My [now ex] husband used to tell me that I was too loud.
We would be at family events, or out for dinner with friends, and I would laugh at something and he would say, SHHHHHH… you’re so loud Shannon, calm down, or can you be quieter? It’s so embarrassing.
And you know what? I would be quieter. I would stifle my laughter. I became very embarrassed of my laugh, or the volume of my voice when something excited me. I began speaking at a lesser volume. Only chuckling through closed lips.
I didn’t realize how much this had affected me until I read a Globe and Mail article last week called Advice for young women: Be large by Elizabeth Renzetti. The article was at the forefront of my brain all weekend as I tried to decide how I wanted to share my two cents on the subject. Then I went to a movie with my friend – a really funny movie. I laughed so loudly the whole time and she didn’t SHHHH me once. She laughed with me. We laughed together. It was lovely.
I encourage you to read the article, but I am going to post a large chunk of it here, because in trying to paraphrase, I have just realized that the writer has done a damn good job of saying what needs to be said:
Years later, while working as a newspaper reporter, I would sit across from a man who regularly shushed me. I know what you’re thinking: How am I standing here, delivering this commencement address, and not in prison for this man’s murder? It’s crazy! There were many days when I would open my mouth and he would frown at me across the desk divider and hold his finger to his lips, and I would think, I wonder if this stapler could kill a person? Or, Could this Diet Coke can be used to crack open a skull? And yet I never did. I was afraid of jail, my friends. And I was so young. I actually thought, in those days, that if I made myself smaller and quieter – if I reduced my footprint in the world – then I would be happier.
No, I lie. I didn’t think I would make myself happier. I thought I’d make the people around me happier. If only I were less lippy. If only my laugh were quieter. If only my boobs were smaller, perhaps men would stop talking to them. It would shrink the target, at least. If I had no opinions, no one could criticize me. Shrinking and hiding is an excellent defence strategy, as every prey animal knows.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.”
I did try, for a little while, to be smaller and quieter. It never lasted, though. I was too lazy. No one tells you the effort that is required in diminishment; it takes an enormous amount of energy to constrict yourself. Sometimes I like to think of those women in history and what they could have accomplished if their lungs weren’t compressed by corsets, their feet mangled to fit into tiny doll’s shoes. How they could have shouted. How they could have run.
So what I would like to say to you young women out there is: Be large. Be as large as you’d like to be. Take up the room that is yours. Spread into every crack and corner and wide plain of this magnificent world. Sit with your legs apart on the subway until a man is forced, politely, to ask you to slide over so he can have a seat. Get the dressing on the salad. Get two dressings. Order the ribs on a first date.
Throw away your scale. Stop weighing yourself. Is there ever a reason to know your precise weight? Are you mailing yourself to China? Are you a bag of cocaine? Enjoy your mass, for one day you will be old and as shrivelled as an apple doll, and you will wonder where the rest of you went. Wear a tiny bathing suit, even if the sales clerk raises her eyebrow when you try it on. Especially if she raises her eyebrow. Wear a small dress on your large self.
Be loud, in your head and in public. In meetings, speak first and resist the temptation to preface every statement with “This may have already been brought up …” When a colleague tries to interrupt, hold up a hand and say, “I’ll be finished making my point shortly, Bob,” and try not to picture what he’d look like with a stapler embedded in his forehead.
Laugh as loudly as you’d like during movies and live performances. Do not put your hand over your mouth. You aren’t vomiting or letting the devil in. You’re laughing. It is a sign of approval, like undoing your pants after a particularly fine meal.
Take up all the space. It is your space. There will be people who try to drive you from it, with catcalls or derision, with mockery and disapproval. These things diminish them, not you. Do not allow yourself to be diminished. Expand like a flower, like a heated gas, like a beautiful rising loaf. Expand into yourself, and never apologize for it.
I don’t think there is anything left to say, except, please be large.