Edit, March 17th 2013: Isn’t it amazing what you find when you trawl the inbound links to your blog? Like the pleasant forum user who decided to quote this post and append ‘lol fatty‘, to what started out as an interesting debate on the Something Awful forums. Nope, guess again ‘NevergirlsOFFICIAL’. I have issues but a massive excess of fat is not one of them.
Have you read Sarah’s post about the horrible abusive treatment she suffered as a designer who gets up and speaks at public events? Go do it, now. I’ll wait.
No-one deserves to be treated like that, least of all Sarah – who is incredibly talented and super smart.
I want to briefly tell you my story (and it’ll have to brief because I have a pile of client work to catch up with, and a 3 year old home from nursery with a cold) but I also want to state categorically this is not me trying to pull attention away from Sarah and her story, or clamour ‘me too, me too’. I just think that the more this stuff is heard, the less it can be shaken off as a ‘one-off’ or ‘isolated incident’.
I don’t get comments about my looks very often. Or rather, I don’t get positive comments about my looks, which is absolutely fine by me. I don’t get up on stage or in front of a video camera to look good, look bad or look anything other than non-shambolic. I brush my hair and apply makeup. I wear a colourful dress or a skirt and long socks. In fact, I have deliberately cultivated a kooky, sweary, brash onstage personality so that any criticism is not really about me, it is about ‘her’. I have seen comments describing me as an overgrown Teletubby, or questioning how someone with pink hair could be taken seriously as a speaker. (Good news, it’s currently blue!). Someone on Twitter alluded to my ‘beer belly’ once. For accuracy, I should tell you it’s actually a ‘two-babies-and-a-love-of-cake’ belly but I understand that is hard to fit into 140 characters.
I do not think that someone who has got up on a stage to give a presentation about their subject has given the world carte blanche to comment on the presenter’s appearance. Personally, in my case, I will have Amazon rush send you a box of all the fucks I give. The postage will be cheap. But it is NOT OKAY. I have resigned myself to the the idea that if someone has taken the time to comment on how I look in a negative light, I must have not been doing a good job of engaging them with the presentation. I do give more than one fuck about that.
Then there was the one comment I saw in a live irc style backchannel at an event, just after I came off stage. I wish I’d had the forethought to screenshot it or something but I was so shocked, I dropped my laptop on the table and immediately went and called home, to check on my kids.
Because the comment said (paraphrasing) “This talk was so pointless. After she mentioned her kids at the beginning I started thinking of ways to hunt them down and punish her for wasting my time here.”
Now, I don’t know the gender of the person involved. But it was someone who felt comfortable enough to make that statement in a room largely full of twenty-and-thirty something white guys, certain of anonymity and not being turned out by public opinion. Some people there must have recognised the handle. The point is, gender aside, they used something that I was bringing with me as experience (going to restaurants and reading menus with my small children) that they were unlikely to have experienced themselves, based on their response. No empathy.
I get the guy/gal was (almost certainly) joking. But, NO. NO, YOU DO NOT EVER SAY THAT. IT IS NEVER OKAY.
It is threatening. Even if you think I’d never see it, it is not an appropriate response to, well, anything but especially not to a public speaker you don’t agree with. And I did see it.
My life experiences and exposure to different situations makes me who I am, and the point of view I bring to my work and thus, my presentations. My children certainly shape that. I don’t expect any reasonable human being to use my motherhood, and the vulnerabilities that come with that, as weapon against me.
Unless you only want individuals with advanced narcissistic personality disorder and no client experience to temper their idealism, no people old or young or dear connected to them to make them vulnerable, and the looks of a non-threatening preconception-conforming type, to get up on stage and present to you (they’ll be the only ones left willing and able), you must help us call this unpleasantness out when it happens.
Chaps: All the time women are ‘others’ in this industry, we need you, as a representative of the legion of smart, not-sexist guys, to call out the one or two guys who think you are actually like them. These guys think you too are okay with ‘lighthearted’ rape jokes, misogyny, veiled threats and nudge-nudge references about the women in your midst. Show them *they* are actually the minority.