“Whoa, this room just got a lot hotter.”
On the very first day of my very first “serious” summer internship, these are among the first words that are spoken to me. No, we’re not in a casual setting. We’re not sitting inside of a loud, dusty bar stirring fruity cocktails. This is inside of a meeting room, complete with a long, rectangular table and a handful of stiff chairs. The setting is practically the definition of professional. I heard those words slip through his tongue as I quietly walked inside, shut the door, and sat down as inconspicuously as possible.
“What the hell am I supposed to say to that?” I hurriedly ask to myself as I shuffle uncomfortably in my chair, attempting to think of something witty and appropriate to retort before relying on stiff and awkward silence. There is an uncomfortable silence that stirs in the air for a few seconds, until someone finally breaks it. I don’t know any of these people. They don’t know me. I hadn’t even had a chance to introduce myself. Do I say anything at all? Pretend like I didn’t hear it? It is safe to say this is not how I planned things would go.
I remember walking out of the meeting and recounting my morning to my roommates, two of my most trusted advisers. “Oh my GOD, what a weirdo!” “That’s not okay! That’s so inappropriate!” they both shrieked. I vehemently agreed. It was not okay in the slightest. It was unprofessional and even worse, degrading. I had entered my position ready to work, to be taken seriously as an intern. Now, I had concerns that those people in the meeting room would never take me seriously. Clearly, one person was already more interested in my looks than what I could bring to the table.
What is disheartening is that I am one of many. I’m not a unique or special case, not some lone prey to inappropriate fodder. Millions of women hear these types of remarks every single day. It’s not an uncommon occurrence. There are many beautiful, intelligent women who yearn to be taken seriously by their colleagues, to be seen as an equal, and who simply feel like they aren’t. They feel lesser and discouraged. It breaks my heart. It’s shameful and it’s wrong.
Looking back, I will 100%, without a doubt, say that my internship was one of the best experiences of my life. I had the opportunity to meet some of the brightest, hardest-working and most creative individuals I’ve come across in my lifetime, as well as learn and grow as a person and a professional. This experience was a gift. But despite this, I will never forget that very first comment on my very first day.
Once, I was out with one of my guy friends. After throwing back a couple of drinks, we got to talking about our futures and where we see ourselves in 10 years. He said that would like to be married, working in some high-powered law firm. I told him I could see myself being a total work-a-holic, buying nice things for myself and making my own way.
“What!?” He exclaimed. “You’ll probably be married to some rich guy, relaxing on a boat.”
Excuse me? I don’t even like boats that much. Why automatically assume I’ll marry rich? Have I ever said that was my end goal, my idea of accomplishment? Is it because I am an “attractive” girl?
“Well, probably not, I don’t even want to get married for a long time anyways,” I said, quickly ending the conversation, avoiding any conflict.
Now I think, why didn’t I question him? I should have called him out for making such a shallow assumption of me. He knows that I’m smart, I work hard and the last thing I could see for myself is living as a housewife “relaxing on a boat.”
What I’m really saying with all of this, is don’t be afraid to speak up if a man says something that offends you. In that meeting room, I wanted to stay quiet. It was my first day and I didn’t want to rock the boat. At the bar, I didn’t want to get into a conflict with my friend. I am so much more than my external beauty, as all women are.
This isn’t a problem that is unique to me or something only conventionally beautiful women face. People will make shallow assumptions about you because you care about your appearance or looks and they will make assumptions about you because you’re a woman, no matter your workplace. You should never feel like beauty is limiting you, holding you back or making you feel ashamed. You should never feel limited by your beauty, your definition of exterior radiance, or what kind of clothes or makeup you wear. Your future and your worth should never be determined without your consent.
Stand up for yourself. Don’t be scared, or timid, or afraid to rock the boat. If a man says something that offends you, whether it’s in the workplace or a social setting, don’t let it slide. Be your own kind of beautiful, be smart, be all that you can be—and hey if you really like boats then I hope you enjoy the blue seas and sunny skies one day too.