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Feb 06 2012

Intimidation

Alice Bradley has a great post up on aging out of being treated as an object.

A year ago I was at a family event and a few of my mom’s friends–older women all–were expressing amazement that I would let my hair go gray. One of them–a woman I’ve known since I was born–said, “Men don’t mind it when their hair goes gray, because gray hair makes you look more intimidating. And a woman doesn’t want to look intimidating.”

She was so well-meaning, so concerned about my looking approachable and pretty, and I know she didn’t mean anything by it. But when she said this, so much rage welled up in me. So much. I made a joke and changed the subject, but all I wanted to do was scream. Loudly.

Because: do I want to look intimidating? God, yes. I do. Yes, please, I very much fucking do.

As a young woman, I was certainly the least intimidating creature on the planet, and as such I was prey to unwanted attention from men, attention that ranged from annoying to truly scary. I know there are people who dismiss the idea that such attention is upsetting–after all, isn’t it flattering that strangers think you’re attractive? But it goes far, far beyond that. It was endless and exhausting and I don’t think it has a thing to do with how pretty you are. In fact I often felt the comments would come fast and furious on the days I felt particularly bad about myself, like I was giving off signals or hormones, like they could smell my weakness.

They can. They do. How do I know? At some point around college, I became intimidating.

I certainly didn’t start that way. I was the timid, invisible child. I was the kid who managed to start a new school (my third that year) in the middle of sixth grade and not make a single friend by the end of the year. I was painfully shy, with a fear of doing things wrong that had literally been beaten into me, and I was one of those geeky kid with interests out of synch with those of nearly everyone else my age.

I was cowed. I had no resources for any kind of fighting back. And I was abused. Targeted by older guys. Assaulted. (Be sure you want to read those before you click through.)

Then…well, then a whole lot of things happened. It started with teachers, particularly science, math, and programming teachers, who treated the ways in which I was different from other kids as good things. They rewarded me with increased independence in high school and interesting work and conversations in college. Being different was a good thing for the first time in my life. For the first time, it meant that people listened to me.

There were also relationships, mine and others, real and fictional, romantic and sexual, requited and not, from which I learned. There were two long-term romances that demonstrated that no matter what I did, I couldn’t make other people be fair. It didn’t manage to convince me that I was worthwhile or loveable, but it did teach me that some people and some relationships aren’t worth any more than a quick walk away.

Working retail for seven years made a difference too. Eventually, facing that much crap, that many people trying to take advantage of my being stuck behind a counter…well, it got boring. There are only so many ways people can be assholes, and once you’ve sat through them all enough times, there isn’t much you and some bullet-proof glass can’t face down with a simple stare of disgust. Or as a friend calls it, looking like I’d happily eat their livers.

Somehow, in the space of just a few years, I ended up competent, independent, and nearly impossible to cow. In other words, intimidating.

Oh, how that changed how men dealt with me. The catcalling, the too-close creepiness, the insinuating remarks–those all but stopped happening to me. They still happened around me, to other people I knew, but they almost never happened to me. The rare occasions when they did generally involved multiple men talking to each other instead of to me. I was too intimidating.

Only that wasn’t exactly right either. I’m still the person people pull over to ask directions from. I’m still the one they stop on the street when they need some help. The panhandlers have never quit telling me their stories. Only the predators find me too intimidating to deal with.

That should tell you something about them. That should tell you about what kinds of opportunities they’re seeking. It should tell you all you need to know about their claims that this is about normal attractions and poor social skills and women having unreasonable expectations or just not understanding what they’re trying to do.

They can try to tell you this, but those of us who have gone from innocuous to “intimidating” know better. We know they’re looking for victims, not romances and not partners. We know we stop being the right kind of opportunity, we get deeply uninteresting to them.

For the record, that’s fine with us.

12 comments

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  1. 1
    D. C. Sessions

    Two points from a dude who makes no pretense of being typical:

    1) For some of us, a woman who doesn’t take shit, gives as good as she gets, calls them as she sees them, and in all respects is a peer — not enough of ‘em. Glad for every one I know [1].
    2) WTF and grey hair? To the extent it signals anything what it signals is: “I don’t need to pretend to be jailbait — I am who I am, deal with it.” See point 1 above.

    [1] And am insufferably proud to have one as a daughter and honored to have another as a partner.

  2. 2
    iknklast

    I thought when I got older, I would be respected, and not hit on any more. Well, I’m not hit on any more, but an older woman becomes relatively invisible. My only hope of being taken seriously is to be intimidating. No one messes with me anymore, and almost everyone knows it. Every semester, a bunch of smartass college freshmen walk into my classroom feeling cocky, and think they can harrass the poor middle aged woman at the front of the room. By the end of the first week, they walk out knowing that the woman may be middle-aged, but she is not to be taken lightly.

    It isn’t gray hair (I don’t have much yet; like my father, I’m graying late). It’s the attitude. I don’t take crap off anyone, and it shows.

  3. 3
    'Tis Himself

    Gray hair is intimidating? I can be intimidating because I can be an asshole. The gray hair has nothing to do with it.

  4. 4
    RowanVT

    No one is going to find me extra intimidating when I go gray. My one gray hair, at 29 years of age, is a cheerful silver and… well… sproings, is the only term for it. I’m going to have a halo of crazy, curly, kinked old lady hair.

    And I think that’s *awesome*.

    Most men already find me intimidating enough as is. My line in college was “I can pick you up and walk away with you. So leave me alone.” As I am 5’6″ tall, the football players didn’t believe me. So I got up, picked the biggest one up, and walked away with him. I could carry up to 300lbs of upright human being that way, back then. And you better believe those guys left me alone after that.

  5. 5
    Beth

    I think of my grey hair as a badge of achievement. I earned it! No way am I going to color it.

    As far as being imtimidating, sign me up please. I haven’t noticed any change with the hair color. As iknklast says, it’s the attitude.

  6. 6
    julian

    I know this may not have been your intention but this was the most motivating thing I’ve read all week. Thank you for this.

  7. 7
    unbound

    Well, my wife is very intimidating to most people, but she doesn’t have any grey hair yet…she doesn’t take BS very well. We’ve raised our daughter to be pretty intimidating, and, interestingly enough, she has not reported anyone hitting on her inappropriately despite being a good looking teenager (she is a strong athlete).

    What could have been a turning point in her life is when her 1st grade teacher called her bossy. After some detailed questioning of the teacher, my wife and I pointed out to the teacher that if a boy exhibited the same behavior, the teacher would be praising him as showing leadership skills. I would imagine that had my wife and I not backed my daughter at that point in her life, things would be very different for her today.

  8. 8
    Tiktaalik

    I color my hair because my agency states, “We will employ a youthful and vigorous workforce…” and I feel the need to fit that bill as long as I work here. Also, gray or silver is not on the list of approved hair colors (no kidding). However, I’m probably plenty enough intimidating when I put on my body armor and gunbelt.

  9. 9
    Michael Brew

    I always thought gray hair made a person look intelligent and competent, not intimidating. Though… I suppose a guy looking for an easy lay would find that intimidating.

  10. 10
    scenario

    I can’t figure out why some people think that pleasant and approachable are the opposite of won’t take no shit. People should be able to set reasonable limits. If your nice, I’ll be nice. If your an asshole, why should I be nice? Business people have to be professional, but intimidating is not inherently unprofessional.

  11. 11
    Ysanne

    I know what you mean… I’m not sure if what you are is really “intimidating” in the strict sense, rather than “confident” or “capable of self-defense”, which of course would intimidate someone who’s considering whether it’s a good idea to try and harass you.

    Btw, I’m quite impressed that no stupid sour grapes comment along the lines of “the way men treat you changed because you’re older and not attractive anymore” has come up yet.

  12. 12
    Sara

    I think age is a very prominent factor in how you’re being treated, at least in my personal experience. Of course I remember the way men treated me when I was younger, but I used to think it had something to so with my general appearance too; haevy metal fan vs. formal office wear, etc.
    However, that turned out not to be the case. In a very tricky financial situation I signed up for the unconventional job of a “hostess” at a phone sex line. Having a “neutral” voice I was give three aliases, ages varying between 19 and 46. To the 46-year-old callers were quite respectful, and in some rare cases talking about more serious matters, but to the 19-year-old the were rightdown awful. The character in between, aged 28, was a little better off. I used the same voice and the situation as a whole was the same, but when a man (all callers were men) thought he was speaking to a young girl – forget it.
    I’m genuinely glad I’m not (that) young anymore, trust me.

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