I couldn’t figure out why the gym attendant was walking towards me. I hadn’t taken any towels after my workout and I’d wiped down all of the equipment when I was finished.
I checked to make sure that I had my phone and belongings and hadn’t left anything behind. I hadn’t. She was still intently walking towards me with a half-smile on her face though I wasn’t even in the gym area anymore. I was standing in the vestibule doing random stretches while waiting on my smoothie so that I could go home.
She smiled at me. “Hi,” she said, and without further preamble: “Do you have another shirt that you could wear the next time you come to the gym? You can’t show your body like that.”
Like that would be a tank top that had a deeper cut under the arms, revealing a side view of the bottom of my sports bra and the black strap of my heart rate monitor when I raised my arms.
Like that would be the hole in the back that revealed the back of my sports bra. I’ve worn this exact top for about a year and a half now to various facilities and have never had anyone question it.
I tilted my head to the side and gave the woman a look. “Yeah, sure.” I said and she walked away, leaving her words about my body behind.
I started chewing on them as soon as she left. Like that. Like that. like THAT rolling around my head like a chorus. As I headed out of the door, I stopped to watch the free weight area packed with men in various tank tops, showing the same amount of skin as my tank top, but it wasn’t like that.
Women have been allowed on U.S. Navy ships since the 90’s and so you may have the impression that the Navy is fully integrated, but oddly enough, I’ve been on two ships that had all-male crews and only female officers. That meant that there were only 6 or 7 women on the ship out of a crew of 270 or so.
I was the Operations Officer—the only female department head – on one of those ships. One day the XO pulled me into his office and shut the door. “Ops,” he said, “The Captain and I need you to talk to the female officers about wearing perfume.”
I raised my eyebrows: “What about it?” I asked
“Well,” he said, “it’s a bit of a distraction. They shouldn’t be wearing it on a warship.”
My brow crinkled. “It’s not against uniform policy to wear perfume,” I replied
“Still, it’s not quite….professional.”
In later conversations, my male co-workers agreed with this perfume-on-women-is-distracting-on-warships bullshit commentary. No one imagined that a ship full of some 270 men (and their assorted smells, including serious body funk and cologne) was even remotely distracting.
I have a permanent frown in my forehead from that experience
Women tend to nod when we talk to one another. We affirm and offer murmurs of encouragement while another person is speaking. We tend to do a lot of non-verbal cueing. The nodding often filters over into our professional work environments. I stopped nodding, however, on my last ship because I didn’t want anyone to confuse my non-verbal cueing with agreement for bankrupt and immoral policies.
Three months after I’d stopped nodding at work, I had my performance review. My boss made a criticism sandwich. I was awesome at some number of things, he said. But there was one problem:
“What’s that?” I asked
“I don’t think you’re listening to me,” he said.
Furrowed brow. “Oh?” I asked, “What makes you say that?”
“Well, you don’t nod your head when I’m talking,”he said.
I nodded my head. “Hmm” I said.
“And the CRA (the only other female in the office),” he continued, “she nods her head all the time. Like a bobblehead”
I nodded my head again before speaking
“The males in the office don’t nod their heads while you speak either,” I replied. “Do you think it’s because they aren’t listening to you?”
He made his standard I-might-be-constipated-look, and stutteringly moved on to the other part of the Praise-stuffed-with-sexism-(masquerading as criticism)-sandwich.
I think about these vignettes (and so many more) quite frequently. I wonder at all of the ways in which women’s bodies are constantly policed and regulated. How bodies become battlegrounds — sites of both political and theological ideology. How our mouths and the language that we choose is proven deficient time and time again. How our bodies are both distractions for men and simultaneously, advertising boards for corporations. How these flesh and blood bodies become campaign fodder and sites of legislation. How they are Everything, except our own.
(To be continued)