When No Amount of Lipstick Is Enough

Yesterday I stood in the lobby of a building chatting with another woman. A man walks by. He is well acquainted with both of us. He holds up a hand in greeting as he strides toward the door and says, “Bye, girls.”

Then he pauses, turns to me, thrusts his upraised hand toward me and says, “No offense.”

He repeats it. Then resumes his pace and direction and immediately exits the building.

I stood speechless due to shock and also because there wasn’t time to respond before he was gone. The other woman and I locked eyes. Her face registered bewilderment. I asked her what she thought about it. She offered no interpretation. We went home separate ways.

I asked two more women. Neither claimed any insight. I asked The Chef, who answered, “Sounds like he was being an asshole.” Yes, but this does not alleviate my confusion.

I’m not asking anyone else. I can’t tell whether folks are not being honest with me or they really don’t have a clue. Either way it is my own snarl to unravel.

Pick. Pick. Pick.

He thought I’d be offended to be called a girl? Why would he think I’d consider girl an insult? Does he surmise I am not a girl (or don’t identify as a girl) and am therefore offended to be addressed as one? This feels unlikely. I present as a cisgender female. Since birth. Definitely since he’s known me.

If I was transgender I still present clearly and unmistakably as female. Feminine pronouns all day every day. Even if he was uncertain about my sexual orientation it is obvious I am on the femme end of the spectrum. Dresses, lipstick, the whole production; I am not androgynous and no one ever mistakes me for butch. For heaven’s sake, I run and hike in ruffled skirts.

Or does he surmise I am someone who considers girl an offensive term of address while the other woman in the room does not? Could be. Maybe he thinks I’d prefer the terms women or ladies for female adults instead of girls. Or maybe he thinks I’d prefer a gender-neutral term?

Pick. Pick. Pick.

He pulled this no offense business with me once before. He criticized a woman for “having too much Yankee in her,” and identified this as her problem. He then turned to me thrusting the same upraised palm as yesterday and dropped, “No offense.”

(Sigh.) If I chose the simplest explanation I’d guess it was just a crack about my hair. It was probably just an asshole jab at my hair and I’m overthinking it. And perhaps no one I asked for insight wants to say so.

My hair makes people uncomfortable. I admitted this myself in a previous post. Even a gentle, kind, sensitive, super-nice fellow at church reacted with, “What did you do to your hair?” a couple of weeks ago. In the chapel. In the pew. In front of the congregation. Maybe yesterday’s cad was being sarcastic instead of being as direct as my friend at church.

Both men hurt my feelings. With an audience.

Yesterday it hurt worse. Yesterday it was a person of authority. Someone who outranks me. Someone who holds sway. Not a friend who made an unfortunate gaffe. It was easy to pardon my friend for saying something stupid. I snapped back at him quick and sassy, he realized his faux pas, and then all was forgiven.

Not so easy to shrug off the snipe of someone whose power position dictates I can’t snap back or defend myself without jeopardy. This makes the remark feel all the more like a taunt. Would I dare react in a way which might threaten my best interest? Especially when he used the disclaimer of “no offense?” There’s a name for this. It’s called a microaggression. In this case I am not a minority but I am categorically inferior to the aggressor.

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Why not ask him what he meant? Because any response to a No Offense statement (other than agreement) implies offense was taken. He will know he offended me and asking for an explanation invites him to offend me some more. It gives him permission to elaborate on whatever it is he finds so wrong with me that No Offense was necessary. I like to brag that it’s impossible to offend me because feeling offended is a choice I make. I’ll have to amend this statement moving forward. It’s not impossible. Those two words — one tiny and one medium — completely dismantled me.

Yes, it can be argued that I chose to let them dismantle me. I chose to let them ruin my night. There’s a waffle-weave towel sitting next to my bathroom sink covered in salty mascara. I woke up this morning still stewing, which is still choosing. I am surprised at how much this is bothering me. I wrote in my previous post about feeling blindsided and vulnerable by an unrelated event. It’s only been a week. Perhaps I am still tender. Still raw. Perhaps this is why he was able to pierce my armor. And there is the added rub that I will have to face him again in a few days. I’ll have to show up for business as usual, no offense.

If I tell him he hurt my feelings I confirm that he hurt my feelings. If this was his intention he gets to feel validated that he knows how to hurt me. If this was not his intention I risk embarrassing him, which means I risk setting off a shit-storm of consequences because he holds a position of supremacy. A person who would make such remark to a minion would not be likely to respond fairly or rationally to being embarrassed or reproached by a minion. And dictating that I not to be offended by sanitizing the offensive statement renders any hint of offense to be my problem, my failure to comply, and should I dare vocalize it, my direct challenge, which can be construed as disrespect. It’s brilliant, isn’t it?

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It hurts to be treated this way even if it has nothing to do with my hair. It hurts to be treated like an unperson, which is what No Offense really communicates. You are not entitled to any negative reaction to the next or previous statement because I have stripped your right to that reaction from you by disclaiming this is an offensive statement. I have decided for you how you should react and I expect you to obey. I’ve also decided for you how you should NOT react and I expect you to obey. Any negative effect is therefore your own fault for failing to obey.

My friends, please stop this.

Don’t do this to people. Don’t do this to any person. Let’s not do this to each other.

It is not harmless.

I have no freaking clue how or why that man thinks I shouldn’t be offended for being called a girl. I will likely never know. I’ll chalk it up to an attempt to bait me and I ain’t playin’. I will highroad this bullshit for now. (Not that I wasn’t briefly tempted to respond by bending every gender rule and role currently in force just for fucking with me.) But the experience wasn’t without merit. It has definitely given me a reason to change my behavior.

I will never use No Offense on any person, ever again, for any reason, and I hope if you are reading this you won’t either. Every person deserves her feelings. Every person deserves his feelings. All people deserve their feelings. Especially when we offend them.

— Mercy

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