If you are going to ‘explain’ women, it helps to talk to us first
Several years ago, while researching gender in the early Catholic church for a college class, I read a book called Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven. In it, the author describes the way boys were taken from their homes when they were really young and put into monasteries, where they only had contact with other men. The men would then teach the boys about women, specifically that women were craven, lustful beasts who were destroyers of all that was righteous and holy. The boys, never having had contact with women aside from long-distant memories of their mothers, would absorb these teachings as fact, then grow up and teach the next generation of boys to fear women and to view them as little more than monsters.
I think of this passage often when I encounter articles that purport to “explain” women, like we are some great anthropological mystery that needs to be unraveled through careful observation and theorizing, especially when those articles are written by someone who has seemingly never bothered to consult even a single woman when developing his hypotheses. Why, it’s as if we are an alien species whose secrets cannot be deciphered through direct inquiry because we don’t even operate within the same paradigm of existence, let alone even speak the same language.
The end result is that when I do read these articles, I am often presented with a vision of womanhood that is about as familiar to me as the dark side of Neptune. When I was younger, I used to take this as proof that I was one of those exceptional females, that I was somehow special because I did not conform to what I was told women were supposed to be like, but as I’ve grown up and met dozens – if not hundreds – of women who are also not at all what women are supposed to be like, I have learned that it is not that I am exceptional, but that the ideas of what women are “supposed to be like” are bullshit. I mean, if you are trying to categorically define an entire group of people and yet millions of people see themselves as exceptions to your categories, rather than thinking there is something wrong with those millions of people, perhaps the answer is that there is something wrong with your categories.
I had this experience again – twice actually – yesterday: once while reading trainer Bret Contreras’ inaccurately-named “120 Strength Training Tips for Women” and once while reading “Yoga Pants Nation” by Nathan Graziano over at the Good Men Project (which really, can they just rename it to the “Nice Guys Project”? Ain’t been nothing good about those men for quite some time now.) If I had had no exposure to women aside from reading those articles, I would have come to believe that my gender consisted of little more than bubble-headed pink Lyrca-clad giggle-bots who live for nothing but making all men everywhere think about sex at all times. Now, I don’t deny that there are most likely women in the world who fit this description, but there are also men in the world who are just like the Situation, and you don’t see me talking about how all men are likely to GTL themselves until they look like tattooed-and-muscled troll dolls in too-tight Affliction t-shirts, now do you?
(Other ladies throughout the series of tubes have since written takedowns of both pieces, and here they are for your reading pleasure:
- “Women Wear Yoga Pants Because They Are Comfortable, Not Because They Apparently Give You A Boner” by Amelia McDonell-Parry at the Frisky
- “Strength Training ‘Tips’ for Women Perpetuate Stereotypes that Contribute to the Gym as Boys’ Club” by Tracy I at Fit, Feminist and (almost) Fifty
- “The Rant of An Angry Pink Lady, a reaction to Bret Contreras” by JoFitness at Breaking the Mold
- “120 Hilarious Fitness Tips for Women from a Swole Bro” by Laura Beck at Jezebel
I came away from reading these things, both with a pounding rage-headache and the distinct sense that both of these men could benefit from not only talking to some women, but actually listening to what those women have to say and taking it seriously and maybe – just maybe – considering that they, as the actual person in question, understand more about their behavior and their motivations than he, an external observer, could ever hope to know.
Graziano gave us a perfect example of this listening-but-not-really when he writes that:
when I ask women about yoga pants—hoping they’ll tell me the trend will pass—most women tell me that it isn’t that yoga pants are fashionable, per se, but they are comfortable to wear.
He can’t possibly find room in his imagination to fathom how that is possible, though, so he quickly disregards what every single woman tells him and moves onto something more pleasing to his sensibilities, which is that the women are dressing in those soul-vexing yoga pants as part of the “the age-old tease where women flaunt and men look.”
It must be wonderful to be able to occupy the kind of headspace in the world that allows you to construct the world so that you are the center of everything, including the wardrobe decisions of women who didn’t even know you existed prior to the moment they caught a glimpse of you behind them as they stepped on the treadmill at the gym.
Contreras does this too, although I have to say that I find his article infinitely more frustrating than Graziano’s, if only for the fact that he wedges these embarrassing little observations in between loads of really useful stuff. If his article would have been simply training tips for women, I would not be writing about him right now. (Actually, I might be, because he also shows that he is very focused on his female clients as primarily sexual beings, referring to their grunts of exertion as sexual – while men’s are not? – and writing about the “coregasm,” because there just aren’t ways in which women can feel sexually inadequate in this world.)
But instead, he chose to include “tips” like this:
Women like wearing pink workout apparel and take their training attire much more seriously than men (for example they tend to match their shoes with their shorts or shirts, etc.)
I would be curious if he actually talked to a woman before developing this super-technical “tip.” Perhaps if he had, she could have told him that pink is one of the main color choices when it comes to training clothing for women. For instance, my lifting gloves are pink, but this is not because I sought out pink gear. Rather, these were the only ones that fit me.
The fitness industry – and really, all consumer-goods industries – have decided that everything meant to be used by a woman or girl should come in some hue of pink. Has he never had the privilege of being blinded by the flamingo-puke pink of the girls’ toy aisle at his local Target? And of course, he’s never going to see men in pink – when was the last time Champion made a men’s pair of basketball shorts in a fetching shade of fuschia?
And hey, what if she actually likes the color pink? I also happen to like the color pink! I kind of resent the fact that my liking of the color pink somehow renders me less serious about my training than someone who is dressed in all black. That said, I also resent the fact that pink is presented as the only choice for women.
And then there is this:
Women sometimes dress very sexy for the gym and are then annoyed when males show interest while they’re training, which on the surface doesn’t make the best of sense
As a woman who wears workout clothing that could be considered “sexy,” I could tell Contreras that the reason I wear tight capris is because it’s easier for me to do things like push-ups, planks and hip thrusts if I don’t have to worry about flashing the Gynecologist’s Special to everyone in the free weights section. I wear short shorts when I run because I find it easier and cooler to have less fabric around my thighs. I wear tight tank tops when I lift because otherwise I end up rolling up the sleeves of my t-shirts and wind up with a wad of sweaty gross cotton in my armpits.
I also like the way I look in my gym clothes – which I guess I’m not supposed to admit but whatever – and if a guy at the gym thinks I look good too, I’m fine with that, as long as he doesn’t ogle or hit on me or act the fool. Sadly, there are guys out there who haven’t quite learned how to admire a woman they find attractive without being total doucheburgers about it, but it’s not the woman’s fault if she gets annoyed with that.
See? Women tend to have reasons for doing things! We are not irrational little monsters who are forced, kicking and screaming by our XX chromosomes, to wear tight pink clothes!
These are not isolated incidents. This happens all the time. It happened last week, when I wrote about some research conducted by Dr. Robert Deaner, in which he tried to figure out why women were less “competitive” at the elite levels than men. Over the course of the excellent comments that unfolded in the post – which, by the way, I love the readers of this blog, you all are so smart and fierce – I found myself getting progressively annoyed with Deaner, who analyzed some race reports, identified trends in the way the top male and female runners placed, and then used that information to come up with the following theory:
“I have argued that the most parsimonious explanation … is that more male than female distance runners are motivated to maintain the large training volumes and intensive training needed for elite performances.”
And yet there is nothing to indicate that he ever actually talked to female runners to find out why this might be the case. The idea that women may find it hard to juggle large training volumes while trying to do things like have kids (because the childbearing years tend to coincide with the top running years) and raise families (the labor of which still falls disproportionately upon the shoulders of women) doesn’t seem to occur to him. Rather, it’s just that they aren’t motivated to do so – they just don’t want to.
When this happens, we women are reduced to tabula rasa against which the so-called authorities of the world can project their ideas about us. That we might have motivations, ideas, beliefs, choices – basically, internal lives of our own – doesn’t seem to register. I would suggest that the next time someone decides to write an article in which they try to “explain” something that confuses them about women, that they might do us a favor and actually talk to some of us first and listen to what we have to say. After all, we are the authorities on our lives, not you. If you are really curious to know what’s up, all you have to do is ask.