Think before you comment

DO you ever wonder what it would be like to be born in a different era? Period dramas and vintage advertisements tend to trigger my intrigue. You’ve probably thought the same and seen the advertisements like the one that says “Parker got the message” under the bold heading “A girl size hand needs a girl-size pen” (and it’s time the men who make pens did something about it). Or Van Heusen’s advertisement of a man with a crisp white shirt and tie in bed and a woman kneeling on the floor while serving him breakfast and the words “Show her it’s a man’s world”. Then there is Palmolive’s soap ad with the words “Most men ask if she’s pretty? Not is she clever?”. And Weyenberg’s ad of a man’s shoe next to a smiling woman’s head with the words “keep her where she belongs …”

I wonder what a girl-sized pen measures, next to a man-sized pen? Or where a woman belongs.

What a relief I guess that times have changed. We don’t see advertisements like these any more. In fact, we only see them when used to measure how far society has changed or evolved in a positive sense. Though I’m still not as convinced, that society has changed. Perhaps on the surface it has. You can’t get away with advertisements like these or perhaps it’s harder to get away with it. Or maybe it’s a different kind of skew being sold like that of empowerment which is cleverly sold by lingerie angels.

Is today’s society a more equal society for the everyday woman or is it still a “man’s world” like the Van Heusen advert says.

It starts young. Children are raised to believe that they can do anything and be whoever they want. We raise them to dream big and tell them they can achieve anything if they worked hard enough, practised, are disciplined and all that. Yet somewhere along the way to adulthood children learn otherwise.

There are different rules for girls and boys, women and men.

We see that with the rules regarding how to dress. It is not just adults who are subjected to these dress codes. Children are governed by the term “appropriate” attire that is not seductive or will not cause temptation. Just think about what that really means to a child – “seductive” and “causing temptation”. Think about what those terms when placed on innocent children do to their understanding of the world, their bodies and of adults. Think about what it says to them about self-control, decency and responsibility. Now think about which gender gets told more often how to dress. It is not to say that we don’t teach children to dress appropriately but how we do it matters. It should not be about sexualising the child but teaching them to dress in ways that are complimentary and not shaming them.

It’s not a cultural thing. After all Trump sent out a memo instructing women staffers to “dress like women” – whatever that means. But it is also not just men telling other men how to dress. Women of all backgrounds do it to other women young and old. But at the heart of it what this is really doing is kind of like that sexist shoe advertisement that says “keep her where she belongs”. That’s what it’s ultimately saying that your spot is here and therefore you need to be kept there – be it through dressing or the roles you take on.

Let’s look at the number of Malaysian women in politics. Recently, one female politician talked about increasing the quota of women in the electoral system to 30%, and that it should be done gradually. The percentage is not half neither is it equal and while I understand the reasoning of a lack of capable candidates, I also wonder how gradual the male politician’s rise to power was.

This is the underlying message that women hear – you have a limit. You cannot just be who you are. You can study but not too much if not you won’t get married. Don’t wear that, you’re going to distract the men. Why are you getting so emotional? Are you a feminist? You should feel grateful you were catcalled. Can women have it all? Don’t be too opinionated.

These subtle sexist remarks are just some of the many women like me hear all too often which makes me wonder if men get told the same thing.

Instead, men are brilliant but a woman is bossy, not assertive. This is not to say that all women bosses are good leaders. Leadership is not about gender, however, women get labelled bossy far more often and quicker than a man would in the same position executing the task the same way. It could be our unconscious bias that has been shaped since childhood which teaches us about gender roles, and stereotypes. Again, this is not just something that men do, women are equal culprits. But it is also not just sectionalised by gender but also by race, socioeconomic standing and levels of disadvantage.

So what do we do about it? Watch our words. Perhaps the next time you make a comment to a person or about someone, first think … let’s reverse the gender, or swap the race of the subject matter. Then ask yourself, if you would still make that comment.