Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Ain't I a Woman?

Hang on. I'm going somewhere with this. Bear with me for a while, okay?


Ever since I've got an iPad, I've been browsing the internet without adblock. I haven't done that for years. In that time I'd honestly forgotten just how badly the internet wants to keep me updated on the status of famous boobs, sell me Asian brides and enlarge the dick I ain't even got. Most of all it wants to tell me what I'm like. It's really, really invested in telling me who I am, what I do and why I do it. This is strange to me, because as well as I know the internet, I never felt like it really took the time to get to know me at all. If it did, it wouldn't keep showing me stuff like this:

It's really hard to ignore this sort of crap, because they shove it in your face as blatantly as they can get away with, hide it in legitimate content, trick you into clicking it or just holler at the top of their lungs by highjacking your tabs. If you're going online without adblock, dear lord, what's wrong with you? It's free. Takes like one minute to install.

So here's something you need to know about me.

All my life I've been told I'm doing this "being a woman" thing wrong. That's annoying enough as it is, but what made me extra angry is that this seemed more important to people than telling me how I was doing as a human. That's what I cared about at the end of the day. Genital and genetic configuration aside, how am I doing as a person? Good? Okay-ish? Needs work? What? Oh, I should get breast implants while tut-tutting women who get breast implants? That's not helpful.

It's like asking feedback on your short story and being told you're a terrible sculptor.

"Women" never seem to do the things I enjoy. It didn't take me long to get wise to the fact that men are people and women are women, and all women are basically the same. That's devastating news for a little kid like me who grew up with books and some fairly involved ideas about How To Be Good.

There's some trauma there. Which is why ads like that tend to set me off with the assumptions they make about my person. Oh, you're a woman? Well allow me to detail at fucking length who you are, what you like, what you shouldn't like, what you do, why you do it, how you live your life and what crawls and oozes in the deepest nethers of your soul.

Fuck off, internet. Y'all don't know me.

So anyway, this.

When someone starts talking about "we" and "us" without taking the time to verify whether there even is such a beast, it's called "forced teaming." I only bring it up because it's very common in abusive relationships.

Look, let's get one thing straight: I'm not here to pick on an inconsequential fluff piece on an inconsequential site. I'm here to illustrate a point. Because this headline makes me wonder about a great many things. For example, the fact that this piece isn't called "15 Things Some People Have Done on a Date," which is what the content is actually about. I know why. Because that one doesn't get clicks and the headline they went with does. I'm very hesitant to speculate too much about the tribalism and stereotyping and teaming underlying the fact that "all women" gets clicks and "some people" doesn't. I'm not an anthropologist, media expert, psychologist or anything. But I've been a woman for 28 years now. And I've noticed some stuff. Horrifying stuff.

The point is, I've been reading stuff like this ever since I was six years old. Men are humans, women are women. It's one of the first lessons I ever learned in my life. Women are women. Looking back now I understand why I was so focused on finding out what being a woman meant, because I was told it was my identity. Do not underestimate the tenacity of a child trying to make their way in the world and learn how to be either human or woman. (They're mutually exclusive.)

Steph Stephs, I am picking up this gauntlet you have thrown down. I bet you didn't even realize you wrote the phrase "every woman" and expect me to focus exclusively on the "dating" part. Well, my country doesn't have a dating culture like yours. Most don't. So right off the bat, your "all women" thing collapses like a fart souffle. I know we're never going to be friends, and I can proceed with abandon.

Tell me who I am, Steph Stephs. Or rather, tell that six year old girl that lives in the back of my mind who she is. Because she's the one I'm going to give the reigns to below the cut, and you've pissed her off something fierce.

To some extent, we're all shaped by the culture we grow up in. Me, I grew in the Flemish remnants of the Burgundy culture. What that means is that the people around me and my family especially have a very deep and involved relationship with pleasure. We're scrubbing Catholicism out of our brain with one hand and reaching for sin with the other. We work harder than we like to sink into pleasure all the deeper. We have words in our language that can't be translated to English and all of them revolve around warmth, coziness, togetherness, comfort. Food and drink are the gateways to these things I can't properly quantify or name. There is a thread that runs through my life where food is not just tasty and filling, it is one of the things that links me to my fellow human beings.

Food shame makes me bristle. Even the Catholic Church around here knew better than to try and stamp that out of us. I want you to stop and take in that statement. The Catholic Church, one of the most domineering and restrictive institutions in all of human history, an institution that thrives on shame and power, could not do what you are trying to do here.

What I mean by that, Steph Stephs, is you are grappling with forces beyond your ability to shame.

You bet your ass that when I look at a menu I find what's good and order it. No doubt. I am a woman (?) of great privilege. I get to do that. If I feel guilty about it, it will only be because of aforementioned privilege of many shades, not because the US has succeeded in exporting female-coded food shame to the rest of the world.

Burgundy pleasure and American food shame do not mix well, is what I am saying to you. And yet they must. Even before the internet, where there is an endless supply of this nonsense, this sort of shit cropped up in teen and women's magazines all the time. So I guess it has been successfully exported. I'm none to pleased about it.

Cognitive dissonance is a terrible thing. You can never quite get the many jagged pieces to slot together into a coherent whole, and when the stakes are as high as your entire identity, that causes stress of the kind a child should never have to experience.

Poor Baby Clementine. To be human is to experience Burgundy pleasure. To be woman is to fret and anguish over every morsel of it under the distrustful and judgmental eye of a man. A human. You're not off to a great start, you poor little thing.

We. We we we. It's like a cult priest trying to hammer a lobotomy pick into my skull.

The devil of it is, if I hadn't been reading this kind of stuff as a kid, in magazines and books and later online, it would never in a million years have occurred to me that this was even an option.

I slammed the Big Red Button of Nope on my beauty regimen a while ago. There was an Event. I did not like it. I did not like who I had become.

Don't get me wrong, this wasn't a sudden epiphany that came to me while I was scraping my ass beard with a pink razor. As far back as I can remember I've been aware of how strange our beauty culture is. I've never understood, in a personal sense, what the use of plucking my eyebrows is. I understand it in a cultural sense, because it's not very complicated. To comply is to be part of the larger culture, and to be beautiful, or at least appear to be making an effort to be beautiful, is to comply. I don't mean for that to sound dystopian and cynical, but it sort of is whichever way you look at it. I hate having my eyebrows plucked. It hurts a lot. And they're eyebrows. I can't even see them. But you know what I hate even more? Being pestered about having to pluck my eyebrows.

It took me about a decade to finally stop and say: "You know what? No. I've tried it your way and this doesn't make me happy. I have almost no money. Whatever is left after the bills are paid must be allotted to pleasure. I am a Burgundy woman. After the work is done, I want the fine wine and the greasy steak. I want the video games and the books. I want the drunk nights in brown cafes smoking unfiltered tobacco straight out of the bag surrounded by people doing the same. I do not want to replace even a second of that with getting the hair ripped out of my body, creams and lotions that do nothing for my patchy skin and at the end of the day make me feel uglier than I am. Every moment I spend shopping for clothes and shoes is another moment of fleeting life that I am not spending writing my book, traveling the frozen wastes of Skyrim, talking to people who are smarter than me and indulging in not-work."

I wish I could conform. I really do, and I tried it for a very long time. My life would be so much easier. People would finally tell me I'm good at being a woman, and Baby Clementine craves that very badly. But it won't make me happy, so if I can't be a woman I'm shooting for the next best thing I can be: a person.

The great thing about learning at a very young age that you are Different is that you learn not to be surprised when people don't like you. Disappointed, yes, every single time, but never surprised. If that sounds like depression to you, yes, you've figured out the middle decade of my life, which is one more fact about me than Steph Stephs knows, and yet she's the one pretending to know me.

It makes the filters come off. This is a bad thing in many ways. People who live in a society need filters to get along as a group. That's good, and I have no internal problem with that. Fact is though, for me, the filters went missing for a while. I never worried about what to say, because it didn't matter. I had I Am Other tattooed on my forehead and a sign that said Rape Me pinned to my back. At least I assume that was the case. And that's a self-fulfilling prophecy whichever way you look at it.

So I talked without reservation and revealed everything anyone might care to know about me. It made me a person, no more and no less, but it certainly didn't make me a woman.

We all know. We all know what to say and what to censor. Because this knowledge is part of our genetic memory. We are born with the knowledge that talking about exes is how the daemon-lord Beelzebub takes possession of our words to spook dates away. Except I don't. There's no "we" to be had here. All I know is that I've been told that. I didn't know this before I was told. And worse than that, it's a lie. I met my husband while I was doing nothing but raging and crying over the horrible things my ex had done to me. Steph Stephs, your facts are not factual. You're not presenting trends here, where one errant data point doesn't factor into the bell curve. You're claiming fact. And you're doing it wrong.

I don't worry about whether or not anyone finds my job boring, and you know why that is? I could be a professional elephant constipation rectifier and if that is what I enjoy doing with my life, I won't be boring. I will speak passionately and at length about how the tight clench of elephant sphincter around my arm makes me heart swell and my soul sing. You can't be boring when you're passionate. Can't be done. You can be fucking weird, no doubt, but not boring. Everyone's passionate about something. And passion is attractive. In humans, at least. Maybe not in women.

This is the depth of the soul of a woman then? Past men, boy bands and cats?

I'll fight you tooth and claw on this, but you know what? I'm getting very tired.

It's a disgrace that we have separate words for manhood, womanhood and personhood, you know that? A fucking disgrace.

"Some people" look for these specific clues.

"Every woman" looks for these specific clues.

Am I getting though to you here?

But yeah, I'll cop to this one. Me, I look for clues of abusive and entitled personality. Not just on dates (which I didn't go on even before I was married, because remember: different cultures exist) but with every person I meet. Is this person going to argue with me when I ask them to please not use the word rape so casually? Is this person going to become the Grand Inquisitor of the Educate Me Movement when I tell them I'm bi? Does this person take "no" for an answer? Does this person interrupt me when I'm speaking? Does this person necessitate the makings of Terrible Bargains? Am I going to be kind to this person when they need me to be? Is this person's company better than my own? When he talks unkind of his family, does he do it in such a way that makes me think there's something dark and tragic hidden there?

This is not what I was taught to look out for. Little Baby Clementine did not know of these things. She knew to check for things like "dudes talking too fondly of their mother." Don't look for depth and hurt and scars, look for "drama."

What the hell, Steph Stephs?

I do not get this ritualization of "dating." I never understood why in some cultures this mode of interaction is distinct and separate from every other mode of interaction. As if life is a big casino, and we can only play one game of chance at any given time, instead of a big pool of linked drops that can touch us all at once when we dive in.

Do I really need to think this way to be a woman? Is "a date" really so different from "a person?"

Look, I'm not being obtuse here. I know from experience to look for red flags like I mentioned above. But the things I've been told to watch out for are so inconsequential, and the things that really are red flags I had to figure out on my own. Thanks a bunch, Steph Stephs.

Incidentally, I am sorry about making you the amalgamation of every bad teacher I've ever had in my life. I didn't mean to, but it just kind of happened that way. Just between you and me, Steph Stephs, this post kind of got away from me. Sorry about that.

It never takes long for cognitive dissonance to set in when you read lists like this. Some of points, maybe all of them, seem reasonable enough on their own. It's only when you start combining them that shit gets insidious and weird.

Point 3 + point 5 = talk, but holy shit be careful.

Talk, but not too much. Talk, but censor yourself to the point where you may as well not bother. Talk, to keep the silence away, because silence is the worst thing.

Awkward silences don't feature in my life very prominently. Paradoxically, I am very shy and have a hard time connecting with people, so I learned at a very young age to engage and defend and fence with words. It was pure survival. Words are what I was good at and not much else. Awkward silences aren't my problem, trust issues are my problem.

Many people aren't like me in that way. There's entire sites devoted to being less awkward, keeping that uncomfortable silence at bay, getting those words to come out right in mutually beneficial and pleasurable ways, and that's precisely the goddamn point.

Every woman. We. Us.

We. Us. All of us. We women. The Monolith. The Hivemind. The Others.

There's only so many ways I can keep this post flowing while hammering home the fact that I am not like this.

But this is my life, you know? I'm not like that. I don't do that. I've seen all kinds of people do that thing you describe, but I don't. I don't care if other people do, but I don't. I'm not judging this thing, but I just don't do it. Should I? Why? I don't understand.

Ain't I a fucking woman?

At least this list doesn't tell you what you're doing wrong. It's heavily implied that these are things women do wrong, but it's never outright stated. Most lists and articles and columns really make no secret of the fact that you are doing it wrong and here's the rules for doing it right. This particular one just implies it.The combination of both those approaches makes me fucking paranoid. Should I be updating my friends? Should I be going to the bathroom in groups?

And I don't. I just never... Why should I? I don't want to. I'll do it if that's what's required, if you give me a reason, I don't mind, but why should I? Why?

I wouldn't have worried about any of this if I hadn't been told to worry about it so many times.

Women are insecure. I wasn't insecure until I was told a million times that I was woman, therefor insecure. Women worry about their weight. I never spent a minute of my life worrying about my weight before I was told that the price of admission into womanhood is worrying about my weight. I never did, not for a moment, but I learned to pretend I did.

As a kid, I was sort of taught to trust other people to tell me what they needed from me. That's what parents and teachers and trusted adults do all the damn day if you're a kid: give you limits and rules and tell you what they need you to do. If someone needs me to stop fidgeting, I still sort of trust them to tell me, and for them to trust that I will. It's not hard.

We all fidget. All humans do, but women do it differently from humans.

I don't understand. Someone please chime in here and explain to Little Clementine why fidgeting is a gendered activity, because that little ball of preciousness is not getting it and I can't fucking help her.

We few. We lucky few who do not fear hurting a man's feelings.

I'm not one of those lucky few. In the past, when I've hurt men's feelings, they hurt me right the fuck back. It was a direct result of living in a world where men are humans and women are women. They expected me to be Woman and when it turned out I was Human, shit hit the fan right quick.

How does a sentence like that slip into a ten-minute fluff piece designed only to attract clicks?

Fear. My god.

I gotta admit, this one is new to me.

I want you to appreciate that statement. I've spent two decades searching for and absorbing what it means to be a woman, and apparently they make up new shit every day. I feel a little betrayed here. You can't set up the rules and then go changing them like this. It's cruel.

I've never done this. Not that I know of. I make people uncomfortable in lots of ways, but to the best of my knowledge this isn't one of them.

If you're thinking to yourself that I'm spending a lot of time here talking about my own issues that aren't relevant to anyone else and that I should talk about the implications of all this, you are still not getting the fucking point.

But fine, here, let's get some social justice up in this shit:

Go Google "women smile" right now. Do it. Read some of the results on the first page.

This is the problem with teaching kids things without telling them why the rules are what they are or even thinking through the implications.

"But I'm unhappy."

See? Because there's a difference between what all women are and what all women experience. And "all women" is incorrect either way, but one of them is a lot closer to truth than the other.

All women should not read Youtube comments under videos that use the word rape!

Unlike eye-brow plucking, that's a truth we can all believe in.

I was wrong before. Passion about the things we love isn't attractive, conformity is.

Do you even realize how confusing this sort of thing is to a kid who loves Stargate and Lord of the Rings? I suspect this taps into the arbitrary rule of cool, which I've talked about before, about how men have to be cool and women have to be... not that, as a priority.

It's the cognitive dissonance again. You'd think that if I'm old enough to date I'd be old enough to decide for my own self what the dealbreakers are, but no, there's a prescribed list. It did a real number on me as a kid. The thing I like are uncool, and I should strive to date cool men, so... Eh? What do I do exactly?

I tried many things. I tried hiding my hobbies and passions and it made me miserable. I tried going whole hog with them and ended up in the geek community, which traditionally has a warm and inviting reputation when it comes to welcoming women. I was royally screwed whichever way I went. And you better believe I knew, I knew it only happened because of my genital configuration.

Unfairness is a terrible thing to experience on that scale.

I needed grapes, and the fucking world gave me cucumbers. At least that monkey doesn't understand why this is happening to her. But I did. I knew.

It's a hell of a way to grow up.

This one pisses me off to spectacular degrees. You know why? Because I have an embarrassingly high IQ.

And "embarrassing" is the exact right word here. I squirm and sweat admitting this. When I was about twelve the people in my life (bless them) realized there was something very wrong with me and did everything in their power to help me get happy. One of the people they hired to fix me thought it best to do a battery of IQ tests. I so wish he hadn't. I wish I'd never found out.

I was scared at the time. You know why? I was scared they were all going to find out how dumb I was. Because girls are dumb. Men are geniuses. Women are muses at best.

So I am Other in that way. I don't like it. I always wanted to fit in and be normal, be the dead center of every bell curve. I wanted that so badly. I still remember being a child, being told that this was never going to happen. It broke me. Nobody understood why I wasn't happy to be exceptional. I didn't rightly know myself.

So here I am today, harboring a genius IQ in a woman's brain, and I feel wrong.

There must be flavors of cognitive dissonance more jarring and edged than this, because there's no sliding scale when it comes to this stuff and pain can't be quantified like that, but it's a bad one.

Women are dumb. Geniuses are smart.

Fucking try and make that work. I tried. I didn't try to sound smarter, Steph Stephs. I worked my fingers to the bone to hide how smart I really was. I pretended to be confounded by big boy science stuff, pretended to care about whatever I felt normal people cared about, I kept my mouth shut and I was very unhappy. I still hate this about me. Not the way I handle it, because I can now, but the fact that this is a thing I need to "handle" at all. Sometimes I let loose. I try hard not to, but sometimes the filters come off and I demolish people. I hate that. And they rightly hate me for it.

My brother is way less smart than I am, but he's still got some brains going on. Nobody hates him for being smarter than them. I'm not talking about society here, I'm talking about my life. Which was filled with Very Smart Men. They talked, they demolished, they steamrolled, they pontificated, they said smart things and it was so normal for them. So effortless and smooth. I never understood why it couldn't be that way for me. Men explain things to me, and I never tell them how wrong they are. I just smile.

I never even made it through college. The jagged edges on that dissonance were too sharp, and during the time where college was an option for me, bad men were fucking me up left and right.

Steph Stephs, you think geography and math are smart, which kind of tells me that you aren't. So don't you fucking talk to me about intelligence. I've got intelligence leaking out my fucking asshole. I may not be wise, I fucking know I'm not that, but I am goddamn smart. On this hypothetical date, I'm the one with the seventeen hypothetical doctorates. I wish I wasn't, but here we all are. You think anyone is trying to impress me? God no, that's not their job, and neither is it mine. I am a vessel for men to pour their genius into.

A couple of years ago I was sitting in a cafe reading a book and just enjoying coffee and life. It was a good book that I was enjoying very much, about the intersection of neuroscience and faith. This guy saw me and came up to me with this "I am shy but I am going to flirt with you" smile on his face and I was so up for that. He got closer, and I saw him read the cover of my book so he'd have something to say to me. That smile faded and fell and he did this awkward little turn and walked away again. It's funny. It's also my life.

Men 'round these parts, I've noticed, they like a woman who is smart, as long as she's not smarter. And I've got paperwork says that I'm smarter than 99.8% of them. Where does that leave me, Steph Stephs? What the hell do I do out here in the real world where it's possible for women to be smarter than men?

And point of order: John Stewart is smarter than you too.

Are we now? Are we those things, you and I?

Between the skin of "womanhood" and the meat of "personhood" there's an insulating layer of the fat of pseudo-progressiveness, and it looks exactly like this. I don't even know what to call it, when people challenge old stereotypes in one breath and confirm new ones with the other. It's sexism, sure, but that's a tricky, shifty beast that comes in many different shades and textures and mutates into many directions at once.

All women are not mindlessly absorbed with fashion. How dare you! All women are scatter-brained and indecisive. So there you go.

As a woman, this is the fat you need to trim away before you can get at the meaty core of true personhood and feminism underneath. And that insulating layer encapsulates all of it. Because this is the pop brand of pseudo-feminism that may look and taste like the real thing, but isn't.

That's another thing I wish I could go back and tell Little Baby Clementine. That just because someone adopts the language of a cause doesn't mean they represent it. That saying you're a fish doesn't give you gills. That grrrrl power is just another prescriptive list of things to be despite her personhood.

Poor kid. She never stood a chance.

And isn't that just the saddest note to end on?

One more step and we could have taken it to something resembling a worthwhile conclusion. Steph Stephs, this is true. You've hit on more than one veiled truth here. Just take it one tiny little step further and ask why.

Why do we do this?

Some leaps from cluster of facts to conclusion are hard. This is not one of those. It only requires one question.

Fucking why?

And you know what? In the same way that these "facts" are not true of every woman, the conclusion isn't going to be either. The people, fucking people who do this do it for their own reasons. I did it because the world was and is set up in such a way that it was too hard not to. I hurt myself, because it was better than the alternative: to let the world hurt me worse than I ever could.

That's how I had to grow up, Steph Stephs. And I'm a woman too.

I'm sorry I made you into this amalgamation. I only did it because you sound like the amalgamation. Steph Stephs, you're not doing anything tons of people haven't done before you. I know that because I watched them do it. I watched them very closely.

What I'm saying here, Steph Stephs, is that being a woman is not worth it, that it comes at the cost of being a person, and being a person is not an option.

What I'm saying is that I've got gender dysphoria.

And it's all your fault.

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