Is This Thing On?

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By Erin Brown, with art from Lola



They never even pretended to listen to me.

I remember waiting all day for my dad to get home. Something was wrong with my eye, and my mom was legitimately busy caring for my younger sister, running the house, and also navigating cancer. I couldn’t shut my right eye or turn up that corner of my mouth. I was standing on the walkway when he got home, explaining that something was very wrong. He walked past me, not having absorbed a word, saying, “You’ll be winking in no time.” Turns out I’d had a stroke. The neighbor would later suggest my parents look into it.

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This is the kind of thing my therapist in college would have loved to talk about. I had come in with PTSD, once my depression and anxiety got bad enough that I’d quit leaving the house, seeking skills to address triggers from a multitude of sexual assaults.

I was clear: “Here is the fire, here is the trauma, here is how it shows up in insidious ways: Where do I go from here?” Instead he insisted we talk about my relationship to my dad, as if there were no way I could be right about my own issues. Instead reduced to relationship with Father.

In high school I was on the debate team. I was good, and the boys I would compete against were dismayed. There isn’t another word. Every time my partner and I would walk into a round, we would watch them as they laughed and nudged each other as if to say, “We’ve got this.” Patronizing doesn’t begin to cover it. Adding to being two girls, I was blonde and dressed sluttier than was couth, and she was goth with accommodations required for dyslexia. We would receive a lot of feedback from judges about our clothes.

All hilarious to them.

But debate is pretty cut and dried. Speakers are ranked, and rounds are won relatively objectively based on who makes the better argument from a logistical perspective. And when we won and won and won and won, each time it was as though they could not believe what just happened. I want to tell you that by the end, they respected us and realized they had underestimated us.

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But really, they just still didn’t get it.

Especially when it comes to talking, offering expertise they seemed to believe on a visceral level was their birthright, they didn’t get it. The boys who were good were encouraged to go into politics, while it was asserted that I was a bitch. The same skill set — one I was better at — signaled leadership skills in them and character flaws in me.

I was the top-ranking speaker in the state my first (and only) year. I dropped out, and the coach who spent a lot of time encouraging the boys to continue never asked me about continuing. I think my partner stole our giant trophy from the school and made a bong out of it. I’m kind of glad the coach didn’t get to keep it in his classroom. 

The stories are so many. So many, and so exactly the same that they aren’t even all that interesting. But if I tell you any, I know I have to tell you several, because even as it’s happening to you, you are already course-correcting your own thoughts. Blaming yourself: It can’t be what it clearly is. And so we do that to one another. Don’t “cry sexism,” just be better. Never mind the outcomes, the responses, or the fact that I have never found tone of voice, outfit, or endless patience and graciousness (or whatever else is supposed to lead to listening) to make a difference.

I don’t know that it exists.

And by listening I don’t mean deferring to me as the expert on everything: I am not that. Knowing that is a pretty big piece of self-awareness.

I mean talking to me like I’m a person. Possibly considering or even seeking my perspective.

One time, at a small barbecue with friends, two men I knew well were talking about social media. One of them had a small following garnered from work he does, and he had recently been trolled for the first time. Of the three of us, I was the only one who had been a public figure online for many years, including a mass of experience with online trolling, death threats, insults, and so much feedback. I said something about my experience and both looked at me like I had absolutely no business engaging in the conversation. I was to listen. Not to add a single thing. I walked away laughing, and they went back to each other, unfazed. The casual dismissal of actual expertise, without even knowing it.

There has never been a conversation between myself and the men in the subset of the fitness industry I’ve existed in alongside them because they couldn’t see me to begin with.

Not as a peer. Not as an asset. Not as anything.

I wasn’t the one with the tits they ogled. I was fat (a word I’m not sure I have the right to use at my size, but one that has been hurled at me in an effort to demean my voice for as long as my memory can draw back), a feminist (since my earliest journaling days, long before hashtags were a thing, and it certainly wasn’t cool), and I had way too much to say about way too much.

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It is as though our voices exist on some strange octave unintelligible to them. Impossible to understand or consider. Or pretend to.

It’s funny to me now: I had outlined a speech for them. The men. One I would never give.

Just prior, I’d given a speech about the intersections of body image and rape culture at an event created for women after the original conference it was associated with all but excluded them from presenting. I received the only standing ovation ever seen at either event. The man who ran the co-ed event (which takes place about a 40-minute drive from my house) was there, and I erroneously presumed I would be tapped to speak at that one, as well.

What would I say to that group, I wondered. What would I want to say to the men about body politics, about what they are missing in the way they do their jobs, or even just the way they interact with women in these professional spaces? I wrote it out, the speech I would never be asked to give. A couple of years later, one of their coveted presenters would be accused of sexual harassment and assault, there at the event. I didn’t wait for the call this time. It didn’t cross my mind that they would want someone to speak on those issues. I am a person right down the road who is known for speaking to just that, but they don’t care. They don’t seem to know I exist, even when I am right in front of them.

They simply don’t see me. Or they don’t see me as valuable to them in any way, which is basically the same thing.

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I don’t even wonder about them anymore. These “good men,” the ones I’m supposed to support and go out of my way to exclude from critique. They don’t think I matter. I can count on my hands the number who actually engage in my work when I’m not nude in the photo. I know them by name. I’ve been doing this public work for almost a decade.

These “good guys” sent my friend, who had been drugged in their company, off in an ambulance to wake up alone in a hospital in a city she did not live in. To wander into the back alley of the hospital to meet her cab driver at 4 a.m., still drenched from the rain in the clothes she was dropped off in. Good guys who had gone to a good training at a good gym that has rainbows everywhere and is all about inclusivity. The good guys with wives, who support women, who are down to learn in an openly gay space about fitness and community.

These are the really good ones, right? Not only did none of them make sure she was safe, but the answer they gave her panicked husband when he called the next morning was, “Hey, bud, we’re finishing up breakfast. I’ll call you back when we’re done.” 

Similarly, a man has never stepped in as I was being harassed, which has been a regular part of being in public since I got breasts around age 12. Not when I was a child, not as an adult, not as a mother with her baby has a man even acknowledged that he notices another man shouting at me, following me, insulting me when I don’t respond as though it’s a welcomed advance. I’m supposed to be thankful. Hell, telling you that grown men have been predatory to me regularly since I was 12 is supposed to read as some kind of brag.

And I regularly feel unsafe, but not daily. There’s privilege in not walking out of the house knowing the odds you could be murdered because of your identity are so high that optimism isn’t an affordable luxury. Meanwhile, so many men who have shown up to the conversation report being afraid, too. Their fear is that they can’t say or do whatever they want to without someone correcting them.

This concern is leveled as the most egregious affront there is: feedback.

I’m supposed to say not all men. And I’m happy to say that, honestly. Even not all cis men. Yes, I know some really great guys. But where are they in real time? I know a handful who pay attention. Who can hear my voice. Who seek to understand what I mean, seek my perspective and see me as valuable: in my identity, in my decade of work with trauma, in my two decades of activism. As I’m writing this, I am thinking specifically of two. Two men. And this isn’t just about me and my voice. It’s so much bigger a pattern. Like Jen said, it’s scalable. Can you listen to someone different than you? What will that make you examine yourself?

Do you care?

It’s just interesting to me now. Not a chip on my shoulder or a bone to pick, but simply existing and observing is an interesting social experiment. I notice the smattering of men who like me and take interest in what I do. Who ask questions about what I think about something, or about my work. Usually they’re poking holes in what I say, but it makes for good dialogue, really. Even then, though, when they talk about the podcasts they listen to, the people they respect, the authors of the books they read, they’re all men.

When I ask directly who they are most inspired by who is a woman, or the last woman author they’ve read that they’d recommend, they’re often stumped. I’m not playing “gotcha” — I’m really interested in which women men listen to.

I’m interested because I’m not it.

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I often look at myself and wonder if it’s just me, or something I’m missing. These guys, who I respect and like and agree with on so many things, have never so much as listened to even a 10-minute podcast of mine. They haven’t read my book on raising a daughter when they are raising a daughter.

Maybe they do read what women write, value the work we put into the world, our perspectives, and we don’t know.

Sometimes it messes with my sense of worthiness: Is it just that all of these men people listen to are doing better work? Is it me?

Are our experiences the same? I’m curious.

Even the ones who do the work around understanding misogyny, who teach about it, who do and say really great things about sexism, specifically, cannot withstand the idea that maybe I know more about my own experience than they do. And put me in a position where they might answer to me? Forget it.

But this isn’t really why we are here. Because this denial, this lack of listening, this need to show up to their own shortcomings but choosing not to over and over; this saying you care about perspectives that are different from your own, reducing the harm you cause others, but not being able to name an author, a book, a podcast, an any-voice-at-all of a marginalized identity other than our own? Well, fuck, it’s us, too.

And I mean all of us.

Most folks have aspects of their identity that are steeped in privilege, and thus we become underdeveloped in this area of our identity. That’s how it works. We try to avoid the work of development, deny it, instead focusing on how we are “good.” I feel like I’m supposed to say something encouraging, because it’s so easy to get stuck in the shame of it.

But I just don’t think it has to be so shameful. It’s the lifting of a veil. It’s surrender to the idea that you (and me and all of us) don’t know what we don’t know. Haven’t experienced what we haven’t experienced. And are accountable for the ways we show up that are harmful, even if it’s unintentional.

It’s an ongoing process because it’s all by design, it’s systemic, it’s in the very air we breathe.

Realizing that is part of how we develop as a person. That’s not shameful, it’s necessary for living a rich life and also concerning yourself with your impact on others.

These examples are so useful, insofar as you believe them. (This is a very important part, the believing.)

We believe you.

We want to examine how exactly these things show up: What language, what behaviors, what patterns exist? Can we see ourselves in them? Can we do better?

We are a people in the midst of collective and personal identity crisis.

Trying to understand our own experience (not as told to us), with many of us grappling with how much we didn’t see others’ experiences, or believe them.

The idea that your opinion is the most valuable at any given moment is a conditioned one. The idea that your opinion needs to be watered down, delivered with a smile, credited to someone else and if it’s not heard you should probably blame your outfit or the sound of your voice is conditioned, too.

For some of us that means wrestling with entitlement. Learning for the first time that sometimes you don’t know, or that the expert doesn’t look or sound like you.

That looks like it’s hard.

For some of us that means the heartache of confirmation that the abuses you’ve suffered weren’t just you or because of you. It helps with your sense of truth, but there is mourning there, too.

For some of us it’s seeing ugliness we didn’t want to believe in, and the guilt of not knowing more, sooner. Acknowledging our silence, or finally acknowledging the silence of our friends. Or the realization that it is a systemic and purposeful lack of understanding.

Because at the core of understanding yourself and your behavior (in context) — or choosing not to — is identity development. It’s why white people generally hate anyone saying the words “white people.” An aspect of privilege is not questioning it. So you don’t notice somehow that everyone presented to you as an expert looks like you. You don’t spend time thinking about what it means to be white. In history. In present. You don’t consider yourself within the context of whiteness. To the point that someone saying the words “white people” is immediately upsetting. No, we don’t think about whiteness.

So here we all are in the lesson of identity. Some of us denying any of it matters, and some of us really struggling with what that means about us. Some of us really tired of articulating these patterns. So many of us opening up to the possibilities for ourselves.

And the thing is, what we want is better. For everyone. What does it mean to determine who you are for yourself instead of by these exhaustive and exhausting, arbitrary, and harmful rules?

We want relationships that are healthy and egalitarian, whatever that means to each set of people in the relationship. We want to wear lipstick or not, to choose how people how address us, to appear how the hell we want to appear. To identify however we feel. To have sex in ways that consider everyone’s pleasure and consent. To get to feel healthy and expressive and well in our sexual selves. To make decisions for our lives and about our bodies and who we are that feel good and right for us. The respect and privacy to do so. Because life is hard enough without all the contortion.

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The “rules” we are following and not questioning are old, and violent, and oppressive. And many of them just plain boring. Is it real that putting together the perfect, appropriate aesthetic makes people respect you? Is anyone having that experience?  

Do we want that? For whose input matters to be based on such measures, or do we care about whose input would be the most valuable?

This all is a lot. It’s so much: reconsidering who you are, who you thought you were supposed to be, and how that plays out in context. Most of us are looking at ourselves, our identities, our own communities, and recognizing the different kinds of unhealthy bypassing, assumptions, and conditions we find there.

But this examination leads to growth. Study. 

You probably recall puberty and whatever that meant for you. Lots of folks are in the puberty of their identity now. Some stunted so severely they can’t see straight.

On the other side of puberty is a more seasoned sense of self. Within self. In context. Even in integrity.

And also, more fun. Remember fun? Joy? Really important things, also.

What are we missing about ourselves? What ideas about who and what we are “supposed to” be doing we still subscribe to? That’s kind of a fun unravel. It’s freeing. The more space and freedom we seek to create for others, the more we find for ourselves, too. What are the options? What joy is outside of the box we tried to confine ourselves to? Explore while acknowledging that each of our confines is different for so many reasons. Let’s find out what that means.

We will misstep. That’s not to dismiss it, only acknowledge that there isn’t any way not to, I don’t think, because there is no caucus of any group of folks to consult on things. There is no consensus. We are in revolutionary times, and there is disagreement  about what forward looks like, even in terms of vocabulary. But we are open to critique. We are open to discussion.

We refuse to be the very people who couldn’t even begin to hear us.

We refuse to be the very people who couldn’t even begin to hear us. 

This is something of an opening argument. Where we’ve been, what we’ve been up against in terms of moving what is. How this is going, from the places we sit? Let’s move toward nuance, discussion, the dicey parts, and also what’s good? Who is doing amazing shit? Where can we learn from? Can it be fun? Yes. Yes, when we achieve a basic level of respect, fuck yes.

As for the people who aren’t listening, however and wherever they are, however and wherever we find that in ourselves, I’m hopeful that we all get on board. Truly. I’m always hoping for folks who misstep to move differently. I ask that of myself. I work alongside those who are willing to do the same.

I think it gets interesting from here.

Coming?

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Erin Brown

is author of five books, cofounder of Ferine mag, and a facilitator and activist from Lawrence, KS. Her work primarily explores cultural narratives, identity, emotional labor, and autonomy. More at iamerinbrown.com and @IamErinBrown.

Lola is a fifth-grade student currently residing in the Midwest. She is a self-proclaimed history buff and bookworm, gravitating mostly to nonfiction work about revolutionaries. In her free time she practices Brazilian jiujitsu, listens to music, and plays with her dog, Bader (named after Ruth Bader Ginsburg).