friendly coercions
Sexism is Hard to Explain
Kel Campbell

The Friendly Coercions

It happens all the time: you’re not looking. She’s walking home from work. It was a long day, and the train car didn’t have a/c, now sweat sticks to her blouse. She just wants to go home and shower.

It doesn’t matter — a man on the street suddenly yells at her “Smile, you’re beautiful!” His voice breaks into her walk, pushing an expectation at the end of a long day. Does she tell him to fuck off and risk getting hurt or followed? Does she smile, let him think it’s okay to just order her around?

She puts her head down, her arms rise up, covering her chest. He doesn’t follow her. It’s not a victory but it keeps her safe, this time.

But, will he be there tomorrow?

It lives in the quiet moments; you’re just not listening. She meets a friend for coffee. She tells her friend about the guy who hit on her. How he wouldn’t stop when she said no, not once, but twice. How irritating it was, she just wanted a drink, you know?

Her friend sighs, “Men are such pervs when it comes to Asian women. It’s a good thing you said no, he probably has a geisha dream or something.”

She grips her cup, nodding. What can she say? She’s half Japanese, but she’s also German, French, and English. Her friend is trying to support her, to brush him off. Yet, she’s reduced to the weight of her skin, the curve of her eyes.

Can she be wanted for anything else?

It happens in ordinary moments; you don’t understand their strangeness. She’s joined an online group for locals. One moment she’s telling him about her favorite comic book characters. The next moment, he’s wondering why aren’t men banging down her door? He knows it’s kind of demeaning, but she’s so pretty. How can she be single?

He knows it’s kind of demeaning but she’s so pretty.

She watches the cursor blinking against her screen. He assumes she wants a man. She thinks of the men and women she’s brought upstairs. She thinks of the mornings she relishes alone in bed. She wonders why she has to defend her history to him.

Why did he ask? Why does it matter?

It lingers in a compliment; you don’t realize it’s acid. She’s at the bar, enjoying her beer. He seems to be in his 40’s or 50's. He thinks she’s pretty. How old is she? 32? He can’t believe it: she doesn’t look a day over 24!

She knows she’s supposed to smile. She knows he wants her to laugh and say thank you. Yet, all she can think about are the lines on his face, the salt and pepper in his hair. He can live his age. While she must stay young forever.

She drinks her beer, the song, ‘Forever Young’ stuck in her head.

It thrives in assumptions you haven’t unpacked. She’s trying to get to class. She has time but she wants to go over her notes one last time before it begins.

He can live his age. While she must stay young forever.

A man walks up to her, worried.“Are you lost? What room are you looking for?” He’s tall, but he can’t be more than 20. She wants to laugh: It’s the second time this week she’s been asked.

She thanks him and keeps on moving. He may come in for class three hours a week but she’s an engineering PhD student. She’s sure she knows the building better than him.

She laughs but a part of her wonders: do the male PhD students get asked this too? She doubts it.

If you’re lucky, you just might learn from it. She goes with her friend to yoga class. Her friend wants to improve her flexibility. So they go together. They walk in and the instructor looks at her, eyeing her size 18 legs wrapped in spandex. In some ways, her friend’s lean frame doesn’t help. She’s an oak tree walking in with a willow.

“You may want to go to the back” The instructor says with a smile, looking at her full moon face.

It’s happened to her so many times she shouldn’t care. The fire burns in her belly, her patience broken for the day. She sets up right behind the instructor.

For 90 minutes she flows pose to pose, supple and smooth. She shows her teacher trained alignment, all the knowledge instinctive from the arch of her foot to the crown of her head. Her friend struggles, stiff, unused to juggling arms and legs off the basketball court.

At the end, the instructor apologies for assuming. A question still remains “You didn’t think the skinny bitch next to me couldn’t do yoga, did you?”

The instructor eyes widen but she says nothing. The friends leave together. It’s a small victory, but she knows the hard truth. There’s another hundred people out there who assume round faces can’t do a full split. They think that because her thighs touch she can’t run a 7 minute mile.

“You didn’t think the skinny bitch next to me couldn’t do yoga, did you?”

They think they know. So they wrap a web that looks like it’s helpful. It may look like kindness. It can even sound sweet. Yet, it leaves her choked up. It erases her individuality. It forgets that she could be different from their mold. They cut her up until she’s in pieces on the floor. It may just kill her with sweetness.

These stories are not all mine, but many have or could have been. These are a fraction of the stories that come with being women in this world, navigating the expectations and assumptions our society carries. We carry them, whether you believe us or not.

These moments are all around you, you just haven’t seen them yet.

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