I want everyone to think I’m nice. I’d prefer to be categorized as plenty of things, of course, like brilliant and incisive and strong and thoughtful and cool and levelheaded and enchanting and youthful and maybe that I have Disney hair, but mostly, I want people to think that I’m nice.
When I hear someone being described as kind, I get a pang of envy in my heart.
Do people say that about me?
Because I’m afraid that maybe I’m too other things — too outspoken, too concerned with the state of our culture and politics, too up for a debate, too opinionated — to be considered kind.
Growing up in a fundamental religious school, I often heard the ideal woman being painted as a gentle, mild-mannered peacemaker, and I wondered if I was made the wrong way. I would feel shame after being loud during a soccer game or vocal about a perceived injustice or excited about something excitement-worthy and I’d regret it and sit at my desk and try to fold myself in. Take up less physical space, less auditory space, and be a gentle member of the community. I wanted to be the consummate Nice Girl. Pleasant to be around. Easygoing. A friend to all.
I recognize a grown-up version of that in Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. “Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman… Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner…”
I think about this as I look online at a surf club baseball cap I consider buying (I neither surf nor play baseball). I like wearing hats to the gym, and I had to toss one in the recycle pile. The potential new hat says “nice and cool” on it, and I realize I want to be labeled both so badly, I’m contemplating willing it into your perception of me by making you stare at it on my forehead.
My friend’s livelihood is currently based in the photography she takes and the community she builds online. Three brands stole one of her photos to promote an online giveaway, and were absolutely shocked when her attorney reached out to them. “It was a mistake! We’re so sorry! We love you!” they crooned over private message. Another friend had the audacity to demand agreed-upon compensation and ultimately lost further business for being less than a Cool Girl pushover.
We do this to ourselves, but we do this to each other. There’s something inherently sexist about both examples I’ve given. Something sexist about insisting that women be walked on, be less than, and take the hits with a smile and a heart-eyed emoji. Men wouldn’t be chided or belittled for being demanded what was owed to them. The idea of women supporting women has been bastardized to mean that women should be complacent and understanding and giving of oneself to no end.
God, I want to be Nice and Cool.
But when I speak up (or write up, as it were) about the treatment of refugees and black people or common sense gun control or the political climate or human trafficking or parenting or the state of the church or injustice, I turn in my Nice and Cool chips.
I could simply not. I could keep all the things I write and say benign and safe and optimistic. But some feeling in my chest doesn’t let me get away with that. And so I’m resigned to thinking that maybe my version of being a gentle, mild-mannered peacemaker includes saying hard things and calling a spade a spade and losing friends. To be clear, I’m not saying I’m always right or that I’m this beacon of truth shouting into the oblivion. I continue to hold ideas with a loose grip, which maybe makes it all the worse. Am I giving up being Nice and Cool to defend something with ambiguous answers and solutions?
I had this conversation with two friends (both men) who write and speak and make political stances and are involved in activism. I jokingly lamented, “When I post something, I’m a harpy, angry shrew of a woman. When you guys do it, you’re enlightened, progressive thought leaders.” And then we laughed and then cursed because it’s funny and awful and true.
“You notice,” one said, “that you and I can post the same things online, and men and women will come after you for it, but not me?”
God, do I notice.
We’re not afforded the same judgment. Women are too thin, too large, too quiet, too outspoken, too sexy, not sexy enough, too ambitious, too apathetic, too icy, too combative, too flirtatious, too familiar. The perfect woman walks a tightrope in no man’s land and the wrong gust of wind deems her neither Nice nor Cool.
I should care less, and I think I do care less. I’m starting to see it in manifest in different, small ways. Saying no without regret, removing “just” as a qualifier from my vocabulary, sticking up for my kids when they need sticking-up-for, being direct instead of politely rebuffing when out with friends and some drunken Wall Street boys’ club member gets mouthy.
And yet. I want you to think all of the good things about me without my having to wear an embroidered hat. I close out the website and resolve to get my gym hat elsewhere. We were all made the right way, I internally mutter to Childhood Me and Current Me, and our society’s collective perception is a little off.
Current Me will eventually get it.