People often get to know me through my public speaking and articles before they meet me in person, and it seems like everyone has preconceived notions about someone they only know through text. The most common reaction I get—from people who like my work, no less, and especially from other women—is, “I didn’t expect you to be so short!” I write articles about women and careers from a feminist POV, run a feminist web shop, and produce the annual Bullish Conference, none of which are pursuits involving physical prowess. Well, I occasionally lift a box of “Smash the Patriarchy” pencils. But that’s about it.
I’m 5 feet 5 inches. That’s one inch taller than the average height for women in the United States. I am the same height as J.K. Rowling, Angela Merkel, and Demi Lovato (how’s that for a list?). In other words, I am not short for a woman.
It’s not that I’m short by any means, it’s just that for some reason… people expect me to be unusually tall. I often get another, similar version whenever I lead a webinar or online class and people hear my voice for the first time: “I didn’t expect your voice to be so high!” or (wait for it) “I didn’t expect you to sound like a girl.”
These comments are sometimes delivered with the air of surprise, and other times are even intended as compliments. I’m baffled, though, because I’m pretty sure my voice is totally average for a woman. I’m pretty sure that my voice and my height have little to do with what’s going on here.
I’ve received these comments enough times that I have begun to think that maybe many of us—men and women alike—have more internalized misogyny to contend with than we might realize. A lot of us seem to expect that women we admire or view as authorities should be… well, more like men. At the very least, we expect honorary men, not someone you might describe as “girlish.”
trust, star trek is relevant
This attitude exists everywhere—online, in social media, at the workplace. It’s in the media we consume! One example (from my own formative years!): in 1988, Star Trek: The Next Generation released one of its worst-ever episodes: “Angel One.”
“Angel One” is about a planet ruled by women. On a fictional world, there are many ways that this could be possible! Perhaps the planet was much like ours, but evolved to the point that physical size and strength were irrelevant, and slowly, women overtook men as the dominant gender? NOPE. The women are just tall. Really tall. That was the extent of the writers’ imagination: for women to rule, they must just be … bigger.
Quoth one James Hunt at Den of Geek:
The planet is a strange one where (if you accept the episode’s highly dubious premise) social gender roles are flipped, so that the females are more dominant and physically imposing, and males are slight and weak-willed. You know, like the opposite of what is on Earth! (This might be a new record: a Star Trek episode whose ingrained prejudices undermine its point at the premise level, before a word has been written).
The head matriarch on Angel One (because of course that’s what matriarchs would name their damn planet) has a male servant who is a short man in a chest-bearing shirt. On an away mission to the planet, Commander Riker happily wears one of the local chest-bearing shirts for the purpose of practicing diplomacy with his penis. The tall women who run this matriarchy immediately swoon and fall into bed with Riker, who is also tall. Because that’s how power works!
Even as a child, I knew something wasn’t right in this episode. You know that feeling you have when you want to like something, but you know you’re being made fun of? Yeah, that’s what it felt like.
why does internalized misogyny even happen? (and what can we do?)
I’m hypothesizing that there are very good reasons many of us harbor internalized misogyny about manifestations of authority in small or even average-sized women. Don’t get me wrong; it gets complicated here. Being large makes you more authoritative, but wait—largeness in women is also penalized by patriarchal beauty and body ideals! Trans women are often penalized for the very qualities that cis women are exhorted to cultivate. And, lest anyone flood the comments to remind us, short men don’t have it easy either.
As for the high-pitched voice: Women’s voices, it turns out, garner complaints from men basically anytime women are not silent. It is perhaps difficult to emerge from this environment untainted by internalized misogyny that tells you that to be taken seriously, you should try to sound like a second-rate man. Or that someone whose writing you enjoy ought not to sound “like a girl.”
What can we do? We can call this shit out. Recently I was watching one of my favorite ladybiz gurus, whose name I’m not going to mention here, on Periscope, talking about product pricing. A man I was working with overheard a few seconds of the broadcast and said, “Her voice is all wrong; she sounds like she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” I suggested he try listening to the actual words, which contain the information, and pointed out that her tone of voice was natural and intimate—all the better for making an intimidating subject more inviting.
She’s also rich. It works.
I’m an average-height woman with an average female voice. I won’t be doing any “power poses” to make myself look more like a linebacker (or a blowfish). I don’t like games that are set up so I can never win. If I’m wearing heels, it’s not to seem more commanding. I’m glad shoulder pads have never come back. I think a good picture of power is a woman of any size sitting lazily in an armchair wearing leggings and flats, and everybody comes to her because she has all the good shit, like information and promotions and raises. That works. It’s better than pumping your fists in the bathroom to get blood flowing into your biceps… which are basically useless in the business world.
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