I used to believe simpering was my greatest power, my secret interpersonal weapon. I affected a coquettish persona, donned the mask which I believed was the key to moving through the world. Later, a therapist and I named this simpering mask the “sex kitten”, as we worked to understand the connection between her and my blackout drinking. But before all that, I learned that if I widened my eyes, batted my lashes and ducked my head a little, people melted. I learned that if I asked for things in a singsong tone or a baby voice they seemed to come easier. Especially with men. Men were helpless against the almighty simper. They figuratively dropped to their knees, palms open, anything and everything on offer. They got out of the way. Or let me hide behind them. They handed whatever it was right over. I smiled and giggled in return, to close the deal. I didn’t know another way.
Simpering worked on my dad when it came to my emotional needs. It did not work on him with the material. Simpering worked on the guys I was dating or interested in, drawing them near. Simpering worked on male customers when I worked in retail. They would buy anything I touched. It worked on men I found pretentious or tiring, trapping them in a display of their own egotism, thinking I was in their thrall. Ha! It worked on male teachers, or it didn’t, repelling those with excellent boundaries. It was my method of first resort, the effortless guile I employed to keep my true self and motivations hidden.
I did not believe my true self and motivations would be accepted or attended to, so I simpered, believing I needed to appeal to male sexuality to get my needs met. It took a long time for this mode to create a staggering sense of cognitive dissonance in my feminist soul. I began to understand my coquettish mask was an act of cynicism and misogyny. Yet if you’d asked me about my ideas and feelings about my gender you would have heard deep feminist leanings. I started referring to myself as a “feminist-misogynist”, believing I was owning it, no examination or change required. I did not see this paradox was tearing me apart and limiting my progress until my ritual donning of the sex kitten mask and drinking until the lights went out indicated as such.
Hey, I like to learn my lessons the hard way.
The tide began to turn when I took my first job working in a male-dominated field, in a large office that was about 60% men. I’d worked in the beauty industry and apparel for years, alongside women, managed by women, serving women. I’d studied literature and psychology in school, alongside mostly women. My contact with men was limited to public and social life. A woman who became boy crazy at age four, I was desperate for their notice, to be around them. I flirted with all and every, anxious to hold their attention, believing male attention gave me worth. Walking into an office full of married fathers, a place where everyone on staff had college degrees, most had advanced degrees, and many had two or three credentials behind their names, I hit a wall. My methods weren’t going to be welcome here, or work.
I’d been spending all my personal time partying with an all-male group of lawyers. They loved the sex kitten. They were dazzled by her flirtatious charms, putty in her hands. They formed a tight circle around her, which at first I experienced as dizzying and intoxicating. I was the hot young thing who drew all attention and affection to her. Playing sex kitten in this group was incredibly efficacious to getting my needs met, and the fulfillment of those needs got me high. The higher I got, the farther I wanted to go into the act, and the farther I went, the more attention and affection I received. It was only a matter of time before someone stuck a bottle in my hand and seven years on the wagon disappeared like poof!
Getting this new job in the tech industry was an important step in my recovery. I was estranged from my husband at the time, living cheap in a friend’s parent’s basement, and facing layoffs in my previous gig. I was facing losing my marriage, housing and job because of my alcoholism. The job offered my highest salary to date and excellent benefits, providing instant stability. I’d been off booze for four months when I reported for my first day, feeling much like a newly-hatched chick, raw and vulnerable and disoriented. I did not know how to relate to men in a non-sexual way. It was another item to add to the long, long list of learning I needed to do in order to stay in recovery. It was go time.
I found in my new office the women on staff did not wear makeup. They did not do their hair, often arriving in the morning with wet locks. They wore drab, un-stylish clothing. Yes, this was in Seattle, which isn’t exactly a leader in fashion and beauty trends. But this went deeper. Culturally, you were not seen as a serious intellectual if you indulged in mascara and tailoring. If you wore eyeshadow and flattering skirts, you must be on the support staff, because no MBA PhD would be caught looking so…frivolous. In a fast-paced ideas and innovation environment, there was not one second to spare on pretensions like glamour. Pretensions were purely intellectual. Differentiation a question of product design and markets, not personal style.
The people were serious, deadly so, sometimes. And our various constituencies were the same. It was an industry of tremendous brainpower, working to develop the best, most unique solutions to solve complex problems. Simpering simply had no place in the lab, the boardroom, or the machine shop. I imagined myself sashaying into a meeting with inventors, tilting my head, and making some sort of flirty hello. I saw, very clearly, the group recoiling, silence meeting my overtures, awkwardness ruling the room, my credibility destroyed.
Instead, I sat down at the table, or toured the lab quietly, observing how the people interacted, taking mental notes. I began to use firm handshakes and direct eye contact in place of cocked hips and batting lashes. I spoke in a thoughtful tone, instead of intoning. I still wore eyeshadow and flattering clothes, blowdrying my hair before work, because I had to be me. Understanding these stylistic choices would create distance between the academics and me, I eradicated any trace of simpering from my words, inflections or mannerisms. I was all fucking business, and they began to trust me. I was learning to use my intelligence to get my point across and meet my needs. I was learning to relate to men in a non-sexual way. I was building my sense of self, enabling myself to retire the sex kitten mask.
I’m all about direct asks now. I don’t need props. I don’t need to sexualize myself to make my way through the world. But old habits die hard, and just the other morning I was coaching a friend’s two little girls to bat their lashes and ask for something in a baby voice, to ensure they would get it. I realized I’d slipped back into old patterns unwittingly, and I wrote this post to remind myself not to go back, or send others on that old, unsustainable, unworkable path.