Discussing Discomfort

In light of the controversy around campus surrounding bra day and other gender-related disciplinary issues, we’ve spent a lot of time in the newsroom this week talking about the ‘gendered Andover experience.’
On Wednesday night, a large group of Editors, many of whom were female, spent two hours discussing body image, toxic masculinity, and what it means to be a woman at Andover and in the world.

The group who talked about this issue are from widely different backgrounds and past opportunities. While all of us have varying degrees of experience with relationships and comfortability with ourselves, we were able to largely find solidarity and shared frustrations over the course of our conversation about how gendered expectations affect every aspect of our lives—dorms, crew boats, 8-ball pool games, parietals, mirrors, dances, and friendships.
Spurts of toxic masculinity and blatant microaggressions are, by no means, absent from Andover, but they’re certainly looked down upon and vocally criticized. The same is hard to say, though, for the less tangible– the internalized misogyny so many women seem to feel, for example, as well as the difficulty we face in having purely platonic male friends (although this is admittedly heteronormative).

What does it mean, for example, to be “one of the bros”? Why do some of us take pride in being “not like the other girls”— distancing ourselves from womanhood itself? What can we learn from comments like “I don’t see her as a girl,” assumptions that male-female friendships are always indicative of something more? What can we learn from something as seemingly trivial as the experience of lowering one’s voice to assume authority?

Though it’s tempting to blame these experiences or a lack of inter-gender friendships on ‘natural differences,’ we don’t have to accept this as inevitable. There are differences between genders, sure, but none that should inherently keep us from forming friendships with each other– none that should make it more uncomfortable to ask someone of a different gender to eat a meal in Paresky Commons than someone of ‘your own.’ So maybe we’re not asking the right questions– maybe this distance that we feel should not be approached by questions of what’s ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable,’ but instead, by questions of what we might be losing.

The Wednesday night conversation wasn’t a particularly cheery one—for all our unknowns about men, many girls in the newsroom feel like they are missing out regardless. We want to conceive, for ourselves, an Andover where friendships don’t drop off after they become explicitly platonic. We want an Andover where parietals aren’t associated with hookups, and where in-dorm and out-of-dorm performances of masculinity and femininity don’t differ drastically. We have a lot to learn from each other—a lot of conversations we miss out on when we self-segregate.
Maybe it’s true that, in the status quo, gendered distances and disparities on campus speak simply to the degree of comfort that we will ‘naturally’ have around ‘like-minded’ people. But perhaps it’s also true that that comfort reinforces our discomfort across gendered lines, driving us all to want to become ‘more man,’ ‘less woman,’ or any number of ultimately substanceless labels.

We won’t be able to get over our discomfort, though, if we don’t recognize that it exists. As one Editor put it, “You think someone cares about you as a person, but they care about you as a female.” In talking about how gendered expectations structurally shape our Andover experiences, we might, ironically, begin to help each other escape out of them.