I count myself lucky in that I’ve always had a good relationship with my mother. I never gave my parents any trouble growing up (unless being a chronic know-it-all counts) and she repays the favor by rarely nagging me about my life, when I’m going to get married, how I dress, etc. The most intrusive she gets is floating the notion once or twice a year that I should go back to school for my masters or recommending that I apply for jobs for which I’m wildly misqualified.
Although we don’t look alike at all, I’ve inherited several of my mother’s hallmark features –an odd physical reaction that causes my eyes to water when I get stressed out (apparently, my grandfather suffered the same quirk, he used to cry a lot) and most importantly, the ability to stand up for my own best interests and directly challenge those who would try to impinge on them. As I grow older, this is the legacy that I appreciate more and more.
Young women are neither taught to develop nor trust their instincts when it comes to reading and reacting to people. Instead, we learn how to cultivate a positive (read likeable, desirable) impression, to diagnose why we’re not making such an impression and to tinker incessantly with our approach in order to achieve this end. And we rarely consider whether or not the person(s) in question is remotely worthy of such an effort. We are not schooled in identifying our own best interests and being staunch guardians of them. We are taught to prioritize our hearts over our guts, to value propriety and to avoid making a scene. And sadly, as a sex, we police each other to ensure that we toe the line and mete out the punishment for violating this code of conduct.
If you look like a doormat and act like a doormat, it should come as no surprise that people walk all over you.
We are taught to fear being bitches. Bitches are women who can’t make their way in the world according to the acceptable standards of female conduct (old, ugly, angry, sexually undesirable), so they play dirty, they bully, they terrorize, they nag. Or so we’re told. Behavior that doesn’t conform to the winsome likeability is fair game to be tagged with the bitch label. And sadly, somewhere along the line, standing up for yourself, asserting your rights, your autonomy and setting the parameters for how you will be treated has been stealthily positioned under the bitch umbrella.
We all want to be liked, but the false dichotomy between being liked and being respected is just that – false (ditto, the dichotomy between being smart and attractive or funny and feminine). We learn that you can be desirable or you can be respected, but you can’t have both. And since being desirable comes with better fringe benefits and being respected is just code for being a frigid bitch, well which one is any right-thinking good girl going to choose? This is gender policing at its finest and most erroneously obtuse. Respect is a good thing. Respect is something that is earned. And standing up for yourself is precisely what will lead to other people respecting you. We teach people how to treat us. If you wanted to be treated with courtesy, respect and kindness, you have to act as if you deserve and expect it. Conversely, if you look like a doormat and act like a doormat, it should come as no surprise that people walk all over you.
I’ve learned this lesson multiple times in my professional life. The truth is, I’m so used to living my life this way, that asserting myself and calling others on their BS has long since stopped registering as a novelty. But I do remember from time to time (usually when a particularly epic smackdown is warranted) to pick up the phone and thank my mother for imbuing me with both the capacity to assert myself and the understanding of the absolute necessity of doing so when it’s warranted. Whether it’s nature or nurture, I don’t care, but I’m profoundly grateful that I inherited this trait and that it has manifested itself comparatively early in my life.