By Carolyn Getches
I’ve never been comfortable putting myself first. As a child, I’d make sure all of the other kids had a turn on the swings, before I dared to let myself feel the exhilarating high of flying through the air. I’d watch the other children play and eavesdrop on the nearby parents as they marveled at how polite and sweet I was. At the keggers of my teenage years, I’d gladly accept the first cup of beer that others ruled too foamy to drink. My friends loved my laid back and chill demeanor. I was down with anything. Throughout my first “adult” job, I’d often stay late to cover for coworkers who needed to get home for dinner.
“You’re so selfless,” they’d say. “You’re a real team player.”
I’d smile and reply, “I’m happy to do it.”
I wasn’t happy to do it, any of it.
While I was waiting for my turn on the swings, I would chew on the jagged skin surrounding my thumb nail so feverishly, it would begin to bleed. As I sipped my cup of frothy, warm beer, I was obsessively clenching my stomach muscles to counteract the calories I was consuming. A few years ago, I had to leave my “adult” job because I was anxiety-ridden and burnt out after too many late nights. The problem was that I have never been sweet, laid back or selfless; I was simply a good actress.
As other female writers have pointed out, many women share this plight. In an effort to avoid being seen as too needy, difficult or ambitious, we spend our lives waiting for things to be perfect or for someone else to give us permission before we go after the things we truly want—permission to stand in line, raise our hands, take a trip, apply for a job. We obsess over and catalog all the reasons we aren’t worthy and all the ways we haven’t earned it. Last week, a friend told me she was waiting to attend a Zumba class until she perfected the Zumba moves at home in front of her laptop first. Over time, this compulsion to meet an arbitrary ideal before we act can be paralyzing.
A few months ago, I was sitting with a group of fellow female writers, and we were discussing these same issues as they relate to submitting our work for potential publication. We agreed that too often we talked ourselves out of it, deciding our writing wasn’t smart, polished or revelatory enough to even be considered. Then, a woman named Krista had a great idea.
“I’m going to start sending my stuff off with the confidence of a straight, white dude,” she said.
The group laughed in recognition. We all knew what she meant. Throughout our lives, each of us had met white, able-bodied, straight, cis men with money who moved through the world as though it was built just for them, which makes sense, since in very concrete terms, it was. On a purely anecdotal level, I do not see the men in my life making the same negotiations with themselves when it comes to desire. I don’t hear them talking about how they need to lose X number of pounds, before they’ll allow themselves a trip to their favorite restaurant. I haven’t noticed them carefully calculating every single syllable in their head, before they’ll speak up in a group setting. Hewlett Packard’s much-discussed study that revealed women do not apply to jobs unless they meet 100% of the posted requirements while men apply at 60%, serves as further evidence that men tend to operate with a greater sense of entitlement and optimism.
I turned 30 years old this summer, and lately I’ve grown tired of the complicated dance required to meet my own needs while still refusing to put myself first. I’ve discovered I no longer care about being seen as “sweet” and “selfless.” In fact, being described that way leaves me feeling unknown and immature. They have become clear indicators that I’m likely acting once again.
In an effort to change my ways, I decided to follow Krista’s advice and booked a long awaited trip to Europe. I had been wanting to go since college, but always found a reason not to. While I could say my lack of globetrotting was due to money or timing, in truth it was only ever about one thing—my weight. I didn’t want to go on the vacation of a lifetime in a body that wasn’t perfect. In the past, when I came close to finally making my travel arrangements, images of sophisticated English women who subsisted on tea and a single daily biscuit and chic French ladies who lived for black coffee and cigarettes would fill my head. ‘I haven’t earned it yet,’ I’d think. ‘I can’t compete with them.’
This time, as I sat down to book my flight, I channeled my inner straight, white dude. The same images of beautiful women came to mind, but rather than compare myself to them, my inner dude had a different thought. What a bunch of babes. I clicked the “purchase” button a second later.
I summoned my inner dude several more times throughout the trip. I was strolling down a Parisian alley, when I passed a young woman who looked fresh off the set of a Vogue photoshoot. At first, my mind drifted to the diet I was definitely going to start tomorrow, but my inner dude had a different idea. He flashed the young woman a smile that wasn’t nearly as charming as he thought it was, before turning his attention to the bakery behind her. Those macarons look f*cking dope. (He was right—they were delicious.) When I began to worry that I was taking up too much room on the bus ride to Stonehenge, my inner dude focused on other things. I’m exhausted. Let’s take a nap. Obviously unconcerned with manspreading, my inner dude convinced me to fall asleep, and it turned out, I was more tired than I thought. Time and time again, he quieted my critical mind enough so that I could enjoy my surroundings and acknowledge the reality that, as simple as it sounds, people come in all shapes all over the world. Paris is not only populated with lithe chicks in cool glasses, and London is more than slender urbanites in trench coats and boots. Although, I noticed a number of women who matched those descriptions as well. Through my inner dude, I was able to see them as separate entities from myself, rather than yardsticks to measure my own worth. It seemed when I allowed myself to have what I wanted—a trip abroad— I was able to let go of the obsessive and competitive thoughts that have taken up so much of my life.
Letting go of these thought patterns has been a gift of getting older. Of course, there are downsides as well. Now, instead of worrying about when my turn will come, American culture would have me believe I need to start biding my time. I’m told I must try to prolong my youth with creams, treatments, and mysterious lasers. Luckily, my inner dude does not share my concerns.
“See these little wrinkles forming around my eyes?” I asked him.
“So what?” he replied, while itching his crotch. Before I could respond, he added, “Do you have any Doritos? Cool ranch would be ideal.” His inability to empathize with my anxiety was oddly refreshing. “So what?” is the exact question I should be asking, and somehow he was able to say it in a way that actually sounded kind of sweet.