*excerpted and adapted from Women Overcoming O-Syndrome: Real, Raw, Unapologetic (Aug. 1, 2018) by Theresa M. Robinson & CollabHERators
Warning. Sentiments expressed in the book (and in the excerpt below) are often crass and not veiled in political correctness, tactfulness, civility, or etiquette. If you’re easily offended or blush at the mere suggestion of an off-color thought or remark, then the book is not for you. If you’re quick to claim “male-bashing” or discrimination, move on. (The former is admittedly harsh, while the latter is illegal.) If any of this applies to you, stop reading now. Each collabHERator was encouraged to just say it like it is and how she feels it—the good, the bad, and the ugly—without apology. So, in the spirit of full disclosure, I ask you to please refrain from judgment.
He directed only one word at me, and I nearly lost it. And it wasn’t because I had noticed him staring at me on the crowded airport shuttle as I stood holding onto the overhead handgrip. I have been on too many shuttles in my lifetime to get rattled by someone staring at me. Sometimes there are so many people jammed on the shuttle that you have no choice but to be looking directly into a stranger’s eyes—and not in a how-Stella-got-her-groove-back kind of way.
No, the crowd didn’t bother me. The staring didn’t bother me. It was the word he said that bothered me. The word itself I find absolutely and utterly offensive when spoken to me by a man.
I don’t need a grammar class to remind me that when a single word is followed by a period, it’s a command. Like “sit” or “stay.”
And that’s when I unleashed on him.
“Why!? Why should I smile on demand because you think that’s what I should be doing!? You don’t know me!”
As my voice rose and my eyes flashed with each word, he nervously adjusted his collar and glanced around at the other travelers who were taking notice, but pretending not to. It’s amazing how quickly every single person can suddenly have a ton of emails to go through on their smartphone when drama ensues.
Turning back to me, he managed to squeeze out a half-hearted and sarcastic apology. It was obvious that his intention was to only shut me up to not draw any further attention to himself. No real remorse.
“Jeez. Sorry. What’s the big deal?”
Technically, he was correct. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t a big deal. But to me, in that moment, it was a super-sized deal, a deal on steroids, a clueless, careless, thoughtless deal!
I can predict the narrative likely going on inside of his clueless head because I’ve heard it before shouted at me on the street. Bitch. You women are so sensitive and make such a big deal out of everything. Must be hormonal or something. In his mind there was no way he could be the issue. It had to be me. Clearly, I had offended him by minding my own business and thinking my own thoughts while wearing a facial expression of my choosing. If only I had been smiling coyly at him with a sparkle in my eye and a slow-motion breeze tousling my hair. Perhaps then he would have been satisfied and none of this would have ever happened. I brought it all on myself. Just a different rendition of “look at what she was wearing when she was attacked.”
Or in this case, what I wasn’t wearing. I wasn’t wearing a smile.
What shuttle guy considered to be an overreaction on my part goes far beyond what he and other like-minded men are willing to own up to. (I sometimes wonder if it’s more a willingness issue or capability issue.) When men expect women to smile and go as far as to insist that we do, it betrays a belief that women are ornaments (i.e., objects) that should adorn their surroundings. I am tired of being informed that I am violating the “smile and look pretty” code. It’s just one of many outdated rules and norms of behavior to which women are still held.
Women are judged and scrutinized for how we look. We’re too sexy or not sexy enough. We’re too pretty or not pretty enough. We’re too fat or not thin enough. One day at work, I overheard two men in our café talking about how overweight this woman was. A man can be bald, fat, and ugly, and it’s a nonissue!
— Christie, a collabHERator
Society classifies certain comments or behaviors as microaggressions and microaffronts. These terms themselves can be offensive. Here’s why: Attaching “micro” (mis)conveys that these instances are just small infractions and (mis)communicates that they’re not a big deal. This is exactly how shuttle guy attempted to minimize the situation. By emphasizing a “what’s the big deal?” angle. The term “micro” helps the perpetrators to not feel so bad when they do it. What needs to happen is for women to feel un-victimized and un-harassed.
Often the most damaging offenses are the small, incremental ones that seem “harmless” and “inconsequential” enough when they happen the first time or even a few times. But what if they happen every day? Over time, not addressed, these offenses run rampant and become, in a sense, normalized. The perpetrators remain oblivious to the effects on themselves and on others.
Sometimes it’s not a behavior or a comment or a single word; it’s a look. It’s hard for women to defend ourselves against a look or to prove what’s behind the look. Instinct. A knowing. We know when it has that #MeToo flavor, and it’s downright creepy. Even those kinds of looks have a stereotypical basis in that women exist for men’s satisfaction. That to look at us that way, some men honestly believe they’re complimenting us!
Nothing is more uncomfortable than an old-ass man looking at you as if you’re a snack.
— Ayana, a collabHERator
I’ve lost count of the random men over the years who’ve “caught me” looking serious, contemplative, or otherwise. Men that have instructed me to smile for their benefit. How many of these incidents do I and other women have to experience for them to not be termed micro? How many micros equal this needs to stop? Is there a formula I don’t know about that qualifies and validates my experiences? These experiences certainly don’t feel micro. Think cumulative effect. CollabHERators’ stories echo the same sentiment. It’s the cumulative effect of experiences that impacts us and not necessarily that one, isolated event.The stories that grace these pages are a testament to what many know to be true—that similar affronts both exist and persist —countless instances for individual women. Imposing gender stereotypes on women, expecting women to take on and assume behaviors that justify and perpetuate the stereotypes, and then punishing or dismissing women for our nonconformity and rejection of the stereotypes—not at all my idea of micro!
I’ve got a million stories like this. Pick your poison!
— Elizabeth, a collabHERator
And what of the reaction women get when we dare call men on it, when we dare to be bold to not comply with and to verbally defy the smile order? It varies. For me, to date, I’ve been called bitch, hormonal, mean, ugly.
When they say “smile” to me, I turn it around on them. “You smile.”
— Joanne, a collabHERator
After some trial and error over the years, I’ve devised a strategy that gets my message across to men who insist on saying “smile” to me—strangers or not. Consider the following scenario.
Man to me: “Smile.”
Me to man: “How many nonsmiling men have you said that to today?”
Man to me: [blank look]
Me to man: “Zero. That’s what I thought. Buh-bye.”
What I hope happens next is his lightbulb moment. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it doesn’t.
How many of these aspects of O-Syndrome have you experienced in the past year?
- Talked over: to be interrupted, especially in meetings, while you’re in the middle of talking, usually by a man, who often may go on to repeat exactly what you’ve just said and get the credit for it
- Overtalked: to be dismissed verbally (i.e., “mansplaining”) in a way that is patronizing and demeaning because the offender assumes you lack knowledge
- Overlooked: to be looked past or not be taken notice of as if you’re invisible or as if your input or voice is not valued
- Overjudged: to be unfairly assessed via gender stereotypes or assumptions on grounds other than data and facts
- Passed over: to be looked past or disregarded, often in favor of a man, for a job, assignment, or promotion without fair consideration for your experience, qualifications, or potential
I speak up to both men and women. I’m like my grandmother, who reached a point where she didn’t give a damn. She spoke her mind to whomever. She had no hesitation about saying exactly what she felt and exactly what she thought.
— Kim, a collabHERator
With how many of these aspects of O-Syndrome have you struggled in the past year?
- Overachieve: not only to strive for success above and beyond the standard or expected level, often at the detriment to yourself and your relationships, but also to feel compelled to do so due to feelings of unrelenting, self-imposed pressure
- Overcommit: to excessively obligate yourself beyond your ability or capacity to fulfill, often to please others or to prove and re-prove yourself to others
- Overaccommodate: to obsessively provide services or favors and make adjustments, whether requested of you or not, for the convenience and comfort of others, even at the inconvenience or expense of yourself, oftentimes accompanied by overapologizing
- Over isolate: to deliberately or inadvertently separate and insulate yourself from the help and support of others due to the faulty thinking that a strong and successful woman with help and support may be perceived as incapable
Over it! Single mum of two teen-aged boys, with a full-time job in a struggling, private company. The only daughter in a sea of male siblings. Uber-mum six days a week and trying to undo the effects of poor male role-modeling! Sounds like the perfect recipe for overwork, overtaxed, overdrive and overwhelm. And it is!
— Jane, a collabHERator