A few months ago, I surprised myself with my latent attachment to some patriarchal bullshit. I have a lot of flaws – I’m quick to anger and am perpetually late, for starters – but I’m rarely superficial when it comes to women’s appearances. After all, I’m positive body image girl! Love yourself! Kiss and hug yourself! Rejoice in your beautiful body and all the amazing things it lets you do! And I mean it.
Until the second you piss me off, that is. Then, apparently you should feel bad about any and all physical flaws, as perceived by me, unrelated as they may be to the situation at hand. Oh, shit.
Here’s the deal: several months ago, someone crossed me on the wrong day. I’d had a horrible time at work, was on my way home, and just needed to stop by Target. What I didn’t expect was the live music event at the mall, which had left every parking spot in the complex full. I circled and circled; I headed out to hunt in the furthest lots… but no go. Finally, I resorted to stalking people who were walking back to their cars. But – isn’t this always the way? – all of them were just grabbing forgotten cell phones or blankets and heading right back in. After over 20 minutes of eying pedestrians like a vulture, with my frustration nearing nuclear levels, I found a man who was actually leaving in his vehicle. He waved at me and even jingled his keys in the air so I would be clued in. This man was my salvation.
He was parked right across a four-way intersection from where I was waiting. I pulled up as close as I could without blocking the road and triumphantly set my blinker to blipping. But, as he reversed, a red sports car full of teenage girls sped in from the right and then screeched to a halt. Their blinker went on, too.
I stared them down, even lowered my window and gestured at the spot and back to myself, but the driver did a perfect blind-and-deaf impression, intently looking everywhere but at me. The second the man was out of his spot – knowing I couldn’t just zip across the intersection – the teen queen bebopped into the space. I drove up behind her, ready to say something, but the cars behind me started honking and I had to move on. As I drove away, desperately unsatisfied, she shot me a half-sheepish, half-defiant look, pursed her lips, and then went back to laughing with her friends. I found a spot about 10 minutes later, and immediately set to drafting a word bomb to leave on her windshield.
And here’s the thing. She knew what she’d done was shitty, but I wanted to reinforce it with a little more shame, because being a decent member of society involves not being an asshole driver. I wanted to make that message stick. (At 17, I was once followed into a restaurant by a man who reprimanded me for cutting him off in traffic, and I needed to be told. I felt the same way about this girl.) But, I was also at the end of my rope for other reasons, and along with the desire to not let her rudeness go unchastised was a deep, sharp urge to hurt her and tear her down. (“Disrespect me, will you?!”) And the second my anger made it personal, the first thing I jumped to was insulting her appearance.
She was young, and that made it so easy. She was playing a game I’ve played many times, especially at her age: dressed to the nines, heavily made up, and ready to party – all in the slightly over-the-top, not really pulled together way that happens when you’re in high school and trying so hard. And normally, I’d say: good for her. Yes, yes, the male gaze, etc… but mostly she was enjoying presenting herself, and that’s awesome.
But that night, all I wanted to do was tell her every horrible thing I knew from personal experience would attack her deepest insecurities: “Y’know, that thick, jagged eyeliner really makes you look trashy – maybe learn how to apply it properly sometime, right after you learn to be less of a selfish bitch. And all the concealer in the world isn’t going to fix that skin, honey – maybe someday it’ll clear up, around the time you mature enough to understand that life isn’t all about you.” And so on, and so on… It was awful.
Of course I didn’t leave her that note in the end. I didn’t even write that note on paper. But I thought it. I thought those hateful comments instantly – proving to me that, contrary to my dearly held beliefs, the deep recesses of my brain are still wired to think the most effective way to “put a woman in her place” is to make her feel ugly. Fuckity fuck fuck.
I was so discombobulated by this that I sat sweating in my car, holding pen and paper and shaking my head. After a while, I did write and leave a note that called her out. But it didn’t say a word about her appearance, or use the word “bitch,” because I remembered just in time that I’m a decent human being myself, and supposedly a feminist who supports young women instead of tearing them down.
As Caitlin Moran said, feminism doesn’t mean never disliking another woman, or refraining from any joke at the expense of how a woman has styled herself. But I do think it means not bringing appearance up as a trump card to embarrass a woman when her looks are utterly unrelated to the reason you’re mad.
Now that I’ve had weeks upon weeks to simmer down, what I really wish for that teenage driver is that the concert was more than worth the stern note she had to read at the end of it. That she felt gorgeous and comfortable in her dress, that she found someone she wanted to dance with, and that, when she did read my note, she was confident and poised enough to accept the criticism, tuck it away, and move right on with her own young, marvelous life.
Thank you to Hold The Condiments for her post on fight versus flight, which inspired me to share this story.