If you are going to ‘explain’ women, it helps to talk to us first

Oh the scourge of beautiful women in tight pants! Won’t someone please think of the menz?

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:

You’re welcome.)

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.

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47 responses to “If you are going to ‘explain’ women, it helps to talk to us first

  1. I have not been able to stop thinking about those two articles. I ended up spending far more time yesterday than I should have in reading them, the comments people left about them, the conversations surrounding them on your Facebook page, and just mulling it all over. I even started writing a point by point response to Bret Contreras in my head.

    The thing that bothered me most about his article is that he both did and didn’t think about the stuff he said. As you point out, the pink clothes thing is hard to avoid. If he had thought about it at all, he would have realized that.

    Then I started thinking about who these women he is observing are. Obviously, at least several of them have had boob jobs, which regardless of anything else, are pricey. In fact, I bet Contreras’ rates are not particularly low. So, he is observing a really small sector of women (probably mostly white, young, wealthy women) and applying those observations to all women.

    Beyond all that, his reaction to criticism started out all right, but by the third or fourth critical comment he started whining, then he got downright defensive and nasty, and started bragging all over himself. It’s a double insult – not only did he NOT talk to us, he got pissed when we talked to HIM.

    Thanks for sharing the links, your opinion, and all of your posts!

    • Thanks, Dava! Yes, I noticed his reaction, too, and I was less than impressed. When you are a professional who offers services to a group of people, and a lot of those people take offense to something you do, the smart thing to do (not to mention the ethical thing!) is to be open to the criticism and think about it. I’m okay with people saying dumb things, but what I am not okay with is people who get pissy when they are called out.

      I buy a lot of fitness books but his work will not be one that is joining my personal library.

  2. Love this! I was steaming after the ‘tips’ article. Many of those tips actually point to poor client education on the part of the trainer. Case in point–the slapping of hands when putting on chalk. If your client does that, then correct him/her.

    My husband’s reaction to that? “If a woman is lifting something that requires chalk, just get out of the way! It’s not like their 2lb pink dumbbells and she can probably kick your ass!”

    • Oh, jeez, I hadn’t thought about that. Yes, if his clients do not understand the chalk thing, then it is his job to explain that to them.

      Also, no one comes out of the womb knowing the lingo for lifting, not even guys. We all have to be taught that sort of stuff.

      Augh, now I’m getting even more annoyed!

  3. Hi Caitlin,

    I’ve been lurking on your blog for a while now. I’m not athletic at all, and quite a bit out of shape. I just enjoy reading your posts so much, though. Your thoughts on how fitness is for everyone and other things of that nature have inspired me to finally get active. I was about to put get in shape, but it’s really so much more than that now. I’ve decided that I would actually like to be athletic. You’ve gotten me really interested in weight training. I was wondering if you could give me some beginners advice on free weight exercises at the gym. Could you e-mail me, please? I’m sorry this comment is so off topic. It’s just your about the only person I know of that is knowledgeable while also being approachable.

    thanks,
    Brittany

    • I’ve read hundreds of fitness books over the years (at least it feels like it), and this is hand’s down the best women’s weightlifting book I’ve come across. It’s good because not only is the training plan itself solid, but it does a great job of laying down why weight training is important and the science behind it like why fitness is not just about burning calories, why you shouldn’t deprive yourself of calories when on a strength training program, and all that other good stuff.

      I’m sure that Caitlin has you covered, but I love this book so much that I couldn’t resist chiming in. Proud of you for getting the ball rolling!

      • I haven’t read this book yet, although I did read the New Rules of Lifting and I liked that quite a bit.

        I’m actually going through the Rachel Cosgrove book right now and following the plan she has laid out in that one (to the best of my ability, that is – I have a hard time with the whole no-alcohol thing), and I like it a lot. I feel like I’m getting some fundamental issues with nutrition and training worked out with this plan.

  4. Personally, if Contreras was my trainer, I’d fire him after reading his “tips”. This man clearly hadn’t thought about how his female clientele would receive such an article. Of course, this would be assuming that he hadn’t previously voiced his opinions on the subject of womenfolk working out to his clients…

    Several things bothered me about his article, such as the pink clothing comment, the supposed reason for wearing gloves (an aversion to calluses? really? what about hand sweat and not wanting to lose your grip on the bar???), the “drama” women bring to the gym (wtf?), the suggestive clothing thing… ugh. But what really upset me were the comments that followed! People (and Contreras) kept referring to “the backlash”, but I hadn’t read anything to substantiate what they were referring to – unless the commentary along the lines of “hey, some of this this stuff doesn’t fall under the category of tips, and some of it is outright sexist.., such as x, y, and z” is the backlash. The reactionary commentary in response to what to me is a perfectly legitimate criticism of his article is disheartening.

    The yoga pants article also was disappointing to me for pretty much the same reasons. Other than start (or continue?) a flame war on internet, the only productive thing I can think of doing in response is to keep going to the gym. In my yoga pants, with my weight gloves, and to perhaps bring a bit of drama to that inevitable knot of guys gossiping and standing around in front of one of the empty weight benches.

    • … the only productive thing I can think of doing in response is to keep going to the gym. In my yoga pants…

      In pink yoga pants.

      I mean, I will match them to my hairband and everything.

      • We should find out where Nathan goes to the gym and crowd him in our pink, desire-inducing lycra pants. Then, drop pink dumb bells on his foot.

      • Silly girl, don’t you know you should be wearing baggy clothes that don’t match? That’s what serious lifters – I mean, “students of lifting” – do.

      • Or there’s the alternative I keep threatening — Go in nothing but Vibrams and Body Glide and see how the clothes policing works then. ;)

  5. I appreciate this article… It always amazes me how differently I am treated, mostly by men, when I am wearing yoga tights after teaching class out into the world, than when I am wearing my typical genderqueer street clothes.

  6. I think his reaction to “rant of an angry pink lady” was hilarious:

    “Just saw this posted in response to my post:

    http://whywomenshouldlift.blogspot.se/?view=classic

    I can’t believe this is how my post was interpreted. I’m speechless. It’s actually pretty funny, but I don’t know how to respond.”

    You wrote about women’s sexual activity in the gym and rape culture without even realizing it, all while telling women they can get big lifting too much, but not when it comes to their ass. I hardly believe he was not expecting this kind of response. And if it truly was a shock, he needs to read a book.

    • Yes, I really don’t think he was expecting the reaction he got, that he was definitely taken by surprise and it frustrated him. I would like to think that this will have the effect of making him think harder about these things in the future – I know that whenever I get a lot of people, or hell, even one person, disagreeing with something I say or write, it causes me to seriously reconsider my opinion and maybe even changing it – but I don’t know if that will happen, which is too bad.

  7. I’ve had guys I was dating project their desire onto my behaviour before. It seems a lot of men, when observing female behaviour that could have several reasons for it, but one of them is “she’s horny/wants me”, they always pick that as the reason. If your nipples are hard, you must be horny (even if it’s really cold) or if you’re not wearing panties, it’s because you want sex (not because it might be more comfy to you).

    • Sounds like you might have been dating my ex-husband at some point. I have many stories of him interpreting non-sexual things as sexual, and being really weird and aggressive about it too. *shudder*

  8. I too spent half the night reading the Contreras article, then the comments that followed.

    I realised the self proclaimed glute guy has no writing (therefore communication) skills with point number one that started with “Women need to be taught …”. If I started an article with “Men need to be taught … to pick up after themselves … to listen … to become better strength trainers”, I wonder how many men would have kept reading. I can imagine the trolling re: nagging.

    I then couldn’t decide if he meant his article to be serious or an attempt at comedy. Though I found I wasn’t laughing. Apart from at him.

    But what kept me awake for most of the night were the comments following the article and Contreras’ responses. He loved the “way to go, bro” comments then responded defensively and/or rudely to appropriately considered and argued responses. Or he simply ignored them in favour of the BFF comments.

    What makes this worse is that the writer is working on his PhD. I sure hope the academic standards in sport science are rather more rigorous than that displayed by Contreras.

    • I can’t even fathom trying to write an article that includes anything like “Men are like this” or “Men are like that.” I’ve known so many guys who have so many different personalities that trying to sum them all up in a single statement is like dooming myself to failure, because I am always going to be wrong.

      I think I mention this elsewhere in the comments but I have so much more respect for people who, when someone disagrees with them, they handle it gracefully and without attitude. But I also suspect that maybe he wasn’t expecting to get quite the pushback he got, which makes me think he should have considered thinking about these things a little more before putting it out there.

  9. I often feel very conflicted when reading your blog, because you bring up such interesting topics, you write very well, and your perspective is always well supportive. And yet sometimes I can’t help but feel like you missed a big piece of the puzzle. And this is not a criticism, in fact, it’s a large part of why I enjoy reading your blog…the difference in perspective is what’s interesting to me.

    The missing piece that I see in this post is that both of these guys are writing about THEIR perspective. Bret even gives disclaimers about how he is only writing what he has observed and that he may very well be wrong. And the yoga pants guy states clearly that HE can’t understand how the pants could be comfortable (because what guy could, right?). And I don’t see anything inherently wrong about writing about your own perspective on something, especially when you’re stating clearly that is your intent. Maybe many women do not agree with their perspective, but that doesn’t make them wrong, and it does not mean that they don’t have a right to voice them.

    I mean… thats what blogging is all about to some extent… sharing ideas. And just because we don’t see eye to eye with the way somebody views the world, (or, in this case, even if their POV is quite skewed from reality) doesn’t make that person wrong or evil, it just makes them different. We shouldn’t take it personally.

    • Hey, so I want you to know that I always appreciate when you write in with opposing perspectives, even if I don’t ultimately agree with you, because you make me think hard, which is a good thing! In fact, I spent most of my time on my bike today thinking about this and how I wanted to respond, and I guess my primary disagreement with your comment is that I do think you can express disagreement with someone’s perspective and I don’t think that something is off-limits for criticism just because it’s a person’s perspective. I agree that having a perspective that I think is wrong or misguided or limited does not necessarily mean a person is bad or evil, but I do think they can be wrong about something.

      And in the case of Contreras, who is a well-respected professional, I think he has a higher obligation to be more thoughtful and perceptive about his clientele than Yoga Pants Guy, who as far as I can tell is just a dude who writes stuff for a site (like, hey, me!) He’s in a position to actually influence the way women think about their bodies, their training and ultimately themselves, and if his perspective is that women tend to be vapid bimbos, well, I think it’s perfectly okay for me to express my perspective that dude is flat-out wrong. (Ha, see what I did there? lol)

      I mean, you tell me – at what point does it become okay to criticize the things a person writes about? Should framing something as “your perspective” render it immune from criticism? I don’t think that’s what you are saying so please tell me if I am wrong.

      • Additionally, in the case of Graziano, suggesting that women are “complicit” in men’s ogling of them in yoga pants — Even though he contradicts that in other points in his piece, that’s implicitly apologizing for a culture of harassment and a culture in which women’s bodies exist for male enjoyment (relegated to the appropriate time and place) rather than because they are our bodies. That is wrong, flat-out.

      • I didn’t mean to imply that you were in the wrong to criticize, because you weren’t. I don’t think it’s ever wrong to counter someone’s ideas with your own. In this case I’m really glad you did because some of the stuff in there is pretty appalling (“when women grunt in the weight room it is sexual but when men grunt it’s not”…???!!!… … WTF). I guess what I’m struggling with is more about whether or not it’s appropriate for people to write from their perspective without considering the perspectives of the people they’re writing about. I think it is… although… now that I think about it, when I want to make a blanket statement about guys in my blog I generally run it by a few guy friends first to make sure it holds up…

        You ask good questions, and I don’t have the answers! These are just the things I think about.

        And, you know… there’s a theme in many of the comments that people were really upset/bothered/angry about these articles. There’s a lot of stupid crap out there on the internet and it’s just not worth wasting energy being upset about. It’s not like if all of us women become outraged every time a guy says something ignorant about women they’re going to stop staying ignorant things about women. My preferred approach to these situations is to recognize that it’s just some stupid guy on the internet who clearly has no idea what he is talking about, and leave it at that (and probably laugh at him).

      • re: your last paragraph – this is generally what I do, especially when it comes to comment sections and such, but Contreras isn’t just some random bro on the internet but a really highly respected guy who is seen as an authority in his field. I mean, I might think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but lots of other people automatically assign his words and ideas extra value because he’s Bret Contreras OMG. I guess it’s a matter of choosing my battles. I won’t blog about the stupid shit some dillhole says in YouTube comments, but I will when the stupid shit is being said by someone who is high profile and in a position to influence other people.

        I’ve kind of undergone an evolution in recent years, where I feel like it’s necessary to speak up in certain circumstances when people are saying things I strongly disagree with. I may not change anyone’s minds, but at least I’m letting people – and not just the person I’m responding to but any silent observers, of which there are a lot – that not everyone agrees with what is being said. It’s about making sure different perspectives are represented in the public discourse, instead of assuming that everyone is automatically going to consider all of those perspectives. I mean, it’s why we blog, right?

      • PS. I concur on the thinking hard thing. This is what I was trying to get at by using the word “conflicted”. We are certainly different breeds of feminist but that’s what makes it fun!

      • Tori, those things are all indeed flat out wrong. I actually had a bit of a different take on the article and I thought he was being a bit facetious, and actually poking a bit of fun at himself, and men in general. I just don’t know that it was intended to be taken so literally, or seriously.

  10. Contreras’ article was a list of tips for trainers who train women. He is a professional who was writing what should be a professional article on that topic. He also claims to have references but does not cite these. Hence he was not “blogging” his thoughts.

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  12. I guess. I see too many women at my gym who dress like they’e working the pole. The one who fell out of her weird bra with panels top sticks in my mind. She’s fit, she does stuff with those weird cables and kettle bells, but she clearly is working the room, and I don’t see why I’m supposed to pretend that she doesn’t know what effect she’s having.

    • It’s one thing to make that observation about one woman. It’s another thing to extrapolate that observation about that single woman to all women everywhere, and it’s yet another thing to take that observation about that single woman, extrapolate it to all women everywhere, and then talk about it in the context of your professional work with women in that environment.

      See the difference?

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  14. I went to his website and read all the ridiculous (so-called) tips. It’s so stupid. Thanks for posting this and helping us women expand our minds further about all the sexism that exists out there. I will not take part in it. Ugh, disgusted.

  15. “When I was younger, I used to take this as proof that I was one of those exceptional females…”
    This statement really hit me! Yes, I am not the exception, the standard definition of women is WRONG! Thanks, I always love your blog.

  16. Great post. The gulf between men’s understanding of women and women’s actual lives is huge. As Olympia said in “Moonstruck,” “What you don’t know about women is a lot.”

    The remedy to this is simple but rarely taken — one needs to walk a mile in her heels. Empathy can cure ignorance.

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