Alice Bradley has a great post up on aging out of being treated as an object.
A year ago I was at a family event and a few of my mom’s friends–older women all–were expressing amazement that I would let my hair go gray. One of them–a woman I’ve known since I was born–said, “Men don’t mind it when their hair goes gray, because gray hair makes you look more intimidating. And a woman doesn’t want to look intimidating.”
She was so well-meaning, so concerned about my looking approachable and pretty, and I know she didn’t mean anything by it. But when she said this, so much rage welled up in me. So much. I made a joke and changed the subject, but all I wanted to do was scream. Loudly.
Because: do I want to look intimidating? God, yes. I do. Yes, please, I very much fucking do.
As a young woman, I was certainly the least intimidating creature on the planet, and as such I was prey to unwanted attention from men, attention that ranged from annoying to truly scary. I know there are people who dismiss the idea that such attention is upsetting–after all, isn’t it flattering that strangers think you’re attractive? But it goes far, far beyond that. It was endless and exhausting and I don’t think it has a thing to do with how pretty you are. In fact I often felt the comments would come fast and furious on the days I felt particularly bad about myself, like I was giving off signals or hormones, like they could smell my weakness.
They can. They do. How do I know? At some point around college, I became intimidating.
I certainly didn’t start that way. I was the timid, invisible child. I was the kid who managed to start a new school (my third that year) in the middle of sixth grade and not make a single friend by the end of the year. I was painfully shy, with a fear of doing things wrong that had literally been beaten into me, and I was one of those geeky kid with interests out of synch with those of nearly everyone else my age.
Then…well, then a whole lot of things happened. It started with teachers, particularly science, math, and programming teachers, who treated the ways in which I was different from other kids as good things. They rewarded me with increased independence in high school and interesting work and conversations in college. Being different was a good thing for the first time in my life. For the first time, it meant that people listened to me.
There were also relationships, mine and others, real and fictional, romantic and sexual, requited and not, from which I learned. There were two long-term romances that demonstrated that no matter what I did, I couldn’t make other people be fair. It didn’t manage to convince me that I was worthwhile or loveable, but it did teach me that some people and some relationships aren’t worth any more than a quick walk away.
Working retail for seven years made a difference too. Eventually, facing that much crap, that many people trying to take advantage of my being stuck behind a counter…well, it got boring. There are only so many ways people can be assholes, and once you’ve sat through them all enough times, there isn’t much you and some bullet-proof glass can’t face down with a simple stare of disgust. Or as a friend calls it, looking like I’d happily eat their livers.
Somehow, in the space of just a few years, I ended up competent, independent, and nearly impossible to cow. In other words, intimidating.
Oh, how that changed how men dealt with me. The catcalling, the too-close creepiness, the insinuating remarks–those all but stopped happening to me. They still happened around me, to other people I knew, but they almost never happened to me. The rare occasions when they did generally involved multiple men talking to each other instead of to me. I was too intimidating.
Only that wasn’t exactly right either. I’m still the person people pull over to ask directions from. I’m still the one they stop on the street when they need some help. The panhandlers have never quit telling me their stories. Only the predators find me too intimidating to deal with.
That should tell you something about them. That should tell you about what kinds of opportunities they’re seeking. It should tell you all you need to know about their claims that this is about normal attractions and poor social skills and women having unreasonable expectations or just not understanding what they’re trying to do.
They can try to tell you this, but those of us who have gone from innocuous to “intimidating” know better. We know they’re looking for victims, not romances and not partners. We know we stop being the right kind of opportunity, we get deeply uninteresting to them.
For the record, that’s fine with us.