I was recently clunking my way down yet another impossibly narrow airplane aisle when the line unexpectedly stopped and I slammed into the woman ahead of me, catching her with the corner of my shoulder bag. It must have hurt.
‘Sorry!’ she said.
I was momentarily confused, as I had been opening my mouth to say the same. I was, after all, the one who had not been paying attention, who had been thinking about something else, and had, consequently, rammed a rather heavy shoulder bag into her lower back. That one was pretty much on me and it would have been quite reasonable for her to be at least a little upset about it. I certainly would have been; I might have turned around and shot a dirty glare, at the very least, because I don’t appreciate being hit in the kidneys by strangers.
She, like many people socialised as women, was echoing a common refrain: The internalised sense that it’s necessary to apologise for your existence. Her ‘sorry’ was a reflexive ‘I’m sorry I was in the way of your bag when you were not paying attention or thinking about the fact that other people were in the same general locale you were.’ It was ‘sorry I didn’t get out of your way when I couldn’t even see you.’ It was ‘I’m sorry that my body is inconveniencing you by existing.’ It was an apology for being a human being on a crammed airplane, but also, an apology for being alive at all.
Women are taught that they should routinely apologise for anything and everything. If anything untoward happens, it is obviously their fault, and they owe someone an explanation at the very least and preferably an apology. It’s their job to ensure the maximum comfort of everyone around them. I, as a bag-owner, should have had the aisle clear in case I needed to lurch forward, obviously, and she felt heartbroken at the thought that she had made the audacious choice to leave her home and step onto an aircraft; how dare she, really?
I see women apologising for things everywhere I go. Sorry you ran into me. Sorry for reaching into the pile of avocados at the same time as you. Sorry for walking on the same sidewalk as you. Sorry for not anticipating your needs. Sorry for reading a book where you want to sit. Sorry this transaction is taking more than a millisecond to ring up. Sorry I have to ask someone for help. I’m sorry I have an opinion about this. I’m sorry I’m allergic to this. I’m sorry this makes me uncomfortable. I’m sorry you sexually assaulted me. Sorry, sorry, sorry. Women are so sorry. All the time. Everywhere. And it all boils down to being sorry for existing; the internalised notion that it really would have been better if they had just never been born. They’re ruining everything, for everyone. The nerve.
Socialised as a woman myself, I find myself doing the same thing. I apologise not just to people, but to inanimate objects. Dear table, I’m sorry I stubbed my toe on you in the dark. Pajama pants, I’m sorry I ripped your crotch when I bent over. Car, I’m sorry I haven’t washed you. Door, I’m sorry I’m having such trouble with this key in the dark. Sorry, sorry, sorry.
I try to catch the word when it wants to spill over my lips but it comes out anyway, a sharp, acute ‘sorry.’ Then I apologise for saying sorry; I’m sorry for being sorry, I know that I shouldn’t be, that I am just echoing harmful and outdated social attitudes. I’m terribly sorry. I should feel comfortable and assertive and public spaces, not afraid of occupying them. I’m sorry. Wait, no, I’m not sorry — I shouldn’t be! I don’t need to apologise. I have just as much as right to be here as anyone else, and so do women; there’s no need to apologise for existing, to make excuses for occupying spaces. We are all human beings, and humans deserve equal space, not just equal rights, equal treatment, fairness, respect.
The sorry epidemic, the demand that certain people apologise for every little thing about their existence and life on Earth, is a testimony to how early, and how thoroughly, people indoctrinate women with the knowledge that they are lesser and should be grateful for any crumbs society chooses to throw at them. Women should be sorry — little girls apologise to each other, to their dolls, to their teachers, to the adults around them, in ways that little boys do not. It’s viewed as sweet and reinforced by adults, when it should be a sign of something more troubling, that even at the age of eight or nine, women feel bad about existing, and think that if they say sorry enough, it will create a sort of protective shield, ensuring that no one will attack them for…what? For being human? For being in the world? For asserting themselves in social environments?
I don’t like ordering people around, and obviously there are situations in which an apology to greater or lesser degrees is merited — I’m sorry I stepped on your foot, I’m sorry I snapped at you, I’m sorry I failed to consider you when making an important decision that affected you — but no one needs to apologise just for existing. You don’t need to say sorry. You don’t. You don’t need to apologise.
When I started actually tracking the number of times I said ‘sorry’ for no reason at all other than feeling guilty that I existed, I was horrified. I suspect you might be too. So join me in being unapologetic. Anyone who has a problem with us can go take a long walk off a short pier.
Image: sorry my dear, Erich Ferdinand, Flickr