"In the field I work in, I get tested every day, because I'm a girl."
Ain't that the damn truth. I heard that little nugget of commiseration while hanging out with Shelby Belfast Jones, a strength and conditioning coach for pro athletes who also does some professional fighting in the ring.
It's not just at work that women get tested though, is it? We have to deal with shit everywhere, and we're very much aware of it. Why? Because sometimes it's just easier that way.
This has been coming up a lot lately among my girlfriends and me. We women generally see our male co-workers make more money for the same level of work. We're reduced to tears when some dude targets our vulnerability and decides to give it a roundhouse kick to its emotional nut sack just because they can get away with it.
I'm not just talking boyfriends here. This isn't some Sex and the City shit. It's our bosses, our dads, our brothers and some asshole who called us a fat bitch for not crossing the street fast enough. It's other women who are determined to Regina George us. My sister, for instance, asked if my ex-boyfriend's current girlfriend is skinnier than I am. Why is that a point of contention? It's completely stupid and perpetuates girl-on-girl cattiness that sets women back. Plus, I'm a broke, 29-year-old writer with a failed marriage under her belt who scoops up spilled salsa from her jeans with a tortilla chip and eats it. I'm not competing with anyone here.
Most times, I speak up, but, to be honest, I often just take the punch and walk away because I'm tired of fighting. When I cry or spit out word venom at someone who's hurt my feelings, I don't get upset at the person who got it out of me. I'm disappointed in myself for allowing them to affect me.
What pisses me and my lady friends off the most is realizing that if we were men, we probably wouldn't have these issues. Men, for the most part, don't worry about seeming ungrateful or rocking the boat or expressing empathy. Women see their compassion used against them regularly.
And, listen, a lack of mouthiness isn't my problem; this isn't a column touting 69 ways to please your man, with No. 1 being "shut the fuck up always." Going to high school in southern San Diego, I learned the importance of bitch face as a survival tool. I've never thrown a punch, but I've won fights by simply looking someone in the eye, raising an index finger and saying these nine magical words: "Who the fuck do you think you're talking to?" Even so, the fight in me, and many women I know, gets drained. That's when the vultures fly in to peck at our tired bodies.
That got me thinking about tough women. I asked a few friends, both male and female, to think about the women they encounter on a day-to-day basis who they do not want to cross.
The list I got was varied and quite amazing: receptionists at medical offices, roller-derby girls, bartenders, DMV employees, postal workers, mothers of special-needs children, women working the late shift at taco shops, cholas, midwives, Kathleen Hanna. These are no-nonsense women that have zero seconds in the day for your shit and will let you know it.
Taking a cue from this list, I spent a few hours at the DMV and at a doctor's office observing. I looked like a real weirdo, observing the female employees and taking notes. In both locations these women have perfected their resting bitch face, which serves as an armor for the bullshit they must deal with every day.
I pass the North Park Und1sputed training gym every day on my way to work. I see a lot of swoll-ass dudes hanging outside, but, every so often, there's a woman in the boxing ring laying punch after punch into a dude's face. I'm in awe of those women.
That's what brought me to meet up with Shelby. Walking into the gym and seeing her sitting on a picnic table, you just sense her zero-bullshit aura. It surrounds her like a mist. This is a woman who has reduced NFL players to tears during workouts, a woman who's seen her share of fist fights, both inside the ring and out. I think that's something you carry with you. When you know you can survive a punch to the face and can, in turn, deliver a devastating blow, you stand a little bit taller.
It's not just physical strength, though. As one of the very few women in the field, she deals with sexism, unfairness and general gross dude stuff on the regular. She has to fight with words as much as her fists.
"To work in this business I had to make a lot of universal decisions about what I'm OK with and what I'm not OK with," Shelby told me. "I turn around and say something sharp back. You have to."
You have to. Ain't that the damn truth. We have to, because, if we don't, we're perceived as weak and become a target. Shelby says that the men she works with often bank on her folding. She learned at a young age that she can't curl up when threatened. The world is our prison, and we ladies have to hit someone over the head with a chair so that everyone else knows not to fuck with us.
The thing that most struck me about Shelby wasn't her heavily tattooed arms, bright-red waist-length hair or the toughness she exudes. It's that she's smart, articulate and understands how crappy defined gender roles are, but she doesn't allow them to defeat her. She fights them every day. As hard as it can be, I can't stop fighting. If taking a punch to the face will recharge my fighter spirit, I want to take that hit.