(See my introduction to this series HERE–but if you can’t be bothered, just remember that I’ve never claimed this is true for everyone! Here are some observations from my twenty-odd years living as a girl. Your mileage may vary.).
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and all things nice,
That’s what little girls are made of.
— nursery rhyme
As the bus pulls up to my stop, the two men who are also waiting step back. One of them gestures for me to go ahead of them. I smile and duck my head in acknowledgement, then roll on the balls of my feet and step lightly up and into the bus. I flash a friendly grin at the bus driver and say, “Good morning!” as I tap my pass against the card reader. As I move down the bus, fairly empty at this time of day, I see two men checking me out, eyes sliding from my shoulders to my waist and back to my chest in the time it takes me to reach the middle of the bus. I sit up on one of the side-facing seats with good, but tight posture, my knees touching and my arms folded in my lap, holding my handbag. I fish my iPod out of my bag and quickly plug in, the universal symbol for don’t talk to me.
A man holds the door open for me as I pass him on my way into the Bridgehead. I smile and thank him as I skirt by, pulling my wallet out of the tight pockets of my skinny jeans and looking up at the coffee menu. A barista greets me with “Hi there, miss!” and I respond, “How are you doing today?” My voice curls up in pitch as the question ends and I smile broadly.
“Good, thanks, and you?” she demurs, and I nod, tugging down on the hem of my v-neck.
“Great, thanks! Could I get a large latte to go, please?” I bounce a little on the balls of my feet.
“Yeah, could I get that with soy milk please?”
“No problem. Large soy to go!” the barista calls down the line, then punches my order into the screen. She reads me the total and I wave my debit card in response. As the machine thinks its way towards accepting my card, I comment,
“By the way, I really like your earrings.”
The barista’s smile changes for a moment–the difference between the “service smile” and the genuine one–and she touches her ear thoughtfully, checking which earrings she wears. “Thanks so much! That’s a great bracelet you have.”
“Thanks for noticing, I made it myself!”
The debit machine finishes its plotting and beeps for me to remove my card. “Have a great day,” the barista says to me and I wave as she moves back down the counter to the next customer, and I move up towards the bar. This barista recognises me–I’m here often enough–and gives me a friendly wave.
“One large soy latte!” she announces, placing the cup in front of me. “Not sticking around today?”
“Nope, on my way to the archives today. Did you change your hair? It looks lovely.”
“Thanks so much! Hope you have a good day.”
“Thank you, you too!”
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â These little stories are going to be my point of departure for how I experience the world. I’ll share two, or maybe three of them, each day in this series, and then talk a little about the details you may have missed.Â I guess it’s a little cheesy, but what’d you except from someone who loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Camp is practically in my blood.
The first thing you may have noticed is the gentlemen at the bus stop stepping back for me to get on the bus first. This doesn’t happen all the time–“chivalry” seems to have reached some weird SchrÃ¶dinger levels of existence where sometimes you experience it, sometimes you don’t–but I would say maybe 60 coin flips out of a hundred, if someone masculine-identified reads me as a girl, they’ll let me go first on the bus, they’ll hold the door open for me. Older men will sometimes even offer me their seats on the bus (which is, for me, a bridge too far–I’m twenty-two years old, and you’re north of seventy, I think you need the seat more than I). I don’t honestly have too many feelings about this bus thing in particular–just an observation. It’s certainly not behaviour I encounter when perceived as a man.
The next thing I’ll draw your attention to, in both those anecdotes, is the number of times I use the word smile. Women-identified folk in the audience are no-doubt nodding their heads along with me when I tell you that when you are a woman, you are expected to smile. If you do not smile in public, maybe not the first day, and maybe not the second, but it will inevitably happen to you that some douchebag is going to tell you to smile. And let’s be clear: you do not owe your smiles to anyone, certainly not a stranger on a bus. But it’s easier to smile, it’s easier to play friendly, no one has ever successfully engaged in changing some asshat’s mind about your “resting bitch face” in one minute or less on public transit. So you smile,Â almost unconsciously you smile, and you are polite and friendly and even eager to everyone you encounter–the bus driver, the man who holds the door at Bridgehead for you while he’s checking out your ass, the barista with the nice earrings, the girl who makes your latte. You don’t think, at least not much, about the energy expenditure this kind of constant perkiness draws. It’s expected. It becomes innate.
Related to this enforced positivity–note the use of space for women. When I sit on a public bus as a woman, I am always curled slightly inwards. My knees are touching, my ankles often crossed, my bag is in my lap and I am generally taking up as little space as possible. Think about this next weekÂ when I talk about how men are permitted to take up space.
Look at how women communicate. I knew from the beginning that I wanted a soy latte (soy lattes from Bridgehead are like my kryptonite, or actually, more like my life force). But as a women I often employÂ passiveÂ communciation styles– Â “Could you please,” “would it be alright if,” “If you’re not too busy”–these long phrases couched in submissive language are how women ask for things. I’ll talkÂ more laterÂ about how this is different from masculine communication.
Look at how women interact with one another. I don’t know if all women do this, but I make a big point of complimenting women a lot. You can tell our culture has ingrained aÂ sense of insecurity in women, because you can tell it makes someone’s day when you notice they’ve done their braid differently, they have cute earrings, they accessorized that outfit with exceptional taste. I know this, because that’s exactly how I feel when people compliment my t-shirts or the jewelry I wear. Women put so much of themselves into how they dress, and when we recognize that in each other we are doing one another a service. It’s a feeling of camaraderie, of “we’re all in this together,” “I recognize that it took you twenty minutes to do that makeup and I think it looks awesome”. Â This is not something I do when presenting masculinely; more on that in a few days.
Now think about how women interact with men. I can hear the fedoras shrieking in the distance that not all men are like that–and yeah, I know. But it’s also not my job to give you cookies for treating me like a person instead of a stick of meat. And what I notice, more than anything, is that aside from the “chivalrous” men, you get a lot of guys whose treatment of women is on a base level pretty dehumanizing. It doesn’t happen all the time–but it certainly happens enough. And whether I’m wearing a v-neck and skinnies or a baggy sweater and men’s jeans, I guarantee you that if I am read as a women, I am much more likely to be harassed in the street. We have somehow socially sanctioned that men can evaluate my attractiveness like I’m a nice car or prize animal, but that I’m the crazy one if I yell at you to fuck off. Cat-calls and shouting at women are not flirty. It is not attractive. It’s gross, annoying at best and scary at worst. And if you seriously need me to tell you that you shouldn’t do it, we shouldn’t even be talking anyway, we’re not going to get along.
So here’s some thoughts on navigating the world as a woman. Occasionally, being perceived as a woman benefits me. If I do what I’m expected to, and am perceived as attractive, (and/or men are feeling chivalrous), I’ll get quicker access to the bus, sometimes better access to seats. Occasionally, it gets my coffee upsized or my latte flavoured. And I love the invisible bond that I share with women; I remember well the first weekend I spent in Ottawa when a man appeared out of a dark alleyway in Sandy Hill and was trying to convince me to “come here, just for a minute–” and a female stranger jumped to my rescue, pretending to know me and engaging me in conversation, pointedly ignoring the man until he gave up and moved along. And I’ve done the same–telling off men who were bothering women on the bus, checking in with glances and hand gestures and sometimes quick lies that say “not her, not today, she’s with me.”
A lot of these “benefits”, you’ll notice, are only really benefits because we live in a world of risk for young women. When I moved to a new apartment recently, I remember talking to my mom on the phone about how it was a “safe neighbourhood”–a question I know she’s never asked my younger brother about when he’s been deciding on a place to live. And I don’t fault her for that. That’s the society we live in, and those concerns are real. But that’s not to entirely discount the silver linings, either. In my more masculine circles I struggle with the frustration of being unable, socially, to beÂ openÂ about how something has affected you. It amazes me that people say women are hard to understand–women areÂ incredibleÂ communicators! I would understand my father a whole lot better if he would justÂ tell me what’s in his headÂ instead of just being silent and then immediately moving into “action” mode. IÂ adoreÂ the way women band together, often with little to no discussion necessary. There is a sisterhood that is unmatched in girl-girl relationships.
Chivalry and passive communication, the risks of being a girl in public, and sisterhood of the traveling women. What’s next?Â Tune in next MondayÂ to see my thoughts on being perceived as male in social settings.Â Until then, I’d love to see your comments below about your experiences as a woman in social spheres. Similar to mine? Totally different? Think I’m full of it? Did some of this resonate with you? Has it changed how you feel about your girlfriend/sister/wife/daughter/female employees? Let me know below!