Play a game with me. Ready? Pick any one answer:
QUESTION: What do you call a guy who makes a call at 1:30AM stoned and drunk to a girl who said she was having a bad day at 11:30PM?
A. A thoughtful, considerate, caring person who is taking time off partying to help someone in need.
B. A booty call.
If you picked A, you’re either a) a guy or b) a girl who has been told by a lot of men that you’re a princess who will be looked after so long as you’re patient because all men are brave, thoughtful and here to serve you.
If you picked B, you’re a woman. You may have once been the princess detailed in A but you’ve been disappointed too many times.
There is a fundamental difference in how men and women construct a story based on the same sequence of events. The thing is the women who pick B are doing so based on undeniable patterns they’ve lived through. While the men who pick B are doing so, wilfully ignoring patterns they’ve themselves contributed to because it’s inconvenient. Well, maybe I’m just biased and that’s not a good thing for a game designer or a quiz maker.
I’ve had a few conversations this week with men I’m close to – articulate, thoughtful, intelligent men. One of them insists on tailoring our interactions to contract-level precision, complete with ‘Clause B states this’ style references. This is how he understands boundary-setting. He’d be appalled if I called it a loaded term like ‘tone policing’ but that’s how it feels to me. Another apologises every time he doesn’t have a solution for something I share. He thinks this is how he should be a feminist ally. I don’t know how to explain the distinction between empathy and blind agreement, between taking a stand and playing hero.
All of them say “I didn’t realise you’re waiting for me to do this.” about while also asking me to trust them. How to do this without opening myself to accusations of being controlling and mistrustful? I thought we’d agreed on this, now I’m supposed to deal with their disbelief that I’d actually expect them to follow through?
When I talk to one of them about the communication breakdown I’m having with another man, thinks that man is immature, emotionally limited and other such things. It wasn’t till I heard this denigration of the same behaviour in other men that I realised these statements were being made only to please me.
How do you talk to someone who is eager to please you but can’t hear a word of what you say? Me? I’ve screamed and yelled and raged. It is frustrating, especially when it feels deliberate. How is it possible for intelligent humans to completely miss what you’re saying? It seems like that can only happen if they’re not listening.
And yet, why does my validation and pleasing me matter so much? Please don’t comment telling me that these men want to sleep with me and will say what they have to for that. For a fact, that’s not true of some of them and I don’t care to explain how I know. Oh and also, that’s what one of them says about every other man exhibiting the exact same behaviour as himself.
All I know at the end of this frustrating set of interactions is that men and women don’t understand each other at all. It’s like we’re speaking two different languages that just happen to have the same alphabet. We’re coming away with entirely different conversations in our head. How then, can understanding happen?
Anybody? I’ll wait.
Last week, I was trolled about my looks. Some men friends said they liked how I look. The troll’s attack is based on the idea that a woman’s worth is in her looks and that anyone can boost/undermine it with words. My friends, however well-intentioned, were reinforcing that idea. Strangers like salespeople have felt entitled to comment on my dark skin and suggest ‘cures’. Romantic partners have been able to establish authority over me by calling me ugly, desperate and in need of their validation.
These were possible because my body has been seeded with fields of shame, ripe for whoever wants control over me. My nose shape, my bony frame, my foot size, my rounded tummy, my skin colour – these have been snatched from being my body organs/traits and turned into free access areas for other people to rule me. I say NO. My body, my rules.
My body image & self-esteem are not based on other people’s opinions. My body is mine, the only thing that truly is. It is my home, my vehicle, my canvas. It works in a way that enables me. It is beautiful because I say so. I refuse to let shame be a guest in this body. This is how I get to walk out of my home wearing bold lipsticks, sarees & hoodies, colours deemed too bright, hair considered too stylish, dresses called too slutty or young. My femininity, my beauty, my sexuality, my identity – these are not for anyone else to judge. They are what I say they are. Body Pride because it is my right.
When you feel shame over something that you can’t control (like your body), remember it is external. It’s a festering wound someone else inflicted on you. Wash that wound of foreign bodies like other people’s words. Clean it by distancing yourself from people who would wound you (deliberately or not). Tend it to it by remembering the ways your body serves you well. Heal by honoring all that you are and have, just as they are. Cauterize your vulnerability to other people’s opinions because yours is the only one that matters.
I’ve noticed a pattern in the last few men I’ve dated, echoed also in some of my male friends of similar age. They open with WORK FIRST. They’re managers, they’re artists, they’re performers, they’re entrepreneurs, they’re chefs and architects and engineers. They’re all about how what they’re doing is priority, how it’s super important and how it will always justify standing you up, keeping you in limbo and more.
Don’t get me wrong. I like ambition and drive. I enjoy focus. And these are not bad men. I can see they genuinely believe what they’re saying. They also all come with transformation stories of how they used to be XYZ and how they’re trying to be better men.
It’s just that I’ve lived this life more than a decade ago. And even back then, I didn’t have the option of prioritising one over the other. I had to be good at work. I had to fit beauty, grooming and hygiene standards. I had to be a dutiful daughter, niece, granddaughter. I had to be the razor-sharp brain, the fire-in-belly corporate shark. I had to be marriageable material. And I had to be the fun, sexy date and eventually the prize girlfriend who listened and challenged but never competed. I’ve had three major careers and several boyfriends. I couldn’t have done all that without ambition or focus.
I realised yesterday that 20-something men are commitment-phobic for different reasons from 30-something men. Men in their 20s saw women and dating as fun. It was theirs for the taking, they were out of the strictures of college and their targets were being pressured to please men (with a view of landing a husband). They saw women as a buffet. Why settle on just one when there were so many up for the grabs and when they could walk away leaving behind what they didn’t feel like continuing on their plates?
30-something men in contrast, have usually gone through a few relationships, maybe even a marriage or live-in or two. They’ve been called to account to pay bills, to answer to bosses and investors and clients. And more recently feminism has them worrying about #MeToo, about alimony payments, about pregnancy scares. It’s suddenly hit them that relationships are work, that women won’t stay mute objects and that inconvenient things will happen if they just stumble around in the blind pursuit of fun. Work in contrast is single-minded. It’s easier to chase the tangibility of career goals than live in the amorphous, ego-defeating world of human relating. So it is Work First, Fun Later.
They still think they get to pick one thing to do at a time and the world waits patiently till they’ve figured out whether they want to do it and how to do it. And they’re refusing to acknowledge that relationships, sex and dating were always going to involve work, hard work. The work of undoing years of brutish callousness, the work of learning to listen and care about the wishes of another person, the work of remembering that they are not the center of the universe and living with the reality that nobody, absolutely nobody has to care about them.
I can see some of them realise this in flashes and then it’s like the realisation is too big and scary to cope with. So back they go to Work First, not from pure passion but because it feels like a safer refuge than a world that demands a lot and promises nothing.
I’m trying but I’m finding it very hard to feel empathy for this man. After all ‘demands a lot and promises nothing’ has described this very man my entire life. My generation of women, we’ve lived this life for more than a decade and are reaching a point of asking whether men are worth it. We’ve also survived divorces, live-ins. And we’ve done it while juggling bully in-laws, the glass ceiling and the violent face of the male ego. So umm, yawn.
Yes, there is the fact that younger women are turning adults. And the slightly sharp 30-something man realises that all he has to do is turn his sights towards the younger woman. While the younger women today are woke-r and slightly better equipped to question patriarchy, the fact is, it’s still going to take years for them to develop the kind of resilience and strength to challenge exploitation. So on to another decade of today’s 30-something men finding a different base of prey while telling themselves they’re ‘adulting’ with their careers.
None of this has much to do with ambition or focus. And it’s got everything to do with avoiding responsibilities, a trait that isn’t particularly conducive to either ambition or focus. It’s anybody’s guess what kind of work this breed of man turns out while managing to blunder through another decade of women.
I met somebody recently. Someone who has known me for nearly a decade, only I can’t remember them at all. All the references check out, the dates line up, the stories match. And yet, there’s a gaping hole in my memory where this person should be.
All I can find to explain this is, that when we first connected, I was sunk deep in a toxic situation. I could barely keep my head above water and also put on a cheerful front (because it always feels like the world is full of vultures waiting for a chance to pounce). I have a way of buckling down to the business of survival when this happens. And clearly this happens often enough for me to have a way, a system even and one that happens on autopilot. It involves minimising contact with other people, including what I let into my mind because everything, everything hurts so much. I still haven’t gotten over the shock, the grief of losing so many years, so much to such painful experiences.
A friend and I talked about how surviving an abusive relationship can involve a form of PTSD. Disjointed memories, feeling violated by things that happened years ago and you thought were long resolved, confusion when you know fully well you’re a very intelligent, high-functioning person — aren’t these signs of PTSD? Yes. I struggle, I still do. I probably always will.
I’ve run away. It’s too hurtful. This person’s existence is a reminder of horrific things in my past. It’s a reminder of how badly I fail to erase a monster from my narrative, how ridiculously I crash in my intention to not let it define me. Trust feels dangerous. I never want to enter a minefield again and it doesn’t matter how many times I’m told it’s a crop field, not a minefield.
I made the mistake of watching JOKER last evening. It’s a mistake because I’ve been more careful these past few months about steering clear of triggering stories. And this one came gift-wrapped with all the forms of toxicity popular media has — toxic masculinity, white male privilege, glorifying rage, escalating abuse cycles, violence. I’m so tired. I just thought it would be nice to watch a movie.
It’s time to go to sleep. I don’t know if there is anything else one can do with shell shock. For now, while I can still fall asleep, I will.
Some admit it’s a thrill to be desired by one who isn’t supposed to feel that way, to feel wanted despite knowing it’s wrong.
Cheating is rarely about the person being cheated on. The world abounds in people cheating on attractive, intelligent, popular, successful partners. “Because they make me feel bad about myself” is about the cheating person’s feelings and how they deal.
Cheating is not about love or sex. It’s not about the boredom we inevitably experience in longterm relationships. When the price for entertainment is so high but someone is willing to pay it, that’s not the need they’re seeking to fulfil.
Cheating shows poor impulse control. It has to do with unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions & emotions. These are traits of people who haven’t evolved beyond rudimentary emotions. Things happen to them; they don’t create or cause anything.
We are all driven by a desire to control because it makes us feel safer in a world of uncertainty. Adults express this by anticipating the future & preparing. Control is an illusory idea. There are too many variables, too little truly possible to manage. The ones who try believe they have no choice – that the alternate (to surrender to not knowing) is harder.
A person who cheats either failed at their attempt to control or never believed they had in them to try. They feel small, weak, powerless and finally resentful about it. A person who cheats is effectively punishing the world for their bad feelings about themselves.
Cheating is about power. There is a kick in knowing one can cause hurt. It’s the instinct that makes small children stomp on ants, kick animals or break plants. It’s shallow pleasure, humiliating someone who doesn’t know they’re being insulted – akin to kids making faces behind the backs of adults. Anyone who gets off on that, has never really tasted the pleasure of owning a moment.
If you’ve ever been cheated on, remember they saw you as bigger, better and felt that they did not really deserve you. And of course they didn’t. We all deserve big lives, huge joys and the right to reach for them openly.
Recently, I went out with someone who had just come off a long-term relationship. 20 year long term. First love, one and only forever and forever long term.
One of the frequently mouthed platitudes of my 20s was to avoid a recently heartbroken man. Another was steer clear of the one and only type. But well, if my 30s were about throwing all expectations into the garbage and breaking my own rules, maybe the 40s are about re-examining everything I’ve ever held important (inherited, learned and hearsay) through actual experience. So I went out with him.
The first thing he brought up when we became acquainted was his divorce. I asked if I might ask him a bit more about that (because make no mistakes, respect first and consent always). He agreed. My only questions were whether the divorce had been finalised and if so, when. Just from having lived four decades as a human, I know there’s no bigger emotional minefield than an unresolved romantic relationship. Especially when it’s marriage since families, society and the law collude to make this as complicated and painful as possible.
Our conversations thereafter were delightful. Perhaps I was just savouring the feeling of coming off a two year long hiatus but this time without the fears of my 20s, nor the acid-washed feelings of my post abusive engagement 30s. 40 seems like a decent place to proceed cautiously but optimistically.
So how was it? Let me call this a lovely ten day vacation doing things that I either couldn’t afford to or was too busy or scared to in my teens and twenties. Likewise for him. Rather abruptly (presumably because he’s unused to the rituals of consideration that any adult interaction should have), he said we needed to stop spending so much time with each other. When I asked what that meant, he didn’t seem to have an answer. And that was that. He did come at me, aggressively seeking experiences. And if nothing else, he learnt firsthand what it was to ghost somebody.
For my part, I decided not to rush into an immediate reaction of rage. After all, this is not the first time a man has chickened out of his emotions or gone back on his words. It’s not even the first time I’ve been ghosted. What would be the point of 40 if I reacted to it in the same way as I did in my 20s or 30s? So I waited. I found myself more disappointed than hurt, and even so in that distasteful way of someone hungry biting into what turns out to be stale papads.
By the time he called (as I knew he eventually would – those who run the fastest are the ones who run back soonest), I felt very little attachment to him. I realised later, it was only attachment to a clean-ish ending which his half-baked ‘less time spent’ statement wasn’t. I realised a long time ago that if you feel the need for closure, you most certainly aren’t going to get it because relationships that leave that acidic empty feeling in you are indicative of people who would rather escape than be authentic. Closure is your own problem. With this experience I realised that maybe closure doesn’t have to be a clean ending. Closure is when I decide I’m done. And I’ve needed to get to 40 to be able to say that can be when the other person is still waiting for an answer or still has feelings or there are injustices not yet punished. Closure is simply when I say ENOUGH.
And that was that. Now for a new chapter.
Twenty-six years ago on this date, I had my first period.
It must have been a Sunday or a Thursday (my school weekly holiday) and I had gone swimming with my father in the morning. I came home and changed into my favorite white cotton frock with a gigantic sash at the back that made me look like I actually had some curves, which I totally didn’t. And then my mother called me to the bathroom and held up my panties with streaks of red on them.
Of course, I knew what a period was by that time. My mother had given me the facts because as she put it, she had been terrified she was going to die when she had her first period and didn’t want me to go through that. My education had comprised this diagram and an instruction to keep one eye on the calendar every month for ‘those days’.
At the start of the year, my school had devoted a whole week to Sex Education. Unfortunately, I missed it because I was in Chennai attending my grandmother’s death anniversary function. I returned to one of my close friends yelling at me from across the class that I’d missed Sex. I sniffed and pretended that such things were beneath me.
My mother was extra worried about my not getting my periods. I was already in tenth standard. I think she forgot that I was a year younger than everyone else in class and that girls getting their periods as young as 9, were still considered aberrations and not the norm. I’d already seen a number of specialists, my picky eating habits, my early onset of allergies and my skinny frame discussed at length by the adults.
One of my mother’s friends believed that wearing black when I got my first period would be inauspicious (a belief system that would also later keep me out of temples, the kitchen and touching new clothes during my periods). So I didn’t own a single garment in black for three years. My paternal grandmother had advised that the clothes I was wearing when I got my first period would have to be discarded and never worn again by another person.
All these conversations stacked up in my head as I stood in the bathroom with my mother, looking at my period-streaked panties. They were not black, so the red showed up clearly. My swimming costume was a fiery orange, a colour I really liked. There were no streaks on the it but that went into the never-to-be-worn-again list. And just to be safe, the cotton dress I was wearing, my favorite one was listed in that too. I really wish I hadn’t had to give up that pretty dress.
I was made to sit in the bathroom and have oil dripped on my head with some kind of a religious ritual, presided over by my maternal grandmother who happened to be visiting. My father booked a trunk call to my extended family and after exchanging a few pleasantries said,
“One good news. Ramya became a big girl today.”
In the evening, we went out shopping. I was bought not one but two new dresses, one by my parents and one by my grandmother. Later in the night, my father told me I didn’t have to go to school the next day. I didn’t want to miss school. I couldn’t wait to tell my girlfriends that I had finally joined their ranks after the years of talking about what a period felt like. I said no, I’ll be okay tomorrow. I know a period is not sickness. But dad said, you’ll still feel tired. Take tomorrow off. And so I did.
I heard about how ‘in smaller villages’, girls were stopped from going to school after they got their periods. I was told about distant aunts and even cousins who had had elaborate functions on their first period. My father scoffed and called it ‘parading the fresh baby-making machine that’s just become available so put in your bids’ ritual. I felt relieved I hadn’t been subjected to that public spectacle. And in hindsight, I guess I’m glad I didn’t have to go to school the next day. Schoolgirls have their own hierarchy of cruelty and it hadn’t gone unnoticed that I was the last girl in class to not shuffle awkwardly or be found in the toilets crying over a stained uniform.
So many things have happened since that day, on my menstrual journey. I went from belted sanitary napkins (the latest menstrual technology at that time) to stick-ons and period panties to the slim Whisper generation. I briefly dallied with tampons but I just didn’t like the idea of shoving a dry cotton wad into my insides. And finally, the menstrual cup a few years ago and my creative work on menstrual health awareness.
I’ve now been a menstruating human longer than a non-menstruating one. I’m also closer to menopause than the start of my periods. I know getting your period is only one point in the journey of being a woman. But so many thoughts, cultural, religious and social are associated with this milestone. This day wasn’t the first time I felt the weight of my gender label nor the distance from my male peers. But it became a reference point.
I guess it would be fair to say my journey as a woman started on this day, twenty-six years ago. So, today is the one day it’s alright to wish me a Happy Period Day.
I’ve returned to thinking about men and romantic relationships after a nearly two year hiatus. There was just so much going on with other things, health, work and family that my inclinations had all but dried up.
To date, a woman needs one very important thing – the willingness to see herself as incomplete – not less or diminished, just incomplete in one area. This makes it possible for her to seek completion in that area – pondering what her needs are, looking for ways to complete it. When I’m facing a crisis of a kind, I go into survival mode. It’s similar to the phone’s Battery Saver mode where all but the most fundamental needs are ignored.
Around my 40th birthday I realised I’d hit a two year mark of feeling this way, a fact only revealed by my lack of love life. The last time I had this realisation was at 30 when I realised I had nothing in my life but my career (no health, no time for family or friends, no hobbies that made me happy). It felt like a good time to revive myself.
I’ve been on the dating apps for a couple of months now. It is dreadful, the levels of inarticulation and entitlement presented by the male species present there. It’s very frustrating to be the minority gender (so, in-demand and powerful, right? wrong) and have to wade through oodles of emotionally stunted, verbally deficient, waste of cells and digital bytes posing as human beings, hoping for a connection. I keep going off them and returning when my hope and soul feel renewed.
But I’ve met a few people, especially recently. And I’ve chatted with more of them. I may even have felt something. It is promising. Stay tuned, maybe it’s not men-o-pause for me yet.