You know what’s not cool? To not be able to take a joke. You know who can’t take a joke? Feminists! I mean, come on, ladies, it’s not that bad. Lighten up! Shake it off! Get over yourselves!
I got this message loud and clear, back in uni, when my boyfriend’s buddy would tease me, “Hey! Why don’t you stop taking those dumb gender studies classes and make me a sandwich or something?”
He liked to show me photos from the offensive all-male student paper—mostly naked girls, drunk, on the toilet, with “hilarious” captions over their heads. An image, once, of an extremely short statured woman, and something about how this was the perfect height for all women, because: BLOW JOBS! HAHAHA!! Right? So funny.
(It seems sometimes like the jokes we’re supposed to take are never very funny to begin with.)
At first, he made me so angry, I almost cried. Which was, of course, exactly what he wanted. Later, I told him exactly why he was offensive. But later still, I learned to smile uncomfortably and look away. I learned to care more about being cool, and I thought it was important that it look like I was not affected—that I could take a joke.
A few years after university, I started writing about body image and beauty, and I was surprised by how many people told me to please just shut up and grow a thicker skin. Stop worrying about these things! They don’t matter. Stop analysing the ways that girls and women are restricted or manipulated. It’s not cool. It’s not fun. It’s a downer. It’s irrelevant. You’re probably overthinking.
And because I am an overthinker, I have thought a lot about that phrase: “Grow a thicker skin.” That idea: stop worrying and laugh it off!
And the implication that being sensitive is a problem. That caring is a problem. That being negatively affected is a problem. The idea that someone else should get to decide what affects you and how it does. Who is this someone? I think maybe it’s a computer simulation: the average of millions of human brains, like one of those facial composites they do sometimes. I imagine the results: The average person is… tan-skinned…5’8”…and interested in… football. He thinks this stuff about the near-constant pressure to lose weight is… a load of bunk. He’d rather talk about…what’s for dinner!
“Grow a thicker skin” often seems to mean that we are somehow supposed to pretend that we live in a world where there are no more problems with the way that women are treated. That we’ve finished with that phase and moved on to happy, liberated, super fun equality, where we’re all playing video games together and having a beer.
This is a bunch of bullsh-t.
In addition to the kind of institutionalised world-wide misogyny that results in women not having basic human rights, quieter, but equally pervasive forms of sexism lead to rampant eating disorders and self-hatred among girls everywhere. It might be easy to look at reports of girls’ fear of “being fat” above all else as annoyingly self-absorbed and image-obsessed, but to dismiss these reports as evidence of silliness instead of evidence of a serious problem is a mistake. It is a problem that we are learning to care about the way we look first, and so soon, and it is a problem that we so often get stuck there.
And let me be clear: the problem doesn’t lie in identifying the problem. Pointing out our culture’s unhealthy obsession with the way girls and women look is not being unhealthily obsessed with it.
It is a reality of living in a time and place that tells us again and again and again that beauty matters a lot. That beauty matters maybe more than other aspects of who we are. And that we are not quite good enough when we are not quite attractive enough.
These are social issues, not personal ones. And as always, the personal reflects the social. And as always, it is so much simpler to blame individuals than to address larger societal problems.
A good place to start, though, is to give ourselves permission to care. To give ourselves permission to have thin skins, or at least not force ourselves to grow thicker ones.
Giving myself permission to care, to be sensitive, to react, to feel, is one of the healthiest things I think I’ve ever done. It’s good for the sanity.
Because caring is not the same as sobbing in a corner, overwhelmed by the harsh realities of life. It’s not the same as overreacting constantly. It’s not the same as not having a sense of humor. Caring is a sign of being alive and paying attention. It’s a sign of looking around and being honest about what you see. Sometimes, it involves acknowledging that things could be better. That things sometimes hurt. That things can be problematic.
Being sensitive is not the opposite of being strong.
So instead of everyone growing a thicker skin, you know what would be great? Letting our skin breathe. Letting ourselves be open and exposed when we need to be. Being truthful and vulnerable about the things that bother us, and the things that get in our way. As women. As men. As humans in a complicated, difficult, ever-changing world. It’s when we’re vulnerable that the conversation gets interesting and relevant. It’s when we admit who we really are and how we really feel that we can get to know each other, and ourselves, best.
So, please, grow a thinner skin! Let’s see who you really are.