I’m taking a brief break from my “Weight, Food, and God” posts to discuss something almost negligible. Almost.
This post will have none of the depth, academic acumen, or gravitas of all of the recent posts my fellow WITs have been producing (good job everybody, by the way), but I do have something I’d like to discuss. It’s probably going to come across as a complaint, and while it certainly is that in part, I hope that it is also a constructive plea for men to behave themselves a bit differently in public.
First, a story! Here goes:
I went to the dentist last week for a regular six-month check-up, and though I perform a near-neurotic teeth-cleaning routine upon myself every night (there are five steps; don’t worry about it), the dental hygienist told me I had a few “weak spots” on my teeth, and by process of elimination regarding my behaviors, we deduced that it perhaps had to do with stress, particularly stress related to comprehensive exams (now long done, completed in early April). Apparently stress can make your saliva more acidic? So, fellow academics, watch out for that! It’s not just candy anymore! Your job will rot your teeth!
Anyway, she wanted the (male) dentist to look at my teeth, so she went to go get him, and I was left to fret about my teeth in the chair and wait for what he would say. So it should be noted that I was perhaps fretting a bit, but more than anything just curious.
The dentist appeared, sat down, and said, “Hello, Elizabeth.”
“Hello there.” [Waiting for him to embark upon the wondrous mouth exploration.]
Looking at me for one second, he then cocks his head to the side and pronounces, “You seem pensive.”
“Um, I’m good?”
“Are you stressed out and pensive? It seems as though you are.”
“Nope?” It should be noted that at this point I am making a concerted effort to seem more “friendly” by making my voice slightly higher pitched and by smiling slightly.
Staring at me with concern that indicates he doesn’t believe anything I say, he says, “Really?” And keeps his head cocked to the side.
Searching for something reasonable and non-threatening to say, I stutter, “Um…I’m…getting ready for a conference later this week…and…I guess I am thinking about that?”
Feeling satisfied that he has identified The Problem, which is not the conference per se, but that I am, indeed, quite “stressed,” he says with a knowing, world-weary, and chastising tone, “Well you really need to relax. Go easy on yourself. Take a break, seriously. What would the saying be? Something like: ‘All work and no play makes Elizabeth a…?’ What is the saying?”
I just stare at him until he finally puts his tools and fingers in my mouth.
He confirms that I have weak spots and not cavities and determines our course of action. Then once he’s done, he sits back and starts in again about my mental and emotional state. Thank God he was there to help me navigate the treacherous terrain of my own psyche!
“Seriously though, take care of yourself. Relax. Take a break. You seem like you have so much on your mind.”
Of course I shouldn’t have anything on my mind, right? That, in and of itself, is an abomination.
I can’t take it anymore. I blurt out,”I am at the dentist!”
He smiles and feigns being hurt, so I continue, “It’s not you personally [though it kind of is, I'm realizing]; it’s just that I’m having my mouth poked and prodded, and you just can’t expect people to be at their best when they’re at the dentist! It’s unrealistic.”
This is only a fraction of what I would like to say to him, but that seems to do the trick, and he responds, “Fair enough!” And then we’re done.
Second, some analysis.
What I really wanted to tell the dentist was that it’s none of his beeswax how I’m actually doing. That if he were treating a man, and that man said hello to him in exactly the way that I did (no messing around, but perfectly polite, while waiting to find out exactly how much of my mouth is rotting despite my best efforts), that there is no way he would have hounded that man after the initial “How are you?” Because, you see, men have work and other important things to think about. They’re not emotional; they’re busy.
Perhaps you are thinking at this point that my dentist was pursuing this issue of my emotional state precisely because he knew that stress was a factor in the (un)health of my teeth. A fair possibility, except that I heard the nurse get him, and she said nothing about my stress, and furthermore, when she interacted with me just before, she didn’t make a big deal out of my emotional state even when we determined that stress may be playing a role in my dental health. She said something like, “Wow, comps sound hard. Good for you!” And even furthermore, if my dentist had known about my stress as a relevant factor, he should have discussed it precisely as that, and in relation to my teeth as he saw them when he examined them.
In other words, my dentist’s job is to fix my teeth. It’s not to perform a willful gloss upon me and my emotions under the auspices of being concerned about me. I believe that his questioning resulted from good intentions, and I’ll even grant that I perhaps looked a bit worried and that I even have a naturally down-turned mouth. But so what?
Even granting these points, he was out of line to persist in his questioning by starting with an accusation (“you seem pensive”) and then inquiring over and over again about my emotions even as my laconic responses indicated that I was not there for an ad hoc therapy session. As a side note, he also had no idea what was going on with me; for two months I’ve been relaxing, to quote a wise wise lothario and sure-fire ally of feminist causes, like “a frickin’ rock star from Mars.”
This is beside the point, but it just emphasizes that my dentist’s gaze upon me was not only aggressive but deeply misguided. He was the one trying to set the terms of the exploration of my life, particularly my emotional life, despite my saying over and over that I was fine, and despite the fact that I, aware of how I can appear pissed when I am actually not, attempted to make myself less threatening by making my voice slightly higher-pitched and by smiling a little bit. And you know what? When I was doing that, some lightning-fast combination of thoughts passed through my circuitry, and at some intuitive level, I thought, “Come on, Elizabeth. Be a good girl.”
I single this story out precisely because it is not singular. This kind of exchange exists as part of a larger pattern of seemingly innocent and minor male-female interactions in the public sphere. I cannot tell you how many times random men have told me to smile in public (including a TSA officer as he was checking my plane tickets), and I cannot tell you how many times women I know have complained in passing about being told to smile in public by men. One of my friends said a random fellow stopped her on the street and told her to smile, precisely as she was meeting her then-boyfriend to confront him about cheating on her. And I cannot remember one time being told by a random woman to smile in public. This is all anecdotal of course. But do men tell each other to smile in public?
But even keeping in mind the anecdotal nature of these stories, I still maintain that these stories indicate a dynamic that we barely take the time to question, namely, that men, even and perhaps especially well-intentioned and benevolent men, think that they should be given some kind of access to women’s interiority. Because they’re nice and only want to help and to brighten the day of a young lass. That, because they care, they should be allowed to know what is going on with the women they encounter in public. Especially the younger women. And perhaps they want to know what is going on because of another aspect of this dynamic, namely, the assumption that women should be friendly and pleasant and generally smiley. This assumption is a subtle form of sexism that I think we all must wrestle with; even I myself have internalized it to some degree such that I become worried if somebody seems dismayed at my “pensiveness.” I guess a thinking woman really is a threat.
I do not contend that this kind of exchange in and of itself has a parity with the kinds of unspeakable violence men perpetrate against women all day, every day, but I do think it is noteworthy as a kind of “microaggression,” or minor exchange expressing and reinforcing sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, age-ism, able-ism…and any other kind of ‘ism.’ These exchanges function as microcosms of larger patterns of subordination and control and are rendered by even supposedly benevolent agents. They also seem so minor that when people discuss them, these people are often perceived as “whiny” and complaining about something that doesn’t matter. That’s pretty clever, if you ask me. Namely, finding subtle ways to marginalize and stigmatize those who perceive themselves to have been belittled by others. For sure, there’s the danger of people becoming overly-sensitive, but in my opinion, we haven’t done enough to examine to the quotidian and minor-league forms of oppression occurring in our lives. (And it’s complicated; we’re both agents and patients of microaggressions all the time, in complex and often interlocking ways. So we have to learn to name microaggressions both rendered to and by us.) Here’s the truth: we cannot combat the forces of sexism and these other -isms unless we are willing to look at the nitty-gritty details of human interchange. The devil is in the details, and it’s all of a piece.
So I’m contending that men assume implicitly that women should be “pleasant,” that it is their right to tell women to smile in public, and that it is their right to know what is going on with women, especially at an emotional level. And these rights are supposedly vouchsafed through the merit of “being nice.” How dare I come down so hard on nice men. But these assumptions give rise to all kinds of microaggressive exchanges all the time, and they tire me.
So this is a plea to the men who read this blog and who not have been aware of this kind of microaggressive encounter before: please stop telling women to smile in public. And please think more about how you engage with women in that public sphere. Ask yourself: are you treating them with full respect and with the humility to recognize that you know nothing about them and that their lives aren’t necessarily any of your business? I want you to think about these questions especially if you teach female undergraduates in any capacity.
And to the women who read this blog, for whom my story resonates, I’d like to say to you: smile only when you want to. Don’t be a good girl.