Don’t Tell Me to Be Brave

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Don’t Tell Me to Be Brave

Don’t tell me
to Be Brave,
as if courage
is instinct for
half of us and
Learned Behavior
for XX chromosomes
alone. As if
my going
out is not its own
defiant act
And my speaking:
Bold, Direct
is not akin
to wielding
the sword.
Don’t tell me
Courage is:
holding my tongue
and the serving tray
at a 3rd wave feminist
Dinner Party
thrown for strangers with
pasted on grins
I am no one’s
I am already

The Catch-22 Of Being a Woman and Femme

I’ve been dealing with ongoing sexual harassment from an older customer at work the past couple weeks. Though he swears his comments are innocent, I feel more and more agitated every time he comes in because I don’t know what the correct – but really, the safe – response is.

I read an article once that said women at bars tend to treat the creepers more nicely than the regular guys because they’re afraid to set them off. The creepers interpret this as romantic interest rather than terror, and freak out anyway when the women finally refuse their advances.

I feel like those women at the bar. I work in a customer service field and it’s generally my responsibility to be nice. But when that generosity of spirit is interpreted as genuine interest by people who ask if they can work there “just to look at you,” I’m left without a clear exit strategy.

On the one hand, I absolutely have the right to tell him to bug off. On the other hand, what if that makes him angry and he parks his car next to mine at closing then kidnaps me?

That might sound crazy, but it isn’t really. Even if women aren’t naturally aware of our surroundings, we’re told from childhood not to walk alone or stay outside when it’s dark. We’re told to keep our phones and our keys in our hands, and our finger on the pepper spray. We have to be vigilant if we want to avoid harassment, assault, and death.

But let’s say this man’s behavior will never escalate to violence. I’m still left dealing with the discomfort of having to publicly assert my right to not be sexually harassed at a potential cost to my shop’s reputation. Will other customers think I’m overreacting? Will he post a negative review on Yelp? I’ve been pushed into a corner I have to get out of without kicking and biting and saying nasty things. Because I have a reputation to uphold. It all falls on me, and I hate him for it.

We’re Already Brave

In the past year or so, I’ve seen the phrase, “Be Brave,” tacked onto everything from posters to t-shirts to devotionals. It’s a recurring marketing theme for a couple of women-centered social enterprises I follow, as well. However well meaning the call-to-action may be, I’ve found myself rolling my eyes every time I come across it.

Frankly, I don’t think women need to be told to “be brave.” Women are forced to navigate an impossible set of expectations every day, straddling harmful patriarchal values and an increasingly rigid form of feminism that leaves little room for personal expression. The last thing we need to be told is to be brave.

We’re already sorting out the details of identity formation in the context of societal and relational expectations, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job. We’re already advocating for ourselves when we feel we have the space to do so. If we’re silent, it’s for our own protection. If we’re too nice, it’s because we know that sometimes that’s what it takes to have our voices heard.

What is Brave?

I’m also disturbed by the adulteration of the word, brave, in the context of female “empowerment.” Male bravery conjures images of knights, soldiers, and public figures. Female bravery as its contextualized in the circles I’m in only serves to reinforce traditional female virtues like hospitality, generosity, and meekness. We’re told that it’s brave to say sorry and write letters. We’re told that bravery is being nice when no one’s watching.

I’m here to tell you that none of that is bravery! Lovely qualities to have, to be sure, but we might as well adopt the coercive, polygamist-Mormon phrase, “Keep sweet,” if we’re really only concerned with women staying in their place. I’m not interested in “reclaiming my femininity” or discovering “authentic womanhood.” These terms only serve to further limit acceptable ways of being a woman. I want more space, not nicer throw pillows!

I’m ready to keep being whatever I am in the world. Sometimes sweet, sometimes confrontational, sometimes fearful. But always brave.

We are brave by default. We have to be.

This post still feels unfinished, but I’m publishing it anyway because I want to hear your stories. What’s your take on the “Be Brave” trend?

Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. – Rebecca Solnit

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. On the "write letters" point, I'm really secretly referring to Darling Magazine articles and its overall aesthetic. Doing old fashioned "woman" things that take lots of time and effort are encouraged. I also reference them in my poem. LOL on leaving the church. I feel simiarly about my church tradition. I was encouraged to think for myself and didn't get the memo that it was only as long as I was "thinking for myself" along the same lines as everyone else in that community. Thanks for reading and for your encouragement. I feel ya with the general need to find ways to conquer shyness and lack of confidence. I also feel weak or unable to articulate myself, but I've found that I need to give myself more grace rather than a pep talk in most circumstances.

  2. That's a really great point, and one I hadn't fully appreciated.

  3. I agree, Catherine! Our intuition is pretty powerful and I really believe it has saved me from some pretty potentially dangerous situations. Leah – I'm sorry you're dealing with this right now, too…I've been in your situation before: once when I was working at a bar, and the other time at the gym I attended while in college. It's never comfortable, often scary, and frustrating when you try to explain the scenario to male friends who don't really seem to see the threat or problem… the weight of mitigating the problem is always placed squarely on women's shoulders, when we really should be teaching BOTH boys and girls from a very young age about not being entitled to anyone elses time or space…..

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  5. Addie Talley, Photographer

    oh, that's a hard place to be in… I hope you are brave and can find a good solution….also as an aside to what I was saying… I tell my sons this along with my daughters – so when Im saying that I think its a good message, I mean that its a good message for everything – not just women/girls – that is the part that gets under my skin – how its only marketed towards women, so I definitely agree with you there!

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  7. Gotcha – yeah, when you're the boss it gets tricky. I hope he gives up very soon and takes a hike. @Rebekah – It has its benefits sometimes. I think I'm often seen as rude but I'd rather that the alternative. The idea that men think they're owed our time and politeness ENRAGES me. Please let me know if you want some practice phone sessions on how to shut. it. down. to strengthen that muscle. I'm here!

  8. Jesse, that's so awful! I'm glad you were able to stick up for yourself, and envy your boundaries. I'm still conditioned to blush and look down when a man makes eye contact with me. Non-helpful, that.

  9. "I read an article once that said women at bars tend to treat the creepers more nicely than the regular guys because they're afraid to set them off. The creepers interpret this as romantic interest rather than terror, and freak out anyway when the women finally refuse their advances."Oh man, that makes so much sense. Depressing. I'm so sorry this man is making you feel horrible, and at your workplace to boot. I hope that you have the perfect opportunity to try Jesse's approach soon, OR that this guy vanishes entirely."I'm here to tell you that none of that is bravery!" This made me laugh. I feel that way about the word "empowerment." Still, like Addie Talley above, I'm working on entry-level bravery; no knights, no dragons, just dealing with anxiety and introversion. Having people/posters order me to brave doesn't help a lick. "Female bravery as its contextualized in the circles I'm in only serves to reinforce traditional female virtues like hospitality, generosity, and meekness. We're told that it's brave to say sorry and write letters. We're told that bravery is being nice when no one's watching."I'm SO curious about this. Write letters? I was raised LDS (not FLDS, mind you), and the concept of bravery was usually tied to standing up for one's beliefs no matter the consequences. It was probably discussed at least once per three-hour Sunday service. I eventually became brave enough to formally leave that church, and gosh, no one seemed impressed by my integrity. =) Seriously, good luck with that creepy man, and thank you for sharing your story.

  10. That's really terrifying, especially happening so close to home. Glad he stopped bothering you. I hate feeling like there's a limit to protecting ourselves. We can be assertive, but it's no guarantee. Since I'm in charge at the shop, I have to advocate for myself, but I have let our board know what's happening in case I need to say or do something.

  11. I'm the manager at the shop, so it's my job to deal with it. That's what makes it harder. I have to advocate for myself. But I think I'm in a place now where I know I just need to be assertive. I guess my whole point on bravery is that even my not doing something is a choice I make thoughtfully in a world that is often hostile to women. But I totally get where you're coming from, too.

  12. Also I recorded me telling him we're not speaking & emailed it to several friends in case it escalated & he tried to claim innocence!

  13. *past = park

  14. I have had a lot of crappy issues with boundaries of adults growing up so my default is always to just shut it down immediately. Like "I just asked you to stop talking to me. Now." But that's my default – I have friends who freeze and deflect their way out of situations. I think you have to go with your gut. I often think of this when I see small retail shops staffed by women – I've been there but thankfully only needed to call security for non-sexual harassment things. Is there no one else who can handle him when he comes in? Or you need to make a phone call when he's in so he doesn't feel he has your attention? I agree with the other poster re speaking to your supervisor. My gut instinct would be to say "If you have a question about a product let me know but otherwise I'm not having these conversations" and just ignore anything not a question completely – cold shutdown. If he leaves a bad review on Yelp you can either ignore it (it will likely be the only one) or have your supervisor respond to it. Last year I went through someone in my apt building who lives above us all of a sudden moving from hi to following me and asking if he could call me anyway even though he knows I live with my boyfriend & wouldn't get lost even though I said no 60x and made it clear that even if I didn't have a bf I'd still say no. When I saw him the next day I told him we're not friends, don't even say hi to me any longer and stay out of my way. Then I called building management and they went & spoke to him. Supposedly after that he sexually assaulted someone in the past but there's no legal trail so I don't know the truth or circumstances. I am still totally freaked out over it even though he ignore me as asked. If he didn't, I would have moved. Anyway, I'm really sorry you're dealing with this.

  15. Addie Talley, Photographer

    have you talked to your boss about this customer and let them deal with it? that's part of their job…as far as the "be brave" thing…. I get what you are saying, but I also kind of like it. Im already a huge feminist and usually don't have trouble speaking my mind… but I also like the reminder to "be brave" because, at heart, Im an introvert… so I need the reminder that its ok to talk to people I don't know, to help someone out, to get out of my comfort zone…. and that its also ok to say no to things that I cant do or don't have time for, even if someone is trying to guilt me into them, saying no can be brave too… 🙂

  16. I really like your posts that contradict the current state of the entire industry and don't skirt around ethical companies. There's a blatant difference in how we use "brave" in marketing, too. Either it's aimed toward middleclass women to "have fun," or it's referring to poor, marginalized women who "work and make money" as opposed to what? Taking aid handouts? For the former, quitting your job and traveling the world is "brave" whereas the latter must fall in line and earn a living. Well done, Leah. You're put words to all the stuff that makes me go harrrumpphhh when I'm scrolling through Instagram.

  17. Catherine Kowalik Harper

    Leah, I'm so sorry that you're dealing with this now, and sorry, too, that we've all had experiences like that. There's a book I read when I was in college, which is probably a bit dated now, called The Gift of Fear. It's written by a man who was a security adviser at the White House, I believe, and he talks about how women need to trust their first instinct, which is usually the right one, and listen to themselves when confronted by threatening situations. We are trained from a young age to be polite and not rude, but it's that instinct, and the necessary rudeness, that will protect us.

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