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Have you seen that Pantene commercial that’s been making the social media rounds? The one that asks why women are always apologizing?
I’m the first half of that commercial. I am an apologizer. You know: one of those insecure, irritating, thoroughly un-empowered women who can’t stop saying “I’m sorry” even when they haven’t done anything wrong. “I’m sorry, can I get past you?” “I’m sorry, I ordered this with no mayo.” “I’m sorry to bother you, but our meeting was supposed to start half an hour ago.”
It’s the worst type of un-feminist stereotype: the woman who feels ashamed of existing, ashamed of taking up space, ashamed of asking for what she wants or needs. I apologize even when I absolutely don’t feel that I’m in the wrong. I apologize when I’m furious. In fact, the more strongly I feel like someone should be apologizing to me, the faster “sorry” falls from my lips.
Are you cringing? I am. And my first instinct, of course, is to apologize, and say: I haven’t always been like this.
I can’t identify exactly when the switch happened, but when I was younger I was brash as fuck. I said what I thought and I usually said it loudly. It would be fair to say that I was obnoxious. I didn’t make excuses for feeling the way I felt or wanting the things I wanted. I was emotional. I demanded attention. I was smart and precocious and confrontational. I was a difficult person to like, and I knew it, and it sucked. I have never had the ability to not care what people thought of me, the way some loud opinionated people seem to do. I always hated the sense of people’s exasperation, of them shutting me out because I was too high-intensity, too needy, too loud, too goddamn sensitive.
I don’t know when I started apologizing, but I know that it started as penance for crying so much. For a long time I expected that crying constantly, almost daily, was something I would grow out of, but when I hit 21 and it showed no signs of slowing down the humiliation grew more intense. Somehow that led to me saying “sorry” whenever I felt the familiar prickle, like an incipient sunburn on the back of my eyes. “Sorry,” I’d say, trying to smile through the tears. “It’s not a big deal, I’m just a crier. Sorry. Sorry for overreacting.”
The tragic thing about apologizing is that it works. It makes you seem less aggressive, less threatening, less obnoxious. A woman crying because you did something that hurt her feelings is scary, she’s demanding, she’s raw. A woman crying while saying “Sorry, I don’t mean to be so emotional, I know this isn’t really a big deal”–well, that’s much less uncomfortable. That’s someone you can continue having a conversation with, because she’s acknowledged that her emotions are entirely her own fault and she’s asking you to take no responsibility. That girl is likable. She’s easy. She’s low-maintenance.
A guy once told my best friend that he knew he really liked me when I sent him several increasingly depressed text messages, then followed up with “Sorry, I had too much to drink and now I’m all fucking emo.”
“She’s not all crazy like most girls,” he was reported to have said with admiration.
So these days I apologize a lot. Everyone tells me all the time that I don’t need to, that I have nothing to be sorry for, that I shouldn’t be so insecure, but in between they tell me how likable I am. How personable. How pleasant. How I set people at ease.
Apologizing is a survival skill in a society where women are penalized, personally and professionally, for being abrasive, for speaking their minds, for not smoothing their sharp edges down, for not fitting in. Apologizing is a way of saying I know I’m smart but I don’t mean to be. I know I take up space but I’m trying not to. I want you to like me more than I want to be right. These are things the world demands from women. If you don’t provide them, it punishes you. Before I started apologizing I heard all the time, secondhand, that people hated me. That this girl or that girl thought I was a bitch. That I was too aggressive and guys were scared of me. I never hear that anymore.
People tell me that higher self-esteem would help me apologize less. I think No, you don’t understand. I have to apologize because I can’t let people know how awesome I actually think I am. The world is not kind to women who love themselves as much as I do–certainly not fat, queer, socially awkward girls. I am not supposed to have confidence. I am not supposed to think my opinions matter. I’m not supposed to swing my hips from side to side when I walk, or wear high heels, or cry in public and make people confront the existence of my emotions. I’m not supposed to be loud or get angry. And if I have to do any of those things, I’d better be willing to smile and apologize and try to soften the blow of my presence.
I saw so many women I adore and respect re-blogging that stupid commercial with heartfelt approval, and every time I did I felt a little sick. Every time someone added an “Amen!” or an “I hate it when women do that!” I whispered a bitter little apology. Sorry. Oh, sorry. Sorry I do that so much. I don’t mean to bother you.
On the surface, the commercial looks like empowerment. Women, stop apologizing for no reason! You don’t owe anyone your contrition for existing in the world! It’s a solid sentiment and one I agree with, as far as it goes–but then, it makes me angry because it doesn’t go far enough. Reflexively apologizing is a habit women develop because we live in a misogynistic society that penalizes us if we’re perceived as too assertive. We live in a world that is constantly, often mindlessly but sometimes maliciously, reminding us to get back in our place. Women who over-apologize don’t do it because we feel that our bodies and ideas and emotions are unworthy of the space they’re taking up, but because we have subconsciously absorbed the reality that other people do, and will treat us worse if we refuse to play along. It’s not an intentional attempt to undermine ourselves. It’s a flinch back from the fire.
Saying “women should stop apologizing” without even trying to address the root cause of the behavior–which, again, is misogyny, not “women being crazy”–is, well, about the level of feminist discourse I would expect from a shampoo commercial. This is advertising, not empowerment. Just like the Dove “Real Beauty” ads that went viral a while back, it exists to sell a product, not kickstart the revolution. And that’s fine. But it really rubs me the wrong way when people start talking about it as though it’s genuinely transformative.
You hear echoes of this displaced blame everywhere, down to Tina Fey in Mean Girls saying, “You have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. That just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores”–as though slut-shaming were something women invented, as though men need women’s permission to enact sexist double standards. You hear it every time someone tells women to “lean in,” ignoring the fact that women are penalized in the workplace for the same assertive behavior that’s rewarded in men. It comes up every time a woman who doesn’t fit the conventional beauty standard is told, “Just be yourself, it doesn’t matter what other people think,” as though anyone who carries herself with too much confidence isn’t opening herself up to harassment and scorn.
I’ve taken to calling this kind of rhetoric “stop-hitting-yourself feminism.” It presumes that all the oppression women face is perpetuated solely by ourselves, and that if every woman (individually, not collectively) just decided to be confident and powerful, patriarchy and its effects would vanish overnight. In this worldview, the only reason any woman experiences sexism is that she simply hasn’t made the choice to shake it off.
I am absolutely in favor of women apologizing less, standing up for themselves more, and feeling like badasses in the process. But I would be foolish not to acknowledge that every time a marginalized person stands up for herself, the world paints a target on her back. And I’d be cruel to blame any woman who tries to avoid that kind of abuse for collaborating in her own oppression.
Instead of chastising women for their developed survival skills, instead of insisting on individual solutions to societal problems, and especially instead of equating empowerment with a brand of shampoo, I want to see us working together to call out double standards and create a more supportive and thoroughly unapologetic world for everyone. Instead of “stop hitting yourself,” I want us to collectively start hitting back.
Lindsay King-Miller is on Twitter.