I saw a mosquito land on her leg, and the overriding thought in my brain was: The bug must die!
Killing a mosquito initiates a release of happy hormones in the pleasure centers of the brain that I expect even militant vegans are susceptible to, but I forced myself to pause. I’d been speaking to the thigh-owner in question for several minutes. We were part of the same relay race team to raise funds to end kids cancer. We were drinking beer, sweaty and dirty and I’m sure she wouldn’t mind getting a tiny bug mashed into her Lululemon.
But I paused, because it was her leg, not mine, and this woman wasn’t my wife, or my girlfriend, or even a close friend.
“You have a mosquito on your leg,” I told her.
She looked down and mashed the pest into the fabric. “Die!” she said, undisguised glee in her voice. The extreme prejudice she inflicted on the insect caused my opinion of her to raise measurably. And said opinion was already high. She was an Olympic heptathlete, attractive and intelligent. An aspiring writer, she was peppering me with questions. In between my answers I had … thoughts.
However, there is a big difference between thinking and acting.
I’m a happily married man. My wife and I have been completely committed to each other for a quarter century. We both find other people attractive as well, because that’s human nature. I knew I was heterosexual when I saw an ABBA video at the age of seven.
Years ago, I might have just smacked the mosquito, but becoming more aware of women’s issues made me realize that such a thing wouldn’t be cool. This woman had probably been through a lot of unwanted touching in her life, and had years more of it to face, and sexual in nature or not, I’d be damned if I’d add to such a thing. The only person’s leg I’m putting a hand on is my wife’s.
It’s not because of my dedication to my wife, but because I don’t have the right to touch other people without their permission. And yet, men are doing this all the time. They’re placing their hands on women like they do have some right to their bodies. This is part of that male privilege thing we hear about, yet many men deny.
I grew up surrounded by feminists, although the word feminism was rarely spoken. These days it’s being spoken of a lot, and not always in the kindest of terms.
My mom had a successful business career, blowing through glass ceilings in a male-dominated industry. My older sister is equally strong-minded and never let me get away with sexist commentary. And my wife? Graduating top of your class from med school isn’t easy. She has taught me much.
I grew up knowing women are equal and must be treated that way, but reading about feminism, what it means, and how it can make me a better man has helped me evolve further. I read about men sitting with their legs splayed open, taking over the space of women next to them. I observed, and saw it was true, and that I also did it. When I began sharing space, one woman actually commented on the novelty of it and thanked me.
I’ve learned it goes beyond equality, but a need to understand women’s lives and how male behavior can be a positive or a negative for them. It’s little things that most men don’t think about, but are nonetheless important to a lot of women.
The word “feminism” is often loaded for both genders. It’s been unfairly maligned, and so I don’t drop that F-bomb often, because with men especially it can cause auditory canals to close over, even though women being equal undeniably makes lives better for men.
Instead, I discuss behaviors rather than putting a label on it. As an example, I’m affectionate with my wife, and even drop sexual innuendo with her while our kids are within earshot. Recently I said to my son: “You know that you never behave with any woman that way unless you have her permission, right?” And of course, he did, because my words are reinforced by my behavior.
Although he’s seen more than he wants to between his parents – “You guys are disgusting!” both our children tell us – what he also sees is that I never behave like that with anyone except his mother. I hope this has an impact on my teen daughter as well, teaching her how she deserves to be treated and not tolerating unwanted physical contact.
Feminism isn’t trying to make me less of a man, because imposing my will on women isn’t masculine. Sure, there are plenty of women I find attractive, but I’m not going around broadcasting this with innuendo, catcalls or touching. Just because you think something doesn’t mean you act on it. A lack of self-control isn’t manly. I may take a quick glance at women in the gym, but never stare. When I pass a woman on the running path, I may give a small smile or the runner’s wave, but no ogling.
Feminism has taught me that beyond equality, there is simple politeness. As a man, it doesn’t take much for my behavior to make women uncomfortable if I’m being clueless. I don’t want to be known as a guy who makes women feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to be clueless.
So I act accordingly. I got a clue about being more sensitive to how my behavior is received by women, and I feel better for it. I don’t just feel like a man, but a better man.
James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.