I rented a car last month at the Philadelphia Airport. As I drove up to the car rental booth to leave, the gentleman in the booth said, “Good afternoon Sir…I mean Ma’am.” This is not the first time I have been called “Sir”. But it is the first time I actually didn’t get upset and decide to grow my hair out to at least Julia Roberts-length, wear fake eyelashes or put on low-cut shirts. My lame attempt at pushing my woman-ness to the forefront so that not another soul on the planet will ever get my gender wrong again!
I remember distinctly the first time someone called me “Sir.” I was at the Concord Mall, home for Christmas Break from college in the middle of my senior year. I had just gotten what we referred to back then as the 80’s “corporate do”. It was a short haircut to help make one look more like a professional and less like a co-ed. I was milling around a Thom McAn shoe store and a guy came up behind me and said “May I help you, Sir?” I was mortified. He caught his error almost immediately but as we can see by this post, I have not forgotten it. Ever. And this is some 30 years later. In my twenties, my solution was to look for something to “prove” I was a woman At.All.Times. Happily, that is not my solution now.
So you are probably wondering how I can react differently now. Here are my lessons in self-acceptance:
- Stand in their shoes. It’s really embarrassing to call someone by the wrong gender (unless it’s what they want to be identified as). I imagine that the guy at the shoe shop and the guy from the rental car place were just as embarrassed as I was. Empathize for their embarrassment and it makes it easier to let go of your own. That sounds counter intuitive but give it a try. I think you’ll be surprised.
- Tap into the energy. I reflected on the mistake as I drove away. Perhaps I was exuding power. The attendant felt that power as I approached. As Amy Cuddy’s work has shown, when someone sees a non-anatomical figure walking powerfully, 80% of the time they assume it’s a man. I remember in my final coaching class with CRR Global, I was facilitating with a tall, charismatic man name Michael. At the end, I remember the insightful instructor Marita Fridjhon said, “This is a power couple.” I realized that I had taken on Michael’s power. So take that testosterone driven energy and tap into it. Own it.
- Test your assumptions. I had taken note at the airport about how many more men travel solo than women. In fact, I rarely see women traveling alone, sitting in restaurants alone and checking into hotels alone. I don’t know that many women who are comfortable eating in restaurants alone, heck, I wasn’t comfortable with it when I first started traveling for business some 25 years ago. So for all I know, that attendant assumed a solo driver was a man. Check your assumptions.
- I have been practicing meditation for over three years. I have learned to separate from the reaction and make space for a pause. This helps me get off the self-critical talk that thirty years ago was, “OMG, he thinks I’m a man. I am too tall. I am too fat. I am unlovable.” Crazy talk. I am sure that I ruminated about it for months as I desperately sought to be more less masculine. But now? I can easily respond with a friendly smile and say, “Oops.” I love Dan Harris’ book 10% Happier, where he says that meditation is like “…getting behind a waterfall.” All those thoughts are flying by but you can step back and not get attached to it. Practicing mindfulness helped me stay out of the drama and it can help you.
- I will never be petite. It is impossible to be 5’2 when I am 5’8. It is what it is. I’ll also never be an astronaut, or ballet dancer or president of the United States. I’ll never be a father, or a judge or cowboy. But what I can be is a great author, fabulous mother and most importantly, make a difference in people’s lives every day. This is not dependent on me being more petite or less masculine. I’ve learned that I can accept myself as I am. I am perfectly imperfect. Freckles and all. Accept yourself as you are. There is less of a battle that way.
I am me. Can you be you?