How Sexism Saved Me

Detail of a C. E. Brock illustration for the 1...

Detail of a C. E. Brock illustration for the 1895 edition of Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice (Chapter 3) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sexism is a Very Bad Thing. I say that now before I go on to defend the title of this post. I’ve no wish to be hauled away by the Women’s Lib movement and sentenced to three years locked in a power-suit with electrified shoulder pads.

So I do hereby state with complete sincerity that I believe no one – man or woman – should have their career, their life choices, their appearance, their very safety – hampered, unfairly influenced, criticised or jeopardised because of the attitudes or behaviour of the opposite sex.

Now I don’t especially dwell on the subject but I read something just recently that triggered a few memories. A website called The Everyday Sexism Project was brought to my attention by a thought-provoking link from Jo Middleton at her excellent blog, Single Slummy Mummy. The Everyday Sexism Project is a catalogue of anecdotes of sexism by women. You can add your own story if you want. Some of the incidents described there are serious and some are harmless but all have caused offence and all convey valid objections.

So how did sexism save me? And why am I rocking the boat by relating an incident which, according to the laws of female liberation, should have made it to the web pages of the Sexism Project instead?

Let me take you back 16 years or so. My first marriage had just fallen apart. No great loss, as it turns out, though I was too blind to be aware of it at the time. His favourite pastime was finding new ways to demoralise me – “stupid, useless and ugly” was one of the more repeatable phrases thrown my way. I was stupid for believing it, but you do if you’re told often enough don’t you?

So there I was,  as much confidence as a lemming on a cliff edge, believing I was pretty worthless, that no one would ever want me again. And long may I have continued in that frame of mind if not for a small piece of mindless sexism.

That morning I’d woken up with a “stuff ’em” attitude. I didn’t care if I was ugly but I was damned if I’d hang my head a day longer. So I dressed with more care than usual, put on make-up for the first time in months, and left home wobbling on unaccustomed heels with my chin high and a “taunt me if you dare” glint in my eye.

And do you know what? I got two wolf whistles that morning from complete strangers!

And do you know what else? It made me feel so damn GOOD! It shouldn’t have, I know. I should have been offended. Such objectionable flattery should have been beneath my contempt. Today’s woman shouldn’t need a man’s affirmation of her attraction; she should be strong and self-reliant, heedless of her physical attributes and confident that she’s the equal of any man.

Oh, please! Find me such a paragon of modern womanhood! As Elizabeth Bennet once said to Mr Darcy in response to his list of the proper accomplishments, “I never saw such a woman”.

I certainly was not that woman. Not then and not even now. But those wolf whistles – silly, inappropriate and in all likelihood meaningless – gave me that tiny spark I needed to start believing in myself again. I could chuckle at it and tell myself it was all nonsense, but all the same, the next time I stood in front of a mirror I looked for – and found – a few less reasons to wince. Things got better for me after that day.

Is it wrong to need a man’s flattery to feel good about ourselves? Yes. Am I ashamed that I became so reliant on one man’s good opinion that it gave him the power to kick me to rock bottom? Absolutely. But I will never deny that that daft, old-fashioned display of male sexism lifted my spirits at a time when nothing else could. I’d like to think that some forms of male chauvinism can find a way of rubbing shoulders with female emancipation.

What do you think? Are all forms of sexism unacceptable? Are you confident enough not to need a man to point out that you’re attractive? Is it wrong to even care about being attractive to men?

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About Mandy Cochrane

I'm a control freak but I'm also a pushover, I cry too easily but don't cry when I really need to, I'm a workaholic but too lazy to do the things that really matter. I'm a whole mixed up bag of conundrums. I'll work it all out one day. Probably.

Posted on April 16, 2012, in Being a Woman and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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