Saturday, December 13, 2008

The F Word

As some of you may be aware, I have recently started calling myself a feminist. Really, I've always held feminist ideals and beliefs on a lot of subjects, but was reluctant to label myself with "the F word" for a few reasons-not the least of which being that many self-identified feminists I had encountered in my life were the "scary kind" of feminists. You know, the women who say that if you wear makeup, marry a man or spend any amount of time as a stay at home mom, you can't really call yourself a feminist, because you're actually setting the cause of equality back hundreds of years. Then there was the fact that I spent a little bit of time being actively "anti-feminist," which is something I'm not proud turns out that what I was basing that decision on was some horrible misinformation as well.

I never did a whole bunch of work as far as researching social issues for myself in many cases, because honestly, I haven't had that luxury for most of my life. My goal has usually been survival, and any "free time" I have had has often been spent on purely recreational activities. Living constantly in survival mode, with every moment being a crisis, is very stressful, and using my personal time to do research or become an activist has had absolutely no appeal for me under those circumstances. I'm taking it as a sign of great progress that I have recently found myself with the time, resources and energy to focus on things other than the bare necessities or "blowing off steam." So, I've been able to look past the No True Scotswoman crap that I've seen from so many women who identify as feminists, as well as the other bullcrap I've been fed on the subject, to see that a great deal of what I've always believed and fought for in my personal life is based around feminist ideas. So with that in mind, why not call myself that?

One of the side effects of finding the time to care about social issues in a more general sense than "what is affecting me directly at this precise second" and giving myself a new "label" has been that I a) notice things in a whole new way and b) have a whole new set of language to apply to situations that I used to describe as bad or wrong but could never articulate why. The second of the two is definitely nice, because it's giving me a framework to understand problems that I've had personally most of my adult life. Looking at things through the lens of feminism and/or women's issues has helped me to see that there are very likely other people going through the same crap somewhere in the world, and that it's not my fault it's happening. And as always, I'm hoping that understanding and putting words to the issue will be the first step in solving it...though I realize that it's a teaspoon issue at this point. *headdesk*

On the subject of lifelong struggles, I have always had trouble dealing with the majority of women I encounter, and I've never been able to articulate what the problem was. I mean, I could see that they were treating me badly, but couldn't get any further than that with the concept. Part of the issue was that I had spent so much of my life being treated so badly by so many people that I had normalized and internalized abuse and mistreatment, and to this day am still not entirely sure of what is okay and what isn't, what I can expect from other people and when I might be overreacting. The other part was that the women I felt comfortable with and could actually interact with on any significant level were always in the minority in my life, leading me to believe that women, as a rule, were just stupid cunts and that my female friends and I were just "the good ones." (That was actually part of the reason I was so disdainful of feminism for a while there...why would I support women when most of them treat me like shit?)

This issue hit a high point at my last job. I was harassed by other women on staff to the point that I suffered a "minor" episode that some people would label a "nervous breakdown." I began struggling again with the suicidal impulses that I have kept fairly well under control for nearly ten years, I began self-harming again, my past disordered eating reared its ugly head and consumed most of my life again, and I became utterly incapable of basic social function. My home life suffered, because I was in such abysmal personal condition that I couldn't properly care for my son or manage my household. Hopefully there's been no permanent damage done to my son's psyche as a result of this, and he seems to be healing well at this point, but I was not a good mother for most of the last year or so.

The type of harassment that I suffered is probably immediately imaginable by any woman reading this. Constant gossip, both comments made to my face and behind my back, about my appearance, speculation about my sexuality and sexual history (neither of which I have ever attempted to hide from anyone on a personal level, but having that bantered about at work is not acceptable to me), direct interference with my ability to do my job properly, people going behind me and messing up something I had just done (unsetting a table, changing the numbers on my cash count, etc)...if you can think of a way to torture a person, these women did it. And at one point the behavior extended to management-the former department head spread rumors about my home life and revealed to anyone who would listen that I was on antidepressants. She told people that they shouldn't take me seriously because of my "mental issues." When I was physically assaulted by a coworker-during a shift and in front of customers, no less-and left work to get medical attention for my injuries, she wrote me up for not finishing the shift. When I had a diabetic seizure at work and was found on the bathroom floor by a customer, then left work to get medical attention...well, three guesses what she did. And that time around, she actually threatened to fire me, but "settled" for transferring me to another department, with a pay cut.

The thing is, that place was remarkable in the level of shit dished out. But the general type of treatment, like I said, is likely familiar to most women reading this. Since I had encountered something like that at most places I worked, I was getting to the point where I assumed it was my fault-that there must be something wrong with me as a person that made people want to treat me that way. Or maybe I was overreacting-maybe that's just how adults treat each other. It's normal and I should just "fucking shut up and quit whining," as I was directly told on the night that set off the chain of events that led to me leaving that job. However, the last couple of months have given me an opportunity to examine my history of dealing with other women. I started by thinking about what seemed to "set off" the abuse at my last job.
  • When I showed exceptional skill at a task, or learned a new one quickly, the abuse got worse.
  • When I showed up at work with makeup on and obviously time-consuming, fully styled hair, I was treated slightly better.
  • When I showed up to a staff function dressed somewhat "unconventionally" (read:not trendy or "sexy") I was treated worse and gossiped about more that day.
  • When I was seen being friendly with men, not only did I hear the expected battle cries of "slut" and the like, the abuse got worse for at least several days.
  • When the women in question found out (by him bragging, naturally) that I had, at one point, slept with a guy who worked in another department and decided not to date him, the attempts at sabotaging my work/getting me in trouble with management increased.
  • When I stood up for myself, the attempts to sabotage me got worse.
  • When I reported the woman who physically assaulted me to the police, the other women began to assault me in smaller ways-"accidentally" spilling things on me or bumping me with trays and carts whenever there was no one looking.
  • On one particular occasion when I was overheard discussing an academic issue with a customer, who then filled out an extremely positive comment card about me, the woman who heard the conversation filed a false report with the General Manager about me.

Before I looked at many of these from a feminist perspective, they seemed utterly ridiculous. But in retrospect, it seems that they fall under the same basic category as many anti-woman attacks. Any time I displayed independent intelligence, skill above what I was "allowed" to have, any kind of body autonomy, or an expectation of respectful treatment, the attacks got worse. When I conformed to a more acceptable standard of femininity, and anytime I "laid still and took it," so to speak, I was treated almost like half a person.

What frustrates me is that I have encountered this treatment in a much more insidious way, and more frequently, from other women than I have from men. I'm still a little reluctant to jump on the "blame the patriarchy" bandwagon, but I don't see another way to explain this issue. Women have been trained to keep each other "in line." If a woman dares to show individuality, to be different from the herd and not ashamed of it, she is singled out for torment.

I'm facing some stuff at my new job that, while not nearly what I dealt with at the old one, appears to be the same kind of problem. I get teased about anything "different" about me-and believe me, there's a lot different about me. It's been pointedly said in front of me that women in their late thirties or older have "earned the right to be themselves, even be a little weird if they want to be." (The implication being that I haven't "earned the right" to be myself?) The other women feel that they have a right to touch me, specifically my hair. Some of them will go so far as to pull my hat off my head (when I wear one specifically as an effort to not have people play with my hair) and tousle my hair, calling me "such a cute little girl." I'm not even fucking kidding. I get spoken to like a child, and have actually been referred to as such by women who know damn well that I'm a divorced woman with a child who is working to pay my mortgage, same as they are. There are a couple of them who, while they don't actually try to sabotage my work, will try to make it appear to the supervisors as though I'm doing badly. They'll stand by my station and "fix" things that I'm doing just fine, often going so far as to "rearrange" things into the exact positions I had them in. Just as long as it looks like I'm screwing up and need help, they're happy. A few of them constantly ask questions about my personal life, and when I say I don't want to talk about it, I get called "snobby" and "antisocial." And when I do answer, usually with half-assed responses meant to end the conversation, there's inevitably some unnecessary commentary on it. For example, someone was asking about my parents. I answered with simply, "I don't talk to my parents." No explanation, because I didn't think it was their business. I got, "Oh, everyone goes through that rebellious stage. When you grow up, you'll get over that." (So, not talking to the people who beat you and allowed their friends to rape you is rebellious? Shit, I'd better fix that. I guess good girls don't take steps to keep themselves and their families safe, huh? Then, coming from people who, to a lesser extent, clearly think parts of my body are public property, I shouldn't be surprised.) Rebellion. That's their favorite theme. Any display of individuality or independent thought is outright called "rebellion," and any attempt to stand up for myself-pointing out that I'm an adult, even if I'm the youngest adult in the room, asking someone to not touch me-is met with derision and comments about how I'm "rude." Granted, a lot of these women are a bit older than I am, and some of them have a real fixation on the "respect your elders" paradigm. But I was raised to believe that once a woman (or anyone, for that matter) had taken on adult responsibilities, such as marriage, parenthood, or a full-time job, you treated them as an adult. And living in the modern world, I was under the impression that it's just expected that you treat your coworkers like equals, not kindergarten students.

Seeing this situation from my new perspective helps a little, but doesn't make it completely stop hurting. The worst thing is, I know how to stop it. There are other women about my age who work there and don't get the same shit every day. If I were to dye my hair back to a more natural-looking colour, start dressing "like a girl" (though why the hell I would want to wear the kind of uncomfortable-looking clothes I see lots of these women wearing to do dirty, physical work every day is beyond me), stop being so damn good at my job, giggle more and stop asking for respect, I'd be fine. And at least one of the other girls my age has said as much to me. "It's because you're different. If you fit in better, they'd leave you alone."

Or, there's the option that no one will mention. The environment would be better... if I had a penis. There's a man at work who is a lot like me-about the same age, quiet, keeps to himself, does really well at the job, and doesn't take shit from anyone. I would think he's "rude" too, wouldn't you?

Actually, he's a "self-starter" who "doesn't waste time talking when he doesn't need to," and people are "impressed with his independence."

*sticks head in the paper-feeder*

Please note, I'm not saying my current job is horrible, or that it's torturing me the same way the old one did. The incidences of being picked on are relatively minor, in the big picture, but the fact is that if each person in the group that's doing it does one rude or hurtful thing every day, it adds up. And I'm not prepared to sweep this under the rug, because the reality is that it's just not fucking right. It may be "no big deal," and I could very well be overreacting to one unpleasant feature of an otherwise awesome job. But to my eyes, it's sexist, ageist, and generally unfair, and I shouldn't have to "earn the right" to do what I please with my body and have my own personality.

No comments: