Man in the women’s room

The last few months have certainly been an eye opener. No, I haven’t drilled a hole into the women’s restroom, but I have been attending an Intuitive Eating course locally. I discussed it briefly in January. Since that time I’ve been meeting with a small group of people generally once a week trying to relearn the art of eating intuitively. The surprise for me was not the material itself; it was that I was the only man in the room.

I can’t remember this ever happening before, at least for not such a long time. I immediately felt like slapping myself in the forehead. Of course an intuitive eating course is going to be populated mostly by overweight or obese women. That’s because for the most part men avoid taking courses like these. Some men join Weight Watchers but it too gets far more women than men enrolling. And having taken Weight Watchers courses, it largely doesn’t get into the emotional aspects of eating. It’s all about points, carbs, exercise, sticking with the program and trying to fit you into some company’s model of how you should eat and behave, which is true of all diet programs. Men who want to lose weight are more likely to be looking for a “manly” way to do it, so they are doing it by mail for the most part, i.e. joining Nutrisystem.

An intuitive eating course is not about dieting; it’s about shedding the diet-forever mentality, which has the counterintuitive effect of causing weight gain. It’s more about eating naturally, which is why the French eat very well, smoke, drink to excess but largely avoid obesity, heart disease and other weight issues, oh, and outlive us as well. Eating though is very primal so unsurprisingly there is a huge amount of emotional baggage attached to it. The women in my group brought their lifelong experiences into the group.

At first I felt pretty uncomfortable. Teachers know what tends to happen in co-ed classrooms. Men, being men, tend to dominate discourse and women tend to ask fewer questions and hold back. I didn’t want my presence to inhibit the women from expressing themselves. They have been dealing with weight issues their whole lives. The message women get is relentless: much of who you are has little to do with your capabilities, but how well you fit into the stereotype of who women should be. It’s not just men who tend to prefer the skinny and attractive women who are to blame. It’s also a lot of other women projecting these same values, generally the popular and skinny ones, but more often an obsessive and controlling mother. So I found myself deliberately holding back. I didn’t want my default male attitude to keep the women from getting what they needed from the course.

Over just a couple of weeks I discovered that in many ways it sucks to be a woman. Women do get to have children, and I imagine that mothering a child can be a great pleasure. I was aware of some of the obvious ways it sucks to be a woman: generally being paid less for doing the same work as a man, sexually harassed off and on the job, feeling you have to always look good, not just to attract the perfect man but because you have to keep up with the competition: other women. It’s not hard for anyone to put on weight, but when women do the impact of it is often devastating. There are lots of obese men who feel the same way. But I believe that most men are not nearly as impacted emotionally by weight gain as women are. I certainly wasn’t. A lot of these women spent significant parts of our classes relating their emotional issues with eating and literally crying about it. I never once felt like crying. I could not empathize because I had never gone into these deep emotional wells that these women spend much of their lives inside.

The curious thing was that many of these women didn’t look all that bad. Overweight: yes. Obese? Maybe half the class qualified. Many were quite attractive but it was like they were carrying an extra fifty-pound pack on their backs that was purely the weight of emotional baggage. One exercise late in the class involved writing down things about yourself you didn’t like and having a partner read them back to you. The idea was to respond back with something positive or nonjudgmental, but some women could not go there. It was devastating to one woman. She went to a corner to cry; she simply could not participate. There was a lot of crying that day. Me? I was clear and dry-eyed. It was like Why are you crying about this? But of course I had not lived with all the projected shame these women had, both from outside and inside. That’s because for the most part overweight and obese men don’t get ridiculed and teased the way women do. And it’s devastating.

I got to know these women well enough to learn that this was only part of the psychological baggage they carry around. Men don’t understand. I thought I understood. But I really didn’t understand until these last few weeks. I think this is because I was seen as a safe male. (Confidentiality was also required). Being a woman is tough and most men if they were honest would not wish it on themselves. Very few women develop the stamina and resilience to learn to be comfortable with the person they are. And that’s the real shame. Men like me often see women as women first, not people first. We project our own needs onto women and expect them to deliver. For the most part women are not allowed the dignity of simply being who they are, freed from internal and external judgments. If they don’t fit our projected model of whom we think they should be, we denigrate or marginalize them instead.

The course ended yesterday. I can repeat it at no extra charge so I am thinking of doing that, because there is a lot of material to master and it’s hard to do it in ten weeks. But also, my curiosity and empathy genes are now engaged. Also, I am aging. As I age and my testosterone levels recede, aspects of women like how pretty they are tending to recede. In this class I did not see women; I saw people. I saw beautiful, warm and caring people struggling through difficult issues.

The really sick part of all of this is that we do this to ourselves. Everyone suffers by fruitlessly trying to live up to the expectations projected by others, of course. But women in general suffer magnitudes more than men do. Most of this suffering is so unnecessary and pointless, but it’s something society projects onto people and women in particular from birth. Its impact is devastating and lifelong.

Moreover, we make it worse. Look at the horrid laws being passed in mostly conservative states that are trying to take away reproductive choice from women. Women support many of these measures too. WTF? Why would any woman be so cruel as to keep contraceptives away from other women who can’t afford it? It’s all part of a process, perhaps largely unconscious, of belittling and dehumanizing women as a class of people, wholly for the type of sex organs they happen to have. It’s a choice we can change. We could end all this harmful and pointless nonsense. We could allow women to live full, happy and productive lives instead. First though we have to stop seeing them as fulfilling ridiculous gender roles and see them as whole people.

I’ve intellectually felt this way for most of my life. Now, at last, in my sixtieth year, I feel I’ve bridged that emotional distance too.

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