Do you have to turn into a bitch to be taken seriously as a woman?
What started off as self-preservation went completely wrong
We have a running joke in the family that my mother’s too nice for her own good. While kindness is a virtue we say we value, the reality is a little different — it’s not exactly practical. Nobody is going to be kind for too long when you’ve all been standing in line at the RTO for hours without electricity and one open counter. And in a patriarchal setup, it’s easiest to push over a woman.
My mom was raising two girls on her own while her husband lived and worked abroad. She had returned to India after 20 years and to say that was a culture shock would be an understatement. She was now in a long-distance marriage and navigating the wilds of Indian bureaucracy, trying to get a house lease registered and her car serviced at a garage full of men who would keep trying to con her into paying more.
A seemingly helpless woman was easy to take advantage of. Financially, emotionally and mentally. So over the years, she hardened up. To be taken seriously, she adopted a persona. A harsher tone, coarser way of talking and roughness.
You can’t be too sweet and polite, she’d always say. Indian men need a danda and some screaming and shouting. Otherwise, they will never take you seriously and you’ll never get any of your work done.
It’s a sad reality and I can see the permanent imprints that this adopted identity has left on her personality over time.
I, myself, don’t have the most welcoming facial expressions, but that’s a family trait. Heeding my mother’s words and learning from the experiences of the women around me, I used it to be taken seriously as a woman at college, work, and in life.
Travelling to college in the Delhi metro, I’d stand in the general compartment with a look of mild rage on my face like I’m plotting how to get away with murder. Towering at 5’7″ made being intimidating a lot easier too.
My polite “Sir, can you please check for my admit card?” at the college administration office didn’t get as much attention as a ruder “why is it taking so long, itna bhi kya kaam hai?” The scowl, harsh words, curt tone that I adopted for self-preservation during my college days became a habit.
“You have to be a little bitchy otherwise, they won’t think you’re important enough to give you the time of day,” scoffed my sister when our hunt for a new flat began. I had moved cities but my standoffish demeanour remained and grew more rounded as I entered the Indian workforce.
Women make up a large portion of the workforce (yes, we’re counting unpaid labour as well) and we not only have a large pay gap but still struggle to be taken seriously. Having a PhD whilst female was a Twitter trend that drew sharp attention to the fact that female experts and leaders get regularly dismissed and their qualifications challenged.
Seeing all this unfold around me only reaffirmed to me that being a difficult person is how I get taken seriously as a woman in this world. I made myself unfuckwithable.
I was basking in everything I’d managed to achieve by coming off as intimidating: people generally left me alone when I wanted it, nobody tried to push me around at work and men on the streets tend to avoid you if you look like you’re ready to punch someone. I hadn’t noticed the downfalls of such a demeanour until much later.
I’ve been described in a lot of ways, but there’s a very clear pattern through it all. Sullen, grumpy, intimidating, bitchy and angry. There was always negativity to the way I came across, or so I’ve been told.
What I didn’t realise was that people had started avoiding me. You become intimidating to the point where people are afraid to speak to you, and so they leave you out of the loop. “Why does she have such a stick up her ass?” my best friend was asked.
The more I tried to protect myself, the more I had pushed everyone else away. Often, that cost me opportunities, both personal and professional.
There was a balance to be found between being taken seriously as a woman and being a mean sour puss. I started by swapping my noise cancellation headphones for smaller earbuds so I could participate and involve myself in on-going banter and chit chat at work.
Lunchtime was no longer in front of my laptop screen watching an episode of FRIENDS while I ate, but sitting with colleagues and talking about our day
I learned to disagree without being disagreeable. I had to actively be mindful of my tone while speaking to both seniors and juniors at work. Language habits had to change as I reminded myself that not everyone I met was trying to take me for a ride. My partner was enlisted to gently nudge me in social gatherings when he saw me scowling or frowning without cause.
I didn’t compromise on my beliefs or stopped taking a stand when I wanted to but knew that there was a better way of communicating my disagreements and opinions without turning into Rekha with guns blazing in Khoon Bhari Maang.
It’s taken a bit of effort to reach this middle ground and it’s still something I remain conscious about. My biting quips are kept for the right moments with disrespectful and dismissive people, and softer nature for those I don’t want to scare away. And when I’m really struggling with it, people have been given a disclaimer: “I just have resting bitch face. Please ignore it, I’m not a bad person.”
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