Sexism is alive and well in this country, don’t try to deny it. In the context of society at large women and girls are required to play by a different set of rules, lest they be labeled and cast out. It takes guts to stand alone, and it’s terrifying, so a lot of the time we adhere to tradition, bending and twisting ourselves to meet the requirements. On my mind for some time is women expressing confidence and the reactions from an individual and societal level. A couple of years ago I lost two very important friendships, or rather was cast out of two important friends’ lives. I came to understand that the root issue was my attempt to exhibit a confident approach to life, and the feelings of competition and anger that ensued around me. I have never seen a man apologize for listing his accomplishments, or defending his opinion, or expressing his personal goals. I’ve never seen other men roll their eyes or whisper behind their hands or glare at another man who walks tall with his chest puffed out. I’ve heard the words cocky and arrogant used to describe a man, but never the type of character tear-down a woman acting in the very same manner receives. What the fuck is all this about?
I’ve mentioned previously that I spent my younger years living in miserable insecurity, turning every which way to align with what I thought my peers wanted or were doing. It seemed I could never quite learn the right steps, and I didn’t find myself in the “in” group. Kind of ever. Eventually desperate attempts led to a life implosion at age 28. I had to rebuild myself from the rubble, and develop (for once) a sense of self, which I knew I’d have to strengthen over time. Over a period of close to five years, I explored small new behaviors, like walking away from office gossip, or leaving a party when I got bored, or asking for what I wanted from bosses, colleagues and friends. I began to speak with directness, challenging myself to communicate like someone from the East Coast (a 180 for someone from the passive-aggressive Pacific Northwest). I said what was on my mind, without apology or a coating of sugar. I said no to people, and refused to accept poor treatment. I spotted negative manipulation in my relationships and stopped it in its tracks. I was confident in myself, at last inhabiting, defending and nurturing the patch of land that sprang up where my sense of self didn’t used to be.
And boy, did I take it in the shorts from people.
The first thing I noticed was that I had lost social stature at work. My work product hadn’t deteriorated, but my relationships with the office “cool kids” did. The cool kids were a group of women ranging in age from late twenties to late forties, and all were highly educated, accomplished people. None of the men in the office changed toward me. This situation clearly exhibits how women expressing a self-possessed attitude are rejected by other women. The message here is, only certain people are allowed to display self-assurance, and if you’re not one of them, you need to be taken down a peg. It was competitive and frustrating. I would like to see women celebrating each other for showing confidence in the workplace. I’d like to challenge women to observe, take notes and try out the behaviors. I wish women would act collective, banding together to see what we can accomplish as a gender.
I noticed the men in my life seemed to take me more seriously, but that they often affected an affectionate, paternalistic tone when I was opinionated or passionate. It made me feel like they were misunderstanding me, and it turned me off to further conversation. I wonder if an assertive woman seems so rare that watching her interact is some sort of novelty. And the way we approach novelties is often to exclaim over their inherent cuteness. Ugh. If men need to see more assertion to engage on our level, let’s show it to them. Now.
The hardest was losing my best friend from childhood, and a new friend to whom I felt so close, I referred to her as my wife. In public. When introducing her. Both women felt deeply and intensely in their lives, and suffered as a result. We connected often about feeling lost, hopeless and adrift. Of feeling isolated and different, apart from others. Yet we three had a sense that we were undeniably special and beautiful in a unique way. We connected over that, too. When I decided to explore living as though I believed I was someone important, forcing myself to display the self-possession I felt inside, I knew I was risking. I know society doesn’t like a woman with an assertive nature and labels her a snob, stuck-up, princess, or worse–bossy. Relationships are so critical to my happiness, I was terrified at the risk involved in trying a new way. And I lost my two most important friends, within two months of each other. What their electronic break-ups with me (via email, neither would pick up the phone or meet up) eventually revealed was that I had been locked in a competition with each of them, respectively. They enjoyed having a friend like me to measure themselves against (fuck measuring, by the way) and come out as better. My low self-esteem and lack of a sense of self must have made them come up as best each time. But when I rose up and showed some poise, they were done. I was out, for good. The whole time I had thought I was in close friendships, I had really been competing for who had the best life, and was the least fucked up, and on and on. The main rule was that I needed to stay in my place, so they could always come out on top. When I challenged their systems, instead of learning from me, or talking openly with me about their discomfort, I became a pariah. I wish so hard that women in friendships would support each other and put each other up, celebrate successes together and applaud progress.
How do we create a supportive community where women can be self-possessed without beginning sentences with “I’m sorry but…” or lower their eyes after expressing an opinion or speak rapidly, obscuring true intent in a jumble of words? It might begin with listening to what happens in our own heads when a woman walks by with her head held high.