I find myself on a plane quite often these days, which thrills my heart to no end. I’ve been making my escape ever since I was a little girl. Open door? I’m going through it. Open window? I’ll press myself up against the screen. I want out. I want to see what is out there waiting for me. It has never occurred to me that there might be nothing waiting. I just know there is. My job takes me all over the country and my heart takes me outside of the country! Planes, planes, and more planes. What I have noticed is that sometimes a traveler’s etiquette might need some polishing. More specifically, men. Men need some polishing. They like to recline their seats directly into the lap of the person sitting behind them, and I’m beginning to wonder if they expect a head rub while they relax in that stranger’s lap. Men lean into the aisle. They have no problem using the seat in front of them to help haul their huge, hulking frames outta their own seat, and they are all too comfortable standing in the aisle with their derrieres in people’s breathing space. They also seem to really enjoy sitting with their legs spread and it sure doesn’t seem to matter if they are in the middle seat. The. Legs. Are. Spread. They use the toilets for as long as they please and they leave it a mess. Truly, it doesn’t seem to bother them. They snore loudly if they fall asleep, they listen to music on full blast, unabashedly sharing their fabulous tunes with everyone in the next three rows, and they blow their noses so hard I’m tempted to duck just to avoid the possibility of brain matter touching me.
I’m not kidding. I really have seen all of this from men. Never, ever from women.
Women squish themselves into a seat, and apologetically glance at their neighbors if their arm or sleeve happens to graze someone nearby. Women press into windows or hug themselves if they’re in the center seat, and they never, ever leave a leg stretched out into the aisle. Women clean up their area as well as their hubby’s area. They brush the crumbs away into a napkin and politely hand their trash to the attendant. They quiet their children (well, they try) and they bring an armload of toys and snacks to keep little ones occupied. Women read. They rarely bust out the latest in electronics and if they do, it is done unobtrusively and privately. No one can hear a sound. Women accommodate. They apologize. And they usually leave the bathroom in decent condition.
I’m not a man hater… not at all. I’m totally a fan. I admire their ability to be free, be themselves, and be comfortable no matter where they are. They aren’t apologizing for their existence. They appear to exist with the innate belief that they belong here, they are owed a certain measure of respect, and they are entitled to some leg room, dangit. Men, after all, are taught to be big.
Women. Women. Women. [Shaking my head] We are taught to be small. Big personalities are often hard to take. Shhhh, little lady. Don’t call attention to yourself. Be small. Be quiet. Be invisible. You’re prettier when you’re thin. You’re more likeable when you’re quiet. You’re tolerable when you are apologizing for your very existence.
What? When did this happen? More importantly, whyyyyyyy do we continue to perpetuate these limiting and soul-crushing expectations?
I’ve felt this niggling sense of rejection my whole life. I’m big. I’m tall. I’m wider than is acceptable. I’m loud. I’m outspoken, direct, and strong. I didn’t want to be this way; I was designed this way!!! My whole life, I have been trying to be smaller. I once had a job where the Vice President of Customer Service and I shared an office wall. He had Facilities hang corkboard all over that shared wall to soundproof it… I was too loud. Yes, the corkboard went on my side of the wall. I didn’t ask for that, but I found myself humiliated and apologizing for it. Wow.
I sit with my legs closed. I shrink myself to fit the situation. I lower my voice, my eyes, my hand. I, like many other women, learned it was best to be small. Don’t talk back. Don’t make waves. Don’t stand out. Don’t speak up. Why do we do this to little girls? Why do we teach them to be small? Why do we continue to embed in the female psyche the idea that we are not worthy of the space we inhabit, that we will be accepted only once we realize how unacceptable we are?
With little boys, we encourage them to be big. “Eat this, it’ll make you grow big and strong” and “Oh! You’re going to be a football player someday.” We groom them for leadership, we push them to the forefront, and we chide them for showing weakness. “Don’t cry. You’re a big boy.” We tell them to be big and strong and take charge, but leave their feelings at the door. We plant the seeds early on that emotions are for the weak (and women) and we perpetuate this flawed ideology of how they are ‘supposed to be’ until we end up with men who cannot think and feel at the same time, who cannot talk their way out of a paper bag, and who lean on fists to solve problems rather than words to facilitate collaboration. And then we wonder why we cannot reach them…If you think I’m making this up, look around. Look right beside you. Look in the mirror.
Is it wrong to allow a boy some room for feelings (without suggesting he’s a wimp)? Or encourage a girl to speak her mind (without labeling her bossy)? Is it permissible for a man to wear his feelings on his sleeve and get teary-eyed when he says goodbye to someone he adores? How about letting women have some space to grow, to bloom, to expand and explore and BE BIG?
When I talk with students about how the aMasongrace project is attempting to redefine who is ‘at risk’ for self-harm and suicide, I ask about the pressures they face and the labels they so desperately try to avoid. We all carry a label, a target on our back. When we are young, we totally believe everyone can see our shame, our label. Some people never grow out of that. I also talk about ‘branding’ and how the messages we send out to the world reflect what is happening in our hearts. The truth is: I want to change the world. I’ll do it one person and one conversation at a time for however long it takes. I want every single person to know that it is okay to be big and it is okay to be small. It is okay to be who they were designed to be. We put so much pressure on ourselves to be accommodating, to being acceptable, to earning the approval of others that sometimes we miss out on just being. I want my big girl voice to be strong and powerful and clear. I want to inspire people to abandon the labels and the expectations. I want to be big enough that I can live this life without fear, and small enough that I don’t miss the tiny nuances of each interaction. I want to speak boldly against anyone who would tell me I am ‘too much’ of something. Maybe they just ‘aren’t enough.’ Maybe they’ve been told repeatedly to be small, to be quiet, and now they are projecting that onto others. Maybe, just maybe, they need permission to BE.
I spent some time in Mexico last week, just soaking up the beauty of my favorite jungle-meets-ocean hideaway and marinating in the lush feel of paradise. I ate delicious food and laughed with my sister and brother-of-sorts (bos). We discussed American politics, the media, and global awareness. We examined our hearts and shared where we stood on refugees and providing sanctuary for people in need. We drank coffee from our favorite café, nibbled beautiful almond croissants, and pondered the human experience. (That is best done with sugar and caffeine as it is a weighty conversation…) My sister and I spent some time on the subject of Being. We are both walking a journey we hadn’t anticipated and probably wouldn’t have willingly chosen. We both have struggled with coping mechanisms that didn’t serve us. We both are seeking to peel away the layers of junk gathered over a lifetime to find our most authentic selves. And we both know that in order to live our best life, we must give ourselves permission to be.
As I flew home, I played back our conversations. I thought about my journey and the choices, whether conscious or subconscious, that brought me to where I am today. I thought about how life would be different if I had given myself permission to be okay, or if I had been raised to believe that I was enough. I know things would have been different. I know I would have been different. I cannot change the past or alter the events that brought me here, to this place, to this awareness. I’m not looking to do that and I am so very thankful for this new awareness that is blooming within me. I am thankful for this life, good, bad, and horrific. I am thankful for the work being done within me and the freedom that I am gaining as a result. As I flew home, I applied the lens of ‘what if’ to see the impact our choices and beliefs have on ourselves and the next generation, and imagined how this awareness will impact my future.
I started by writing about my observations of travelers and how differently we have been taught to behave. It’s funny when we’re just describing airline etiquette (we allllll know those travelers I described), but when we think of the bigger picture, we truly have a responsibility to change some norms. What if we taught our kiddos to be? What if they knew it was okay to feel sad or angry or scared, and we taught them to sit with those emotions for a bit? What if we acknowledged early on that those emotions belong with us just as much as joy and exhilaration and courage? If you have a son, will you teach him that it is okay to be sensitive, caring, loving? We see this when our boys are little but as they grow they are taught to hide these emotions in favor of a tough exterior. We tell them to Man Up. They forget how to be present and feel their way through uncomfortable moments. If you have a daughter, will you show her how to be big? Will you celebrate her ability to lead? Will you encourage her to laugh louder, have wild hair, make choices for herself rather than for the ever elusive approval of others? Will you encourage her to use her voice, to speak up, to invest herself fully?
If we give ourselves permission to be who we were designed to be, and we sit with our ‘moments’ both comfortable and uncomfortable, we will experience life more fully and be richer for it. If we model this for our children, and speak openly about the tough stuff, we can instill a belief within them that will serve them for their entire lives. The best coping mechanism is Being. If we allow ourselves to practice this, and choose not to mask or hide or numb ourselves, I think we might just change the world.
More soon. I’m off to catch a flight. :0)