by Amorina Kingdon
For the first time in a decade, as I jogged along the seawall in Victoria this morning, I thought about my ex-boyfriend Michael and my then-friend Amanda. Specifically, I found myself thinking about their interactions, their intense dislike of each other, and how a few conversations with them left unexpected, deep imprints on me.
Michael was my first serious boyfriend in university. He was an engineering student from moneyed West Vancouver stock. He prized rationality, action, and logic. He was an impressive person, and everyone thought so. He knew his single malt scotch, introduced us all to sushi, built a bar in his dorm room, was not afraid to confront anyone, and once, he yelled at a cabbie for leaving the meter running while he ran to a bank machine.
Amanda was my dorm-mate during first year, and then roommate in a shared house. She prized loyalty, creativity and music knowledge. An overweight girl in pyjama pants, she walked imperiously, was an only child, and tried to solve conflict by starting small, (a tactic us girls are all taught is polite, and later grow up to find the rest of the world derides as ‘passive aggression’). She could, however, be remarkably direct if need be. A dedicated film student, she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of filmography, and called herself the ‘floor mother’ in res even though no one else did. She also complained… a lot – about her weight, her house, or why she was still single.
On the surface, the reasons for their animosity were that Amanda’s complaints made her a negative person, Michael didn’t like her, and since she found him cold and unsympathetic, it drove their mutual dislike even further. She had few traits that made her ‘likeable’ — he possessed many traits that commanded respect.
“Why do you hate her so much?” I asked Michael, one day.
“She’s completely negative, she’s always complaining but expects everyone else to bend over backwards to make her feel better.” Michael said. He moved sharply, economically, wrapping a scarf and getting his keys.
“She doesn’t,” I say. “She just feels like you don’t like her.”
“I don’t,” he said.
“You don’t try,” I say, frustrated. Even though I am nominally on his side, I still feel the need to try and explain, defend my friend, because deep down inside, I know I am more like her than I am like him. If he can think this way about someone not too dissimilar to myself, what must he think about me? I think back to every offhand complaint about my weight, and imagine this same ire rising in him, this same contempt. Yet he is not someone who feels the need to expand his circle of understanding or empathy, and I start to get this twisted, tearful feeling of needing to explain something important to someone who doesn’t care.
“Why should I try?” he said. And then, “When something is wrong, I do something about it. She’s always bitching about how she’s fat, but she eats like shit. She complains she doesn’t have a boyfriend but she doesn’t try meeting people. She never actually helps herself.”
“Why do you hate him so much?” I asked her one day.
“He’s arrogant,” she said in a clipped voice. “He’s disrespectful to me in my own house.”
Like a Pavlovian trigger, the automatic, don’t-even-think-about-it phrase from my ascribed script drifted through my head, learned from millions of female pep talks and only six pre-described emotions that women were supposed to feel: you’re just jealous.
“Why don’t you guys just talk?” I said. “He’s very rational. If you explain…”
“Yeah,” she snorted, interrupting me. “Right. All he does is tell me what I’ve done wrong, what I should do better, and then shuts down the conversation unless I do those things. He doesn’t like me and he’s really, really disrespectful. In my own house.”
“He…likes you fine…” I said.
Ten years later, running along the seawall, I think about this conversation.
I do this because for the last two kilometers, I’ve been running entirely on focus; a flimsy bag of mental carrots and sticks.
Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.
You’ll feel so good once you finish this.
Sweat is just fat crying because you’re punching it in the face.
When these give out, my body will win, and I will stop.
Jesus fuck, I hate running.
Why are you doing it then?
Because when I’m not running, I love running.
You know you COULD push yourself further. You use your brain to drive your legs. When you don’t make 5k, it’s because you quite literally don’t want it enough. Yet you want to HAVE DONE 5K. Where does the want or the need go?
I just want to be thinner.
I know. You’re always complaining about it.
Oh, fuck you. I just want to be okay as I am.
I realized a few things about Michael and Amanda, all in a rush:
Amanda’s complaints were born of an inward dialogue that society had taught her to have with herself, which didn’t reflect her true thoughts. Her complaints didn’t reflect a desire for change. They were something else.
Michael, the sort of person for whom the world could sport a sticker saying “For us, by us”, took her at her word, because for him, action was always possible and never restricted. He presumed Amanda had the agency to solve her own problems, and his ire was a product of according her the rights and freedoms of his world.
But Michael could never know what it was like to be Amanda: working under a different set of expectations, and far from the ideal.
Amanda could never know what it was like to be Michael: someone for whom aggression can usually net results and admiration; someone for whom ‘likeability’, that nebulous nothing-quality, was not necessarily a factor in his friendships, his jobs, or his happiness. He wasn’t expected to be likeable, only to engender respect. A man of action in every sense of the word, surrounded by frustrating, inexplicably hamstrung girls.
The expectations stemming from their gender caused these two people to find themselves in a power struggle – a struggle for likeability on her part and respect on his – which ended in dismissal and contempt on his part, and hatred and impotent rage on hers.
What does any of this have to do with feminism?
Amanda was a perfectly average person for whom, due to her age and gender, likeability trumped any other form of social necessity, and self-deprecation was the only acceptable way to discuss herself. I have observed that quiet self-esteem is a fleetingly rare thing for most girls or young women. Consciously or unconsciously, women are typically considered public objects, and opinions on their every physical and character trait, on their likeability, are publicly traded commodities.
Amanda knew that everyone noticed her weight, her singledom, the state of her house: those were the only things that they needed to know to assess whether they liked her. When she happened to come up on the wrong side on all counts…she was, quite literally, not good enough.
But the truth was…. she liked being single. She didn’t want to spend 6 shitty months losing 40 pounds. And deep down, she didn’t really care if the domicile was less than spotless. That was the truth of her, and she didn’t hate herself as much as she led us to assume. But because she was female, she had to either meet these expectations, or explain why she wasn’t.
And for most people, the quickest way to a) acknowledge a failure to meet an expectation and b) express your desire to rectify it, is with a complaint. In fact, for most women, that’s what a complaint is. It’s not, as is commonly misunderstood, simply ‘being negative’, nor is it asking others to do something about it for you. It’s a direct reflection of the expectations you feel guilty for failing to meet.
Michael, on the other hand, had already met his set of expectations. He was six feet tall, lean and tight-tendoned, his weight never fluctuated. He was attending a prestigious program, he had money and a near-guarantee of continuing to make more. He didn’t need to be single or attached, he didn’t need to be anything physically other than ‘not too fat’, and the state of his house was assumed to be something far beneath what he needed to worry about. He didn’t need to do anything to achieve social acceptance other than to be smart enough, be aggressive, and finish his degree. (All things, note, that Amanda was doing too. But none of which weighed in any balance for her – not while weight, status and cleanliness were on the scale).
Michael was okay in society’s eyes when he rolled out of bed. He had nothing to apologize for; and therefore, nothing to complain about. He assumed the same was true of everyone; therefore Amanda, who wouldn’t ‘help herself’, engendered his contempt. He felt no need to be nice to Amanda for courtesy’s sake, because he did not need her– her presence, approval, or lack thereof had no effect on his ability to exercise his will.
Amanda felt a need to be nice to Michael as a default, because to do otherwise would be unlikeable. His disdain would mean cruel verbal sallies that rendered her weakened and emotionally vulnerable, while the same conflict did not take anything from him. And she had been raised to believe she must be the social lubricant, the default positive, in all social interactions.
Michael would come to our house without feeling the need to talk to Amanda, or ask if it was too late or too early, or if he could use the kitchen. Because to him, she was an unlikable girl, she didn’t merit social status, or respect. Therefore, Michael gave nary a thought to niceties that would have kept their animosity to a low simmer.
Every woman knows a Michael. I imagine that many, if not most, women catch themselves, from time to time, complaining without fully understanding, or believing, their own words. Usually, it’s about something they feel guilty over failing to do – often, failing to even want to do. Many women then hear a rebuking voice in their head, and pinpoint the exact person who would say some version of “Stop complaining. Just do something about it.”
And when logic fails to give a reason to ignore the voice, perhaps the following might: you are operating under a different set of expectations.
I ran until I cycled through every motivational thought I had and I couldn’t summon the energy to give a shit anymore. I ran five kilometers today, which is about 400 calories, or about a tenth of a pound. Do you like me better for knowing that? Maybe to you, it’s a benchmark that helps count towards my likeability.
But for me, that’s a direct measure of how much appropriation of society’s standards I can sustain. It was a beautiful, blue, oceanic day. I should have walked.