“To the powerful women in my life—how do you feel when people, mostly men, call you intimidating or scary before getting to know you? I'm caught between feeling flattered for the recognition of my ability (and that I know this person is not worth my time) and frustrated that women are met with opposition when expressing the same kind of grit and know-how a man might display.”
I didn’t expect my hasty Facebook status on a Wednesday night to make much of an impact. But, 92 likes and 25 comments later, it has sparked conversations among friends, family, and classmates.
I was prompted to post it after a conversation I had with my sister over text message. Walking home from a club meeting, I told her that a male friend of a friend had called me “scary,” and that I low-key love it when guys find me intimidating because it demonstrates who is so not worth my time. She laughed in response, appearing to agree with my label. So I turned to Facebook to ask fellow women for their feedback.
Responses from artists, lawyers, mothers, students, teachers, philanthropists, and activists across four continents poured in, offering advice and sharing personal experiences on the subject. The feedback I got from across so many places and spheres in my life excited me. I witnessed women who have never met offering support to one another, liking each other’s comments, and responding with advice and encouragement. These interactions made me realize that I had never discussed this issue with other women and suspected that this comment thread likely provided the first forum for other women in my life to do the same.
I don’t remember being called “intimidating” before my first year at Barnard College. It was strange to hear, coming from a friend toward the end of my first semester.
Her comment felt like an insult, although she likely intended it as a light-hearted confession given her tone, and I wondered if I should appear softer and speak up less often. I briefly considered whether this could explain the short-lived nature of my NSOP friendships, or why my roommate and I weren’t close, or why I found it difficult to click with a lot of other people in my year. Ultimately, I shrugged it off, laughing along with her about how much we both changed since arriving at Barnard. Still, her comment stuck with me. It made me wonder if I should change my behavior, and if other classmates felt the same way.
I will be the first person to admit that I am intense. I speak with conviction and carry myself with confidence. I like challenges—I think they represent avenues for growth and success. In most situations, whether in a student club or group project, I am a leader.
But being intense doesn’t mean I sacrifice friendliness or empathy. Being intense may mean I take charge more often among peers, can have lengthy and extremely animated conversations about anything I’m interested in, will speak up to request more challenging work at an internship, work well under stress, and can juggle a lot at once.
A couple nights before I posted that Facebook status, a friend told me that a guy, whom I do not know and have barely interacted with, admitted that he finds me “scary,” citing my role as the editor in chief of Hoot Magazine, Columbia’s undergraduate-run fashion magazine.
By now, I’ve been called “intimidating” many times. Throughout college, the label has been placed on my shoulders time and again, and friends and acquaintances have made passing comments. But it never really bothered me until the word “scary” was used.
More than anything, it made me feel as if, to others, any empathy and awareness I have is superseded by my intensity. Still, I make a point to not let them cast my passion negatively. Without my intensity, the many achievements of Hoot Magazine under my editorship—getting featured in Elle and Harper’s Bazaar Magazine as a rising feminist magazine, and giving copies of the Fall/Winter 2016 issue of Hoot and Fall 2016 issue of Holler to Anna Wintour, among other feats—would have been impossible. It requires a strong vision and ability to guide a team toward producing quality content, like what the Hoot team puts out. If someone finds me scary or intimidating for what I do, I can’t let it distract me from pushing myself.
The real challenge, in my opinion, comes when women take these comments as insults. A friend from high school admitted on my status to internalizing these comments, while a relative, a Bryn Mawr/Harvard/MIT-educated artist-potter-extraordinaire, said that she has been “frustrated and … thwarted by” being called intimidating. As women, we are often scrutinized for how we carry ourselves, walking a tightrope between expressing femininity and operating in masculine spaces. Compassion is mistaken for weakness and our confidence for aggressiveness.
While I have recognized this issue as something that stems from a certain expectation of women, I have never, in my conversations with friends, mentors, my mom, professors, talked about how to respond when someone labels me, or anyone else, this way.
To those who are skeptical of the label’s harm, consider that calling someone intimidating places blame on that person for your feelings. It says that your response is to their characteristics, something that you perceive as a problematic part of them, rather than your own insecurities. It is okay to recognize your admiration for someone else’s achievements, but not to challenge their success by labeling them as intimidating.
Instead, the next time you find yourself intimidated by a woman, stop to consider why. Maybe it’s the way she carries herself, or something she has achieved. Maybe it’s more a reflection of what you perceive you aren’t able to do, or the way you compare yourself to her. It’s all right to be self-aware, but not to make another person feel self conscious for your feelings.
Personally, when I feel intimidated, I try to recall how I might feel if the roles were reversed—if the person I am intimidated by were me, and someone was trying to talk to me. This approach has made me more willing to go up to people I admire, done way more good than harm, and has even taught me how ridiculous it is to let perceptions of intimidation make you falter.
On my part, I’m not impervious to intimidation. I was intimidated when I darted across a runway crowded with bloggers and celebrities finding their seats to give Cynthia Erivo a hug and thank her for her performance in The Color Purple on Broadway. I was intimidated when I waited for the crowd to clear at a gallery in Chelsea to tell Carrie Mae Weems how much her art has impacted me. But because I know that I love when people appreciative of my work say hi to me, I try as often as the situation presents itself to do the same. These moments were brief, but knowing that I have the courage to engage with sensational women like these has built my own confidence to keep hustling.
Many of the women who have spoken with me on the subject agree—the best thing to do is push forward, knowing that when you’re called intimidating, it’s likely a misplaced comment on your achievements. It can be difficult to push those throwaway remarks aside, especially when they come from peers, but remember what is behind those labels. If every time you were called intimidating you held yourself back a little more, eventually, there would be nothing left propelling you forward.
More often than not, it means they see you challenging conventions and thwarting restrictions. As another friend wrote in a comment, “I've learned it is a sign that I'm doing something right.”
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