It’s The Little Things

Saturday, something really, really embarrassing happened.

While I was parallel parking my car, I rubbed the side of my car along the fender of another car.

There was no damage to either car–the Mazda I rubbed looked perfectly fine, and my car just has some streaks of silvery-white from the encounter. There is significant, acute damage to my pride, however.

I’m a car girl. My dad started me driving stick when I was 12, and I do all my own maintenance on my car. I’ve gotten one speeding ticket in my life and I’ve never been in an accident or hit anything. I can’t get over how humiliating it is to have been driving for over half my life and now to have hit another car while parallel parking (as astoundingly simple task. Anyone who tells you otherwise is full of crap).

But just like that (if I could snap my fingers, I would), I’ve gone from being a savvy car girl to being a dangerous stupid woman driver.

This is something I face regularly. I frequent the bicycle shop that I do (Back Bay Bikes at the intersection of Mass and Comm Aves in Boston, for those of you in the area who might need some bike services) because they have never once left me feeling like they were judging me as a feeble woman cyclist (an attitude I get regularly at other bike shops). Buying parts for my car is a constant exercise in aggravation (I replaced the oxygen sensor a while back and ended up walking out of a store because they were so condescending). Going to Home Depot to pick up tools or parts for projects is mind-boggling.

Don’t get me wrong–I get that there’s a lot of ditzy women out there who are awful drivers, vapid cyclists, incompetent in car parts shops, and terrified of/ridiculously confused by tools. But in my experience it is just the same with dudes. I’ve helped random guys change a flat tire on their car. I’ve had to explain to the employee at Home Depot what I’m looking for and why the random bullshit they offered me is not actually the same thing. I’ve had to take desperate evasive action to avoid dudes on cellphones biking (or driving!) the wrong way and ignoring the world.

It’s just that my vagina makes me so much more pathetic. The guy who doesn’t know how to change his flat tire is probably the sensitive artsy type so it is so totally okay that his brain is occupied with more bourgeois pursuits. The Home Depot employee probably only makes minimum wage anyways, so why should he knew more than I do? The guy on his phone oblivious to the rest of the road is gettin’ his game on callin’ his bitches, so really, why would we interfere with that? If I, however, did not know how to change a tire, did not know why I needed a dremel and not a power drill, or dared to be on my phone while driving, I would be a ditzy, oblivious, self-centered, stupid girl and just another example of why women shouldn’t be allowed near these things.

It’s a stupid double-standard and it pisses me off.

I hold myself to ridiculously high standards of proving I am above every stereotype of my sex–I am a flawless driver! I am brilliant at balancing my checkbook! I do not need chocolate and ice cream when I’m depressed! I do not like romantic comedies and I don’t cry at movies! I love power tools and I know how to use them! and so on–that when I slip up the tiniest bit, I freak out. Partially because I know what’s coming–the mockery from others about how it turns out I really am just a stupid girl, and haha looks like feminism didn’t help me out nearly as much as I like to say, and so on–and partially because I am so invested in proving stereotypes wrong.

Brushing my car against another car while rushing into a parallel parking space on a busy metropolitan artery should not lead to me still feeling angry with myself days later. That’s goddamn ridiculous.

I’m not sure of my perfectionist over-achiever-ness comes from having grown up in southern Connecticut, one of the most ridiculous places ever (oh hai, we’re the inspiration for The Stepford Wives!), or if it’s a side effect of wanting to be The Super Feminist, or if it’s just something I’ve always had. I don’t know.

But it lead to me transferring out of engineering as an undergrad and never even giving marine biology a chance. (Those were my top two career goals from when I was really, really little (well, those and author). My mom found a project from first grade when we were learning writing with those ridiculous pieces of paper with the two thick lines and the one dotted line. In precise, exact letters, mine says “When I grow up I am going to MIT to be an engineer and build cars and fly planes.” DUDE. I kind of wanted to cry when she showed it to me.) When I took the classes I needed for those programs, even though I found them incredibly fascinating and intellectually engaging, I struggled. I justified my decision to switch out into an easier discipline because “Who really wants a car designed by an engineer who isn’t so great at algebra?” The truth is, I was pretty decent, but not great. Not exceptional. And I figured the only way you can be a woman in STEM is if you are better than every single other person and you can punch them in the face if they give you any crap.

This is partially my own failing–I gotta work on the ol’ self-esteem and courage and fortitude and whatnot–but I definitely think there’s a degree of culpability in how our culture works. I certainly had no role models in the fields I wanted to pursue, and there was very little encouragement from anyone around me. I was constantly asked by teachers and those around me if I REALLY wanted to go into STEM. In one memorable incident, I went in to see my chemistry teacher for extra help and was brushed off because what I was asking about “wasn’t going to be on the final” (it turns out it WAS, actually, but that’s not the point). I was discouraged from taking AP Physics. When I tried to sign up for classes my first semester of college, I was assigned to only take calculus and computer programming, instead of the intro engineering seminar I wanted. The advisor told me I should “see how those work out first.” If I had decided to stay with engineering, that would’ve put me a year behind because I hadn’t done my freshman year coursework during freshman year.

…I almost ended the entry there, abruptly, because my word count was at 1138.

ANYWAYS. I firmly believe in individual responsibility in determining our own destinies–I am unarguably responsible for how unhappy I am with where my life is and how many regrets I have about the academic paths I chose. Yeah, I should’ve just sucked it up and been a year behind and stuck with engineering (I got an A- in calc and an A in C++, in case you were wondering), but I had zero encouragement. I had no teacher or faculty member or boss or sports coach or whatever who had faith in me. No matter how trite it sounds, when our entire culture doesn’t stand behind you, having someone who does can really change things.

I’m beyond giddy that there’s now a computer engineer Barbie. I think that’s freaking great. I hope to see more and more normalization of women in challenging, exciting careers for all the little girls growing up right now. (I’ll worry later about the fact that all the accepted bad ass women are either EVIL or conforming to regular beauty standards and still plenty obsessed with catching a boyfriend. For now, I’ll take victories where I can get them.) I don’t know how to completely overhaul our culture to be more supportive to girls in “masculine” pursuits, and I wish I did. For now, all I know is that it’s important that we do our part locally–when you meet a girl of any age, encourage her to pursue what she wants. Be the cheerleader for the girl you know who wants to go into STEM. Take ladies seriously when we talk about programming or auto repair.

A little bit of good will can go a long way toward canceling out a culture of negativity.

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05/05/2010. Tags: . Uncategorized.

4 Comments

  1. H replied:

    It’s funny how every time I bring my car to the garage to get an oil change and I don’t have a male come in with me, they always seem to manage to find something “wrong with the car”. But if I have a guy with me, they never find anything that needs attention. Admittedly, I don’t know much about cars, but neither do any of the males who have ever come into a garage with me. Rabbi Smurf has taught me a very important lesson: If something’s wrong with the car, it will be obvious. Cars are not cats.

    I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up, but pretty early on everyone kept telling me you have to like math to be a scientist, so that changed. I ended up majoring in a science anyway–a social science and the most useless science of them all and the girliest one. With all the hard science that was involved in my major, I realized I could’ve majored in a legit hard science and been fine. But that realization came far too late, so that was a big fat waste of a degree. Like you, I completely lacked the support from family, friends, and society and had zero confidence. These things come in particular handy when you’re a confused college student.

  2. john b replied:

    Gee, I wanna go to your car shop. I’m a good car mechanic. I had to become one, cos the clown at sears auto shop would add-on zeros the minute I walked in the door. It got so bad I pinned him up against the wall and told him no more add-ons.

    I got on a list where I didn’t get bothered unless there was something drastically wrong with the car.

    I got where I’d bring in a female friend with a strident voice to other places.

    Guys get overed by bent mechanics too…..

  3. Matt E replied:

    An A- in Calc! Woo-hoo!

    Signed,

    Your high school Calc teacher

    • Cuppy van der Cake replied:

      It only took me a jillion tries. 😉 I was lucky to have such tolerant, helpful teachers!

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