lid on the conversation. After all, it was now 7 AM. Who knew how much more patriarchy smashing I’d have to do today? Feminists gotta pace ourselves, especially now.
He rolled his eyes for what seemed like the hundredth time, and I half expected to see a vessel burst from such excessive rotary action.
“Okay, then,” he said lamely. “You know I do respect women, okay? Really, I do.”
“Yeah,” I said. “So do I.”
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