It’s a story from a few years back. I’m in the oncology ward visiting my terminally ill father. (Dad didn’t have cancer, or at least cancer isn’t what was killing him; the hospital was full and the vacant bed in oncology was a safe place to stash a frail and immuno-compromised patient.)

I’m walking from the break room to Dad’s private room. More like stumbling, really: it’s been a long haul, and I haven’t slept a full night for some time.

I feel pretty rough, and I look it. Every morning, I apply a touch of make-up, battle paint to get me through the school day. By the time I reach the hospital in the the afternoon, it’s all cried off. The normal dark circles under my eyes now look like bruises. I’m rumpled and slouched. I’m walking a little aimlessly, and I know I have that thousand-yard stare, the empty eyes of the grieving.

I slowly turn a corner — and almost collide with a bustling man in scrubs wheeling a teetering piece of shiny hospital machinery. He starts, then looks up into my eyes. I expect the look that all the nurses and orderlies give us: the silent almost-smile of commiseration, the death smile. It’s a small enough ward that they all seem to know the score.

He doesn’t offer the death smile. He looks me up and down and says, “Oh! How tall are you?”

I blink, and automatically answer. “Uh, five-ten. Or so.” I almost add, “What?” but so many inexplicable things have happened lately that I’m all out of “What?”

He shakes his head lasciviously, casting his gaze up and down me one more time. “Whew! I like that! MMM, tall women!” My jaw drops as he trundles his rig past me.

Because I am a woman, there is literally no time when I am exempt from an unsolicited appraisal of my sexual appeal by (and to) random men. When I, and other women, bridle under this oppressive and constant scrutiny, we are silly, shrill radical feminists who cannot take a compliment. Note that the flip side is rarely argued: that the men who offer these unsolicited and often unwelcome assessments are tone-deaf jackasses, that a sensible person knows that sometimes a person’s physical appearance is utterly irrelevant, and that there’s a difference between a compliment from a friend and a sexual assessment from a stranger.

I hoped to write something more coherent about this phenomenon. I hoped to address it sensibly, to expand on the impossibility of avoiding it — after all, I’m forty, gray-haired, plump, and bookish, hardly the stereotype of the red-hot mama, and I still get wolf-whistles and catcalls. But it’s been happening, after all, for at least twenty-six years: since I was 14. And that’s discounting all the childhood remarks that both adults and children make, the constant monitoring of a girl’s weight and height and hair style and clothing and demeanor and and and.

I’m tired. I’m exhausted.

And so I won’t discuss it sensibly. I’ll just say: I’m exhausted.

20 thoughts on “privilege

  1. Oh hell yes to all of this. The thing that is currently sticking my my craw about this very phenomenon right now (thanks to one of the managers at my local coffee shop) is that I am apparently supposed to be grateful for this unsolicited and for-damn-sure unwanted attention.

  2. This “phenomenon” is very interesting to me. Whistling is obviously never polite. And the orderly was out of line. What he said was not a compliment; it was giving you unsolicited information that he likes women with your characteristics. There was nothing personal to you.

    But you can’t tell me that compliments from strangers are 100% absolutely never welcome. In my experience, compliments from strangers are actually nicer than those from friends, because you haven’t done any work to ingratiate yourself to the person.

    It’s also not an absolute truth that we (both sexes) only want compliments on our looks when we already feel pretty.

    Another side of the coin is how the complimenter is made to feel. If I tell you that I like the way your hair is today, and you think you’re having the worst hair day ever, if I was being sincere, the politest thing would be a simple “Thank you,” not an outburst of “Are you kidding? I look like crap!”

    Just some thoughts that your post stirred up in defense of men who compliment sincerely.

  3. “But you can’t tell me that compliments from strangers are 100% absolutely never welcome. In my experience, compliments from strangers are actually nicer than those from friends, because you haven’t done any work to ingratiate yourself to the person.”

    I will only speak for myself here. When society tells you over and over and over again that the only thing you have of any value is your appearance, you may well reach a point when you view it as completely intrusive for people to constantly be publicly assessing your value, good or bad, as though it is their right to do so. Frankly, I would like it to be taken off the table completely, which isn’t a real option.

  4. Repectfully, Erik, I will point out (again and again and again for the rest of my life, evidently) that in the arena of personal remarks and intended compliments, the experience of men and women is vastly different.

    When a stranger, or even an acquaintance, chooses to point out my appearance over, say, my choice of reading material, my foresight at bringing an umbrella, or my skill at whistling for a cab, that person is continuing — almost certainly unintentionally, or at worst unconsciously — two longstanding social traditions that many women find oppressive:

    A) “Your appearance is important.” Even compliments intended to be neutral or mild (not sexual or erotic) can feel a lot like a pat on the head, a reward for performing my primary role of being (or striving to be) decorative. Since I do not consider that to be an important part of my role, it can be patronizing.

    B) “Your appearance is public property. I have license to remark upon it.” This is the more exhausting part of it: that I am supposed to care that strangers and acquaintances approve of my looks. Indeed, I am expected to privilege their opinions over my own!

    Re-read your own comment and you’ll see that you’re privileging your opinion of someone’s hairstyle over the opinion of the person who, y’know, grows the hair. Isn’t there something absurd in that? Sometimes, people really do appreciate a compliment and simply don’t know how to accept it gracefully. But next time someone blows off a compliment, you might ask yourself whether it was a way of telling you that the compliment itself was unwelcome.

    Anyone who knows me even a little knows that I make (and receive with pleasure) earnest compliments between friends and acquaintances, and even occasionally between strangers. They know that I flirt and joke, that I make risque remarks and enjoy the small pleasures of social — ahem! — intercourse. this is not an attempt to remove compliments from common chatter, and I think you know that.

    It is a purely exhausted plea from a purely exhausted woman who is tired of the message, dinned in upon her ears, ceaselessly for decades, that my outer shell is the single most important thing about me, and that I should welcome public scrutiny of it and thrive on praise of it.

    And really? Here’s the most exhausting part, the part that has simply worn me out.

    Though I am sympathetic to your point of view, that you mean no harm and intend no disrespect, that is a privileged point of view. You cast your own behavior as normative and harmless, and I am put in the position of defending my own objection to it, because you assume your opinion to be the default opinion. Do you see that?

    And that is the exhausting part.

  5. So if I tell Bob, in accounting, that I like the way he’s organized his cubicle, even though, to him it’s a mess, I am (OMG!) privileging my own opinion over the guy who, y’know, does the organizing. C’mon, now…

    Re: bold text, you’re saying that by responding to this post with well-intentioned questions, I’m exhausting you simply because I have a different point of view? Aren’t you laying on the victim role a little thick?

    • What would you say to a black person that just cannot bare to hear any more of your opinions about racism because you’re white and “privileged”?

      How is that any different? It’s ad hominem.

  6. Erik, I bolded the text because it’s a long comment, and that part was important and directly related to my post; I wanted to be sure it stood out.

    It’s not victimization; it’s a viewpoint to which you seem completely oblivious, so I’m pointing it out to you. In bold text.

    I (and most women I know) have had this precise conversation so many times that, yes, it does get exhausting. The inevitability of this part of the conversation, the part where the privileged person pops up and demands that the women explain it to him in detail, that’s the exhausting part.

    And if you are interested this conversation, then you have a responsibility to do some of the heavy lifting. Did you, as I suggested, re-read your own comment? Can you even begin to see how you are invoking male privilege in this conversation?

    I will not hold your hand while we babystep through the Male Privilege 101 checklist; if you want to be a serious participant in this conversation, you need to meet me partway. I’ve done it myself: when a black friend or a Jewish friend or a gay friend describes who their experience differs from mine and how my viewpoint is privileged, I try hard to listen, because I know that I don’t live in the same world and I can’t know their experiences without listening, and I can’t see my own privilege without examining my previous unexamined societal advantages, big and small.

    If you don’t want to participate in this conversation, you needn’t — and the good news for you is that most of the time, nobody will ever call you on it, because — hey — yours is the dominant cultural viewpoint.

    And, as I said above — the whole goddamned point of the whole goddamned post, in fact, I am exhausted from having had this conversation over and over and over again, with people who often are only interested in defending their unexamined viewpoint.

    • A feminist friend of mine in college opened my eyes to male privilege long ago. I was fully aware of all the items on that checklist except that women are more likely to have to tailor their clothes.

      Your assumption that I am ignorant of all that was incorrect, but I can see how that would be your default assumption.

      Yes, I reread my comment, and I don’t understand that usage of “invoke”. What am I invoking?

  7. Shorter version: I am not in the business of teaching you to see what you do not want to learn. Here is what I am telling you:

    Hey, that thing you think is a flat square? I think it’s a cube, and I think that because my viewpoint is different, and I can see another side to it.

    To be more specific: I am required to see your side. (That’s the male privilege, there: that your viewpoint is the default, and we all, male or female, have to take it into account.) But because my view is different, I can see your side and my side simultaneously.

    If we look hard enough, we’ll see there are even more sides, even more angles, than the one that is visible to you and the two that are visible to me.

    If you’re willing to look at my side of it, I might be willing to discuss it with you, and may together we can even see a third or forth side. If you barge around telling me it’s a flat square and that I’m silly for thinking otherwise, I’m done discussing it with you.

  8. What would you say to a black person that just cannot bare to hear any more of your opinions about racism because you’re white and “privileged”?

    Dude, this so supports my point that I actually skimmed it thinking it was Jag talking.

    What I would say, and have said, is “Yeah, I can’t really know how different our worlds are, can I? So I’m interested in hearing about it, and maybe eradicating some of my own ignorance.”

    Further, this is not me telling you to shut up, or telling you you cannot express your opinion, but me telling you that I have the choice on my own blog of not engaging with a predictable familiar argument from someone who is not trying to see my side of the topic at hand. This is not censorship; you can shout your opinion from the rooftops. Indeed, you are using my blog to trumpet your opinion.

    • GAH! I DO see your side of the cube (and want to see more) and I am trying to discuss it, but all I’m getting is a “you can’t possibly understand” kind of condescension. Do I have to write a feminist essay before you stop talking down to me?

      If you aren’t too exhausted, I’d still like some elaboration on when and how compliments, on work as well as looks, can be politely given by a man to a woman, to a stranger or a friend, without them being totally sexist and oppressive. If there are no general rules on this, when we can call it a thread and leave it at that.

      P.S. Great Flatland reference, by the way.

  9. What I mean by invoking male privilege:

    – You are not responding to my arguments, but telling me that I am wrong, oversensitive, and victimizing myself.
    – You put the onus on the receiver of the intended compliment to enjoy to experience (Another side of the coin is how the complimenter is made to feel. When a compliment is unwelcome, which is the subject at hand here, I don’t care how the complimenter is made to feel.)
    – You call me a victim for stating a viewpoint, without considering that your own viewpoint is perhaps suspect.
    – You in no way acknowledge that my viewpoint is valid, but…
    – … you don’t make a logical argument that your viewpoint is better. I am expected to explicate and defend my statements, while you do none of that yourself.

    And you refuse to listen to the conclusion in my opening post, which I have stated again and again in comments: I am tired of talking about this. Why am I tired? I am tired of the (largely male) voice that pokes into every single discussion of this subject and defends itself, usually without making any logical argument. I am exhausted that, every time I express this frustration, someone pops up to say “What frustration? I don’t see it!”

    I am frustrated that there are so many people who want to maintain their blind spots because blind spots are so very comfortable.

    I didn’t write this hoping to have yet another chance to hash it out with a resistant person, but as a howl of frustration in my own safe space. You heard my howl and decided to pipe up and tell me I’m wrong, because you don’t see what I see.

    • I don’t recall ever saying that you were wrong or even disagreeing with you beyond defending myself from your accusations. I apologize for assuming that your viewpoint was so obviously valid that it didn’t need stating on my part. Your viewpoint is entirely valid. I agree that society is completely tilted against you. It sucks.

      Seeing as how I am unable to find the motivation to drop everything and go to rallies or demonstrations for any of the myriad worthy causes of oppression in the world, I suspect this one is no different. Does that make me a jerk? Maybe. But what I can do is make my own behavior more respectful to women. To do that, I need to better understand what your face of the cube looks like, which is all I was trying to do.

      I was asking for clarification, specifically about your apparent sweeping statement that all compliments about the looks of a stranger are sexist. But you haven’t addressed that.

      I called you a victim for whining that I, specifically, was exhausting you by simply posting an interested comment here and for holding me up as an example of The Evil Oppressor. If a racial minority did that to you, you’d be offended and call them out on it too, I hope.

      WordPress lets you disable comments on a post-by-post basis, you know.

  10. [note: I think we’re cross-posting at the same time, and I have to step away from my desk. I sincerely hope that the time lag doesn’t cloud the conversation.]

    I DO see your side of the cube (and want to see more) and I am trying to discuss it, but all I’m getting is a “you can’t possibly understand” kind of condescension.

    I don’t think I have been talking down to you. I’ve been responding to your remarks, not making attacks upon your person. I’ve told you that I think we see different things, and that the sexism of our society has enforced your view upon me, but not my view upon you.

    I have emphatically not said that you cannot understand; if I thought you (or other men) couldn’t understand, this would be hopeless.

    From your comments here, I see not a single remark indicating that you acknowledge my position, which is:
    – compliments are often unwelcome. The more frequently the are imposed upon a person and a population, the more unwelcome they can become.
    – compliments a woman’s physical appearance can be patronizing, reiterating the idea that women have a duty to be decorative.
    – women are far more often the recipients of remarks intended to compliment (or otherwise evaluate) their physical appearance.
    – this frequency constitutes a societal norm by which women’s appearance becomes a public property, which men and women have license to evaluate openly, whether an individual woman likes it or not.

    I will grant that you entered this conversation (a conversation I explicitly do not want to have yet again, but am engaging in nonetheless) in good faith. However, I don’t think you’re making the reasoned argument that you think you’re making.

    The points I see you making in your comments so far:
    comment 1
    – The experience I describe, and which Jag heartily seconds, is not an actual phenomenon, but a “phenomenon.”
    – Catcalls and sexualized compliments are improper.
    – Non-sexualized compliments are fine.
    – The recipient of such a non-sexualized compliment should be grateful, or at least act grateful to make the complimenter feel good. (Like the co-worker who should appreciate your compliment of their hairstyle.)
    – Compliments are often welcome, and compliments from strangers particularly so. (“In my experience, compliments from strangers are actually nicer than those from friends…”)

    To sum up your first comment: you enter the conversation by telling me that I am wrong to object to a stranger’s personal remarks about my physical appearance (while simultaneously acknowledging that the specific sexual remark is over the line… the line that you have drawn).

    From there, you draw an equivalence between complimenting a person’s desk set-up and their bodily person, then tell me that my rough howl of frustration is the unjustified cry of someone playing victim.

    If you aren’t too exhausted, I’d still like some elaboration on when and how compliments, on work as well as looks, can be politely given by a man to a woman, to a stranger or a friend, without them being totally sexist and oppressive.

    I am, at the moment, too exhausted for that discussion. As I imagine you know prefectly well, it’s a big, complicated question with no right answer, and a conversation I am currently having on several fronts.

    • Wow. If I’m going to have to acknowledge every sentence I agree to rather than focus on parts that I don’t fully understand, then I’d rather not have any discussion at all.

      I do apologize for the quotes around phenomenon. I don’t know why I did that, and I can understand that it would be offensive.

  11. (Unless you consider the “babysteps” thing to be condescension; I don’t think it is, any more than I thought it was condescension when homosexual friends gently took me by the shoulders and tilted me ’til I could see my heterosexual privilege. They took me a little way by babysteps, then told me to gird my loins to do the damned work myself. That was an important part of my social education, just as revisiting those checklists, literal and metaphorical, is an important part of keeping my privilege visible to me.)

  12. then I’d rather not have any discussion at all.

    As I mentioned eleventy-billion times, yeah, me too, but I’m still having it. You know, for Sisterhood.

    No one asked you acknowledge everything you agree with. Acknowledging any single point of agreement (which I see you did in your previous comment, and I appreciate that you are still taking this conversation as a conversation and not as a fight) is a heck of a start. I also appreciate your clarification of the scare-quotes. That’s helpful.

    So. Well done, us.

    • I’ve enjoyed this. My comments, none of which were meant to cause any offense, did in fact offend. You’ve helped me understand some of the ways my comments could be taken the wrong way, which is always good to know. I despise being offensive accidentally. Let’s just say my awareness was raised, which was your goal…and mine, too, really.

      You must admit, though, that you were primed and ready to pounce on, and find offense in, any not-totally-agreeable male comment here. I stumbled right into it like the doofus I am.

      Thanks for this. Go us!

  13. I was not primed to take offense, just weary of hearing the same not-argument every time this issue arises. And it does. My frustration is not over you, it’s over the situation, the inevitablility of this conversation. The same conversation plays out over and over in webpages and classrooms and living rooms and bars and dorm rooms, and never seems to stop.

    Talking to people who disagree is the fastest way to learn about almost anything. However, not every yowl of frustration is plea to have a reasoned conversation. Mine explicitly was not, because I’m tired of having had the same conversation — of being told I have the responsibility to have the same conversation — over and over and over at every turn.

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