I recently watched (and some of you may be familiar with) a set of social experiments in which a group of men and then a group of women agreed to go on a date with a person they met on Tinder – a model, who would be in a fat suit when they arrived. (The videos are embedded below.)
The experiment claims to be based on the fact that number one fear for women dating online is that they’ll meet a serial killer, and the number one fear for men is that the woman will be fat.
Low and behold, when each of the men arrived and met their date, they were… offended. They were mad because they felt lied to, and did little to cover their displeasure with the woman’s appearance. Only one of them didn’t walk away or excuse himself to the bathroom – never to return. But none gave her a chance, or took any interest in getting to know who she was, all because she wasn’t thin.
Now, as I was watching this, I’ll be honest. I was thinking, well, okay, it’s not completely unreasonable to be off-put if you’re expecting one thing, and get another…
That was, until I saw the women’s video.
Not one of them walked away. They gave the guy a chance. They connected with him. They laughed at his jokes. They did acknowledge that they were disillusioned about his appearance, but they were not rude or entitled about it.
… And one of them kissed him at the end. Another offered up a second date. They got to know who he really was, because they were able to see past their expectations about what he should be.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that research shows women are twice as prone to anxiety as men, are twice as often diagnosed with anxiety disorders, and that women are significantly “more inclined toward negative emotion, self-criticism, and endless rumination about [their] problems.”
But here is the important part: we also know that this is not the result of a biological or hormonal difference. Indicating that it is, unsurprisingly, cultural.
Simply, women are not encouraged to honestly acknowledge their feelings and cope with them in proactive, mindful ways – and this is mostly to maintain how others perceive them.
Taylor Clark dubs this the “skinned knee effect,” wherein from a young age, boys are encouraged to confront their fears, and girls are encouraged to hide them. “If little Olivia shows fear, she gets a hug; if little Oliver shows fear, he gets urged to overcome it.”
And when these emotions “go underground,” they become ingrained in the subconscious, and then begin to have a huge and often overlooked impact on day-to-day interactions.
Studies also tell us that women tend to be insidiously competitive, jealous and spiteful toward other women, especially those they are close to. Because they are taught not to win at someone else’s expense (to be a perpetual people-pleasers and peace-makers) their healthy, natural, normal, innate competitiveness must become tempered.
And the more it is inhibited, the more it remains unacknowledged. As anybody can tell you, as soon as you pack a feeling away in a dark closet… it becomes a potential monster that you have to prepare yourself for – and that feeling of dread and suppression begins to bleed into otherwise unthreatening, daily situations.
Though these are just a few examples plucked from the pile of research on the anxiety gender gap, the point is that anxiety is, in an abstract sense, the anticipation that something ‘bad’ is coming, or the fear that one cannot handle it.
More accurately, the fear that they cannot hide it.
It’s the running idea that bad things cannot be dealt with because feelings cannot be felt. And so the fear of them, the fear of losing culturally-induced composure, compiles into anxiety. Intense anxiety. Unbearable anxiety that remains dormant until something sets it off and it crops up endlessly. “I know this sense of panic and urgency is coming from somewhere… and so I must search for it, project it and deal with it in ways that aren’t actually addressing the root of the problem.”
Women suffer greater anxiety than men because they’re taught… not to. They’re denied simply being honest about their feelings, and most often in a way that convinces them it will yield positive results. It will make people love them. They will seem “together.”
But at what cost?
In terms of the women in the experiment, certainly they were kinder, more positive, and opened themselves up to the possibility for real romance, but only because they were conditioned to be just that: open, accepting and willing, no matter what.
Who is to say they were actually interested in that man? I certainly am not. But what we do know is that the men who were not interested in their date didn’t have to pretend for the sake of someone else’s feelings.
There isn’t an anxiety gap. There is an honesty gap, and there is a decency gap. There’s a middle ground on which we each need to rest a foot: that you can be honest without hurting someone intentionally, that you can cope with your feelings without being violent or cunning about it, and most importantly, that it’s human to feel on edge when your instincts are being compressed. That the most we need to do is let our inner demons out and discover they were nothing more than the fear that they could be something else.