For the majority of my life, I have not considered myself a Feminist. This should not suggest that I had no opinion on the subject – quite the contrary. I firmly believed in equality between the sexes, knowing, as any liberal-minded individual should, that for either sex to consider itself the superior, would accomplish nothing but taking several gigantic and hypocritical steps backwards, from its progression forwards. One of the main principals of Feminism was and is, after all, a means to allow women the same rights as men. The Feminist Movement worked hard to bring about expanding human choice, eliminating gender stratification, ending sexual violence and promoting sexual freedom. But, essentially, the thing they strived for was equality.
For a long time, I was only ever presented with the opinions and mannerisms of Radical Feminists which, I confess, I found to be rather intimidating; I have never been one of those women who view men as “The Enemy”, who do nothing but objectify us. This lead to my reluctance to label myself in such a way, preferring instead to remain on neutral ground. However, during the past two years, I began to identify myself as a Feminist, more and more. Why, you might ask? Allow me to elaborate:
Since graduating from University in 2012, I, like so many others in my age group, in this particular stage in life (that uncertain place one finds oneself in for a time, between youth and adulthood), had been forced to temporarily put my ambitions on hold and find employment purely out of necessity. As much as I would have been content to spend all of my time writing, I had become accustomed to a certain standard of living (that being a roof over my head and food in the fridge). I found myself living in London with my fiancé, with a collection of rejected job applications and more expenses to take care of, than there was enough money between us. Thus, I was obliged to accept the first offer that came along and I found myself working for a local convenience supermarket.
It has been over a year since I began working as a supermarket cashier and it is this event that I believe to be a direct link to my recent tendencies towards Feminist-thinking. Throughout the course of my young life, I had come to believe that in our present western society, I could take gender equality and progression for granted. But throughout the course of my employment in customer service, I have come to realise that casual sexism is more common than I had ever imagined. Perhaps this makes me appear naïve, but it must be understood that until I began working in this particular form of employment, the type of people I had been surrounded with and accustomed to, were always intelligent, progressive and liberal-minded, who treated me with tact and sensitivity. Thus, the point I endeavour to put across in this article, emerges.
It has to be said that a common misbelief throughout society, is that men are the only ones guilty of sexism; but I have found that there are women in existence who are equally to blame for keeping such backward and offensive thinking alive today, whether it targets the appearance or the long-term goals of those on the receiving end. To prove this statement, I have chosen to relate an occasion particularly significant to my aforementioned statement, where I found myself the target of a profoundly sexist assumption, which took place about a month ago.
I was at work, going about my normal day-to-day routine of standing behind the till, scanning groceries and repeating the same questions to customers, hour after hour. One of my regular customers appeared and requested an electronic cigarette, as opposed to her usual twenty-pack of Marlboro lights. To make polite conversation, as I often try to do, I made an observation on her decision to quit smoking, commending her for it, in the process. She went on to lament on the difficulties in giving up, after having smoked for such a long time, to which I replied, in the hope of consoling her, that my fiancée had given up three months prior and had decided not to rely on any substitutes for the majority of that time.
Before I continue the story, there are two very important factors I must address: The first, that when I mentioned my fiancée, I did not use any personal pronouns. The second, that I work the early shifts during the week, which means I have to wake up at 5:40AM. At that time of the morning, taking the time to put on make-up and style my hair – in other words, making an effort to look “perfect” – is the last thing I feel like doing. To be frank, my biggest priority is ensuring that I have enough coffee in my system to get through my impending shift. If I were waking up that early to go to a job I actually wanted and enjoyed, my appearance would be more of a priority, but when you have to wear a frumpy, unflattering uniform in the worst combination of colours imaginable, no amount of hair-styling or eye-liner can distract from the horror that is your outfit for the next however-many hours, in addition to how drained you’re feeling. Therefore, I just don’t bother with any of it – I go in, I complete my shift, I go home and if I happen to have plans later in the day, that’s when I make an effort with my appearance.
So, back to my attempt at reassuring the customer that while smoking is very difficult to give up, it can be done in the end, using my fiancé as an example. At this point, she smiles at me in what can only be described as a knowing sort of way and says, “Oh, I bet she was really hard to live with in the early stages of giving up!”
Given the fact that I’d been awake since the wee hours of the morning, that it was almost midday and I was pretty exhausted by that time, I had to take a few seconds to make sure I’d heard her correctly. Certain that I had, I replied,
“Err . . . . “she”? My fiancé’s a “he”, actually.” At which point, looking surprised, she went on to say,
“Oh, I’m sorry. I just assumed . . . .”
“Assumed what?” I asked her, slowly.
Instead of giving a straight answer, she said no more, but looked me up and down with raised eyebrows, paid for her E-Lite and left. I stood rooted to the spot, completely bewildered and to be honest, rather offended.
It was a definite first for me; I’ve had lesbians genuinely flirt with me before and I’ve found it flattering. But no-one has ever made the assumption that I was one myself and certainly not in such a brazen manner. If the customer had been gay, it would never have occurred to me to take offence. But the fact that I knew she wasn’t, having served her with her boyfriend multiple times, provoked a sense of indignation in me, in addition to the reasons behind her assumption being so blatantly obvious.
It was her looking me up and down in the way she did that said it all. She was clearly one of those people who assumed the lesbian community as whole, are women who do not concern themselves in the slightest with wearing make-up, styling their hair and wearing fashionable clothes. While it is true that there are some gay women who apply to the above description, the same can also be said for a large number of straight women. One’s appearance is not the only thing that defines a person – it is merely one of the many things that do; more to the point, no-one should make assumptions of another’s sexuality based on their apparel. This presumptive female customer, it must be said, has always come into the shop in heavy make-up, elaborate hairstyles and the combination of low-cut tops, tight jeans and skirts and high-heeled shoes. By her logic, I didn’t look like what she thought straight women should look like.
On the one hand, she cannot be blamed for not knowing my reasons behind being unconcerned with my appearance at work but on the other hand, what an incredibly simplistic and frankly lazy and moronic mind-set for a person to adopt, in this day and age!
If I missed the memo, please let me know immediately but I ask you: when did being too tired to put on make-up translate to being a lesbian? I was under the impression that we were living in the 2010’s, not the 1950’s, where women were not only defined solely by their appearance, but also expected to look perfect all the time. I defy any women to retain perfect hair, immaculate make-up and clean, un-wrinkled clothes while scrubbing out a staff toilet, unloading deliveries, or cleaning and tidying a till area, after being left in an appalling state by those working the closing shift, the night before. There is a very good reason why the expectation for women to look like china dolls in all situations died out with time – c’est impossible!
Written by Aifric O’Neill