Rene Magritte,  Les Amants I  (1928)

Rene Magritte, Les Amants I (1928)

After the 2016 election, I felt for days like I was about to be sick. I was nauseated, with pain in my neck and head, and almost no appetite. Every day, with news of more hate crimes inspired by the president-elect, I could muster only resigned sighs while researching self-defense classes and learning safe conflict intervention methods.  

The day after the election, I had planned to attend an event for a local philanthropy organization. I had barely slept the night before, but I managed to get up and put myself together in time for the lunch. I wore black. Not unusual for me, but it signified something. I put on heavy boots and a long jacket to which I pinned buttons reading "Black Lives Matter" and "Trans Lives Matter". I looked at my defeated eyes in the mirror and put on the darkest lipstick I had. Everything felt like battle armor. Everything felt like war paint.

I've been feeling that way again the last few days. On Tuesday morning I woke up to sexual harassment via text message from a professional acquaintance. I spent the rest of the day ashamed and disgusted, then spent Wednesday and Thursday consumed in anger. I forced deep breaths to interrupt my unbearable thoughts. I recited Maya Angelou in the car, making sure I wouldn’t fall prey to silence. Thursday evening, I came home from work and learned Cole Porter's brilliant "I Hate Men", singing aloud to the empty house. 

Men underestimate the degree to which these aggressions affect our everyday lives. Several months ago, when I got into a shouting match over women's allies and tone policing, I was so utterly disgusted and defeated that I nearly threw up at work the next day, and could barely talk the rest of the weekend. To men it's just one argument, just one message, just one moment, but for us it's an argument, message, moment that epitomizes the fear of an entire existence, a daily life spent in calculated avoidance and self-protection. Every woman has taken up the armor: the dressing, acting, speaking; the performance of our daily lives to be relatable but not too interesting, approachable but not vulnerable, strong but not intimidating – lest a fragile ego be shattered in our wake.

There is the armor of clothes and hair and makeup; the armor of silence, of words, of tone and pitch; of "just" and "sorry" and "I don't know" and "What do you think?"; of hardening and softening and being loud and shutting up – all these things we do to be acceptably small enough to fit into a world that does not belong to us: that if only there were less of me, less of who I am, then maybe everyone wouldn't hate me so much. 

There is so much talk of fearlessness, so much talk of the courage to be loud, spacious, unlikeable – balms for the pain of daily living in which every stranger (not most strangers, but every one) might be the man who shouts at me, touches me, hurts me, kills me. Every interaction is armored: Don't stand too close to him, or he might start a conversation. Keep an eye on the man who smiled earlier – did he get into this train car? Don't be friendly, don't be kind, don't make jokes; get near other women. Are there any other women here? Would it even help if there were two us?

Every evening home safe, every danger averted, feels like I've cheated a game stacked against me. Which is why each assault – each argument, each message, each moment – feels like such a failure. I had been doing so well in my armor… then an arrow pierced through. Oh, I've heard that insult before – what was that great comeback I read online? Stop shaking, god damn it, and say something. Do not cry. Don't you dare cry; don't feel a thing.

I think of all the times I've silently acquiesced – comments overheard, jokes that disgusted me, pleasant conversation feigned while scanning the room for someone who could walk me to my car – and somehow I am ashamed. So many arguments I could have won if it weren't so damn painful to wear this armor all the time. If only I weren't so exhausted from being a woman, what a woman I could be.

For now it'll have to be more sighs of resignation while I check to make sure no one's following me, while I share tips for avoiding rideshare abductions and the best way to hold your car key like a knife. Dear sisters, it will be enough today to arrive back home in the evening, hard or soft, proud or ashamed, scathed or unscathed. It will be enough that we see each other, know each other. Tomorrow we'll put our armor back on and get to the work of living.