When I was in my teens I watched a movie that made me think about male/ female roles. It was about a former beauty queen who wanted to be taken seriously as a journalist. At 5 ft 8 inches tall with a voluptuous figure, she had trouble getting people to move past her looks. She was stunning. The kind of woman everyone would stop to stare at, and follow as she moved through a room.
Phenomenal good looks had obviously helped her in life. There was no denying the advantages they brought- she wasn’t someone you forgot. But too often, she was still considered arm candy when she wanted to be acknowledged for her accomplishments.
After a great deal of thought she realized there was only one way this could happen. Erase the outer look and replace it with a different one. That night she studiously altered her appearance and then went to meet her closest friend for drinks. Wandering up to the bar where she’d asked her friend to wait, she took a seat. They engaged in casual conversation. After a half hour she made a personal comment which almost prompted a slap, had it not been for the gleam in her eye and mischievous smile that was immediately recognized. Shocked, her friend couldn’t believe it. The usually breathtaking, jaw dropping woman had morphed into a handsome man! And no one had noticed.
Thus began her month-long experience of “living as a man.” What started as a piece for the magazine became a journey of introspection and transformations. The more she let herself become the role, the more she noticed amazing differences in not only her own perceptions, but those of others.
She no longer went to meals focused solely on her appearance,and weight. She stopped worrying about calories and ate as she pleased, without guilt. An extra pound was no longer the end of the world. Her posture and gait became relaxed and comfortable, no longer structured to best highlight her assets. Shoes were flat and easy to wear, unlike the 4-inch stilettos she’d been trained on. Under garments were comfortable and big, unlike the painful and constraining underwire bras and thongs she used to sport. She was no longer the statuesque beauty preyed upon by men and women alike. Everyone spoke to her eyes, not her breasts, actually interested in what she said. Being treated as an equal from the beginning was a welcome change.
But more importantly, she felt less vulnerable, safer. Dining alone wasn’t to be avoided due to unwanted advances. She no longer worried at night when footsteps approached behind her, or took another elevator rather than get into one alone with a stranger. The catcalls were gone, replaced with an indifference that brought peace. She was just another guy.
That message hit a nerve and made a lasting impact. As a young medical student, I had to stay in the hospital every 3rd or 4th night to take call. In the rare moments we had to rest, there was a residents quarters where we could clean up and jump into a cot for a quick nap before being called to the floor once again. They were always off the beaten track, in areas the hospital didn’t use for patients; isolated and usually empty. I had a few residents and attendings (practicing doctors who supervised the residents in each area they trained) who seemed to believe the rooms were meant for pleasure. In looking back, I was lucky. I was naive, innocent and much younger than most. Those who knew me tended to be protective rather than predatory. Hearing my discomfiture they made sure others knew,
“Don’t mess with her, or you’ll have to mess with me.”
I didn’t understand until years later how fortunate I was to have those protectors- men and women- in my life. But I still remember the fear and vulnerability I felt in those instances. Sadly, back then, women had just started to break the glass ceiling. We were expected to “deal with our issues, not go crying to someone and prove we didn’t belong.” A female surgeon actually told a group of us,
“If you’re taking the place of men just to have babies and not give it 100% of your life, you don’t deserve the chance you’ve been given.”
Throughout the years I noticed repeated incidents where I was ignored or diminished. Like the times my ex-husband and I would talk to a repairman about the house or cars. Even though I was the one in-the-know, they’d always answer him. He was adamant I was too sensitive, and that it never happened. One time as the repairman was answering my question I actually physically followed the path his eyes traveled until I was standing between him and my ex! Or when I went to buy a car with my brother and daughter- no matter how often it was made clear I was purchasing the automobile, the sales person still tried to sell him my car! It takes tremendous strength not to get snippy when I’m repeatedly referred to as little lady, sweetheart or honey by strangers wanting to sell me something.
For most women, we have all had experiences dealing with some type of sexual discrimination. Far too many have experienced the worst horrors imaginable. All because they have breasts and a uterus. That’s it. So to see a movie where that no longer mattered, where she could be herself, free from societal expectations, fears and frustrations, was an eye opener. The only catch- she had to stop being a woman-to learn to be a better one.
Of course she hadn’t really changed, she had just empowered a side neglected for far too long. And in the midst of the experience, she started having conversations no man would have allowed with her counterpart. They were scared, vulnerable and worried too, just in different ways. They were fearful of rejection, living up to societal demands of being “the bread winners”, having a successful career with a loved one by their side, and becoming a good father.
In the final analysis we all want to feel safe, be heard, loved, accomplished, and acknowledged. We can’t change who we are, nor should we, but we can decide what we present to the world and what we’ll tolerate. No one should be hurt, ignored, diminished, demeaned, abused or subjugated for what we have. . .or don’t have. We can stand tall, in all our shapes, colors, ages, beliefs and sizes, to demand a better world and make our harassers understand anatomical and social differences should be nurtured and honored. Too often, we all want to fit into the same mold. To belong, not stand out, in order to feel connected. But it’s those qualities that widen perspective and help to stamp our own uniqueness on a fast becoming cookie cutter world.
That old adage of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes before you judge them applies to us all. We don’t have to go to the extremes this woman did. Just remember how you’d want to be treated and the results will be the same.