I wrote a letter that I can’t seem to send.
Recently, a friend and coworker asked whether she could post my letter on Facebook. I had sent the letter to her in a moment of hesitation following the moment of frustration in which I wrote the letter.
I was sitting at my desk that day, anxious and unable to work, feeling the weight of someone’s presence – an older man, a coworker and mentor, and a friend, who I respected, and who, I had thought, respected me.
There had been an incident. The incident was preceded by weeks of increasing discomfort on my part, following a year of mentoring, productive collaboration, and increasingly close friendship. Now, all that seemed to be over: the mentoring, the collaboration, and the friendship – it couldn’t continue. It had been wrecked. Worse: it had been devalued. I was angry, disappointed, offended, and unsure how to proceed.
After an hour of staring at the screen, stewing with negative emotion under the faint blue of the office fluorescence, I hammered out the letter, but I couldn’t send it. Here it is – the version that my friend posted.
Regrettably, as you intuited, I am not okay. In fact, I feel really disturbed. After our conversation over dinner on (date omitted), I feel a lot of anxiety around you, and I am not prone to anxiety. I want to keep collaborating with you, especially as we look forward to an (omitted, work-related); however, I feel that in order to keep working together closely, we are going to have to have a conversation. But, it can be difficult to be direct, and to communicate accurately, in person. I’m writing today with the intention of communicating well.
The way I see it: we have a good friendship. Our friendship has been compromised by the fact that I feel objectified by you at times. This is not new as of (date omitted); however, on (date omitted), you verbalized it very clearly. In response, I asked whether it would surprise you to know that I routinely feel objectified by you. This was very direct on my part, and I expected a response, yet you seemed not to notice. I let it go; however, I find that my negative feelings about it remain.
I’m a grown up. I can deal with negative feelings, as unpleasant as they are when they affect a friendship. As well, I can work with people who don’t care for me or who don’t respect me. It is not my job to be well liked, and it is not our burden to make sure that our colleagues know we respect them. Nor do I intend to be accusatory on those points. Clearly, we enjoy each other’s company, and I think we share a mutual respect.
So. What am I saying? What I am saying is that I don’t want to come to work nervous about whether my coworkers – you – will be evaluating my physical presence: not my wardrobe, not my makeup or lack thereof, not my body. I don’t want to be referred to as “sweetie,” or be touched — not because friends and coworkers can’t speak to each other using terms of endearment or touch each other, but because you have fundamentally changed the way that those things feel. Once, they felt harmless. Increasingly, they don’t.
On (date omitted), you told me that I “walk a line” – a line between sexiness and masculinity, between submissiveness and dominance. You should know: our culture, like so many, tells women that we must choose which part of ourselves to embrace: sexual, or intellectual? This is a false dichotomy. Women, like men, are complex individuals, despite the way in which we are characterized in popular culture. We are encouraged to believe that our power lies within our sexuality, as well as that embracing intellect must be at the expense of being attractive. I reject this dichotomy, as I reject the insinuation that masculinity, as you stated, is equal to intellectual superiority. There is no question that the line you are referring to exists; however, I want you to realize:
I did not create the line. And I do not walk it for you.
Finally, let me say that while I do not want to make you feel like an oppressor, I think, given my words here, you might recognize in your behavior the elements of oppression. I think that we reflect the world that taught us how to be; although as thinking adults, we hope to move toward reflecting the world we choose to create. The things you say and do – they have the power to reinforce the gender binary opposition that victimizes women, and they have the power to subvert it.
In short, I would like my workplace to be free from the weight of the male gaze. I hope that you see what I mean, and that you’re amenable to talking about this, so that we can hit the reset button on things and move forward.
All the best,
To me, the letter I’ve written feels excessively diplomatic. I hear myself trying to protect his feelings, to hedge the intensity of my disappointment. I feel like a cliché, like a victim, and I feel weak for not sending the letter, and for not being more forceful.
Before my friend posted the letter, what bothered me was the idea of sending the letter and ruining a relationship. But you didn’t ruin it, my friends say. He did.
I know they are right. What bothers me now is what’s been omitted. The end of the letter reads “All the best, (omitted).”
What’s been omitted is my name, and with it my voice. What’s embraced, what’s repeated, if I don’t send this letter, is the same old story.