A few weeks ago Tay and I watched the third Mission Impossible and afterwards, I said to Tay that we needed to start up a secret agent task force because all those cool things that Ethan Hunt does as a secret agent, Tay and I could easily do, hands down. Tay of course looked at me like I was crazy and I began listing off all the things that we’ve done that you see in those types of movies. We like to run. We both like to drive fast and while Tay’s certainly had more experience on the race track then me, I’ve still done a one-day school and drove the track at Shannonville (it still counts!). We’ve both fired a gun and again, Tay has more experience than my one time, but again, it still counts. We’re learning to scuba dive this summer and we were signed up for a intro to flying class on the weekend – in a glider plane, but I almost think it’s more terrifying to be towed in a non-mechanical plane to an altitude of 3000 feet and then be released with nothing to get you to the ground safely but pockets of air. And a couple of weeks ago I was in a meeting at work and a coworker mentioned the possibility of rappelling over the side of OCAD as part of a community event and without blinking, without hesitating, I wanted to be signed up.
I was getting my hair cut on the weekend and my stylist was asking me what I was up to lately and I excitedly described our plans for the weekend – we had gone for our long(ish) run (42 minutes, non-stop) that morning as part of our training for the half-marathon in October. We were going flying on the Sunday and then Monday and Tuesday night were our confined water dives in preparation for our weekend of open water diving that we’re doing as part of our scuba certification. As my stylist (a young, very cool guy) snipped my hair, he looked at me over the scissors and said that he didn’t think he could do those things – he’d die if he had to run that far, he’d be too scared to go up in that kind of plane and the scuba stuff? He’d love to try, but he can’t swim.
My conversation with him got me thinking about a lot of the conversations that I’ve had with my friends and colleagues about the things I’ve done, the things I’m learning to do and the things that I still haven’t done but really want to do. When I mention these things to people the response I typically get is that I’m adventurous, brave, strong and fearless which is funny to me because I never really think of myself that way. But then, when I actually think about all these things that absolutely terrify other people, I guess, in some ways, it does make me fearless. And for the most part, I guess that I am. I can’t think of anything along that vein that really terrifies me or that I wouldn’t do because of being scared. I definitely get my moments of panic where I freak out a bit, but it usually passes and as soon as I do whatever I’m doing, I want to do it all over again. And again.
But the land of fearlessness can be a lonely place to be, especially when you’re a female and you’re doing a lot of these things with your husband and his male friends. And not surprisngly, female companionship is sometimes hard to find – at the race track, at the poker table, in the Las Vegas gun shop when you’re holding a loaded 9mm Beretta in your hands and the only perfume you’re sure to smell is your own. It’s lonely when you’ve got the change room to yourself after a 3 hour scuba lesson and you can hear the guys in the change room next to you, laughing and carrying on and having a good time while you spend the time looking at the advertisement on the wall for baby pink scuba gear and wondering if there’s money in the budget for pale pink flippers and mask to match your gray and baby blue shortie wetsuit (I am still a girl).
This morning we got an email from our instructor complimenting us on our progress in the water and next to each of our names, he gave us a miniature performance review/status report. Mine said most of the things that I expected, that I was initially very nervous and had trouble with the some of the skills but that by the time we got to the fin pivot and buoyancy skills I had found my groove. He said that I had the most marked improvement from the start to the end of the pool session and that I had really surprised him with my improvement overall. I was pleased with his comments and have no qualms with being the “most improved” – after all, when you’re the most improved you’re usually the one that’s trying the hardest – and being determined and motivated to master a new skill is a good quality to have. But his comments got me thinking about why I was nervous and why I struggled with a lot of the skills we were learning, especially considering my self-proclaimed ease in the water.
I recognize that a lot of my nervousness resulted from being aware of my claustrophobia and the panic that I felt about breathing underwater and being worried about having to wear my contacts in the pool and my concern that I would lose one when doing our mask clearing exercises. But more than anything, I think a lot of my nervousness came from being the only girl in a group of seven, of that mostly unconscious but inveitable feeling that I had to prove myself because of my gender. There are people that say gender doesn’t matter and yet it does. It’s in the smaller scuba tank that I’m given because it’s lighter, the smaller weight belt that I had to wear, the weights we had to take off because they were too heavy and causing me to sink. It was not being able to pull myself over the side of pool while geared up because the tank was too heavy and I didn’t have the upper body strength to leverage myself up and over.
It does matter that I’m a girl and it’s why I try harder. It’s why I end up being the “most improved” in a lot of the ‘guy’ things that I do.
When I was getting my haircut on Saturday, my hair stylist seemed impressed by the things that I’ve done and am learning to do but then he wanted to know what I was scared of. We listed off a bunch of things that would terrify most people and everything he said, I said that I would do. Skydiving? Sign me up. Bungee jumping? It’s on my list. Cave diving? Sure, as long as there are no cannibalistic deformed monsters living within the nooks and crannies waiting to bite into my jugular (a la The Descent, which scared me, but not enough, apparently). I remember reading a book about a group of people that attempted climbing Mount Everest, some of who DIED and all I could think was, I want to do that. “There’s got to be something,” my hair stylist insisted. “I’m scared of zombies,” I replied. “Does that count?”
But it got me thinking because there’s got to be SOMETHING that I’m scared of, that I won’t do because of my fear.
And of course there is. Everyone’s scared of something, other than zombies. And for me, that one thing stems from the world we live in, this world that’s still very much a man’s world.
There’s a biking path that runs along a creek near where we live that I once biked down but vowed to never again because it’s isolated seclusion terrified me, especially the tunnel by the water that disappeared under the streets above the creek and where, as a female, I could so easily envision terrible things happening. I never even knew it existed until I stumbled upon it by accident, and I thought about it the other week when I was out running and I desperately wanted to detour onto it – the trees that line the path shelter it from the sun and create a corridor of coolness that was almost irresistable in the heat but it was a detour I couldn’t indulge in because I was running by myself. I was absolutely conscious of my gender and that, because of the heat and humidity, I was running in a very short pair of shorts and a tank top and I knew that if something happened to me in that tunnel near the creek that there are still people in this world that would think I deserved it because of how ‘scantily’ dressed I was.
I wanted to run down that path and yet I couldn’t, because I remembered all to well that feeling I had running by myself in the Muskokas the previous weekend, and how alone and vulnerable I felt on that paved road that snaked through the woods because all I could think about was the horror stories that, as a girl, you can’t help but be exposed to.
It’s a fear that can be dismissed as paranoia or irrational or as silliness, but it’s a fear that half the population doesn’t have to live with because of their gender.
It’s a fear that makes me angry, and somewhat resentful, especially on summer days when it’s too hot to run and yet I’m too nervous to wait for the sun to go down and run in the cool, inviting darkness of the night.
I do some of the crazy, adventurous stuff that I do because I know that I can do it, and I do it despite my gender and the knowledge that a lot of these things that I do are mostly dominated by guys.
And yet, one of the simplest things, like running in the shade of the trees alongside a peaceful creek on a quiet Saturday morning I won’t do and can’t do because of my gender.
Despite my brave face, despite my fearlessness and determination, I’m still a girl afterall.