Spotting the Blue Mascara and Feeling for the Tissue

Conversations about gender differences are difficult to engage in now, partly because of the need for an emphasis on equality of opportunities for the sexes, and also because the lines between genders are being blurred. But these differences exist and are revealed daily in small details.

I read Timi’s Two Hundred and Counting and, like I usually do with essays on her blog, returned to see the comments. I found one made by Uju, which was fascinating in its understanding of a detail: she focused solely on blue mascara. It was the kind of observation only a woman, given to exploring the meaning of mascara and what it says or doesn’t say, would make.

The person who got me thinking about these differences in perception is P, one of the few people who have the misfortune of seeing first drafts of my fiction (I’m not being modest, they’re usually terrible). She often makes comments like, this isn’t something a woman would say, which is often right, because I’m one of those people who write characters of all sexes the same way without thought for how their thought patterns would be different, which on the surface seems like a progressive thing until you examine it and realise it’s very stupid. Whether by reason of culture, or even sheer biology (like it or not, losing blood every month and curling into a ball of pain will make you a different being), men and women don’t access details the same way. And this isn’t a bad thing.

Better writers often find ways to subvert this inherent problem, write about the other with skill, like B did in a writing workshop I attended this year, in a passage that included hair but showed such intimacy that we all saw as almost transcendent. But people like that are exceptions, and the rest of us need people to remind us that “a woman won’t talk like that.” It’s also been said that women have an advantage in this because they’ve spent a lifetime listening to men and can assume our thoughts with some level of accuracy. Given how often my female friends suss out my thoughts, I cant argue against this.

Tessa Hadley, in a conversation with Hilton Als and Helen Garner, spoke about a female student who was trying to write as a man and wrote, “He felt for a tissue in his pocket.” She continued, “Now, what a discovery that that sentence can’t really work for a man. I can’t really explain it. But, of course, that isn’t really what we think about, maleness and femaleness, anymore.” (Watch the video of their conversation here. It’s good)

Now, here’s the paragraph in Timi’s essay that started off this piece:

“The line between just asking and a free consultation is smeared with politeness. Doctors and other professionals know this. I know this now; 200 blog posts means I have a feel for what makes a piece of writing work. A party is not the place to read me a sentence then ask if it is grammatically correct or whip out your phone to show me something you wrote. That is what emails are for. I do not carry a red pen in my clutch bag; I carry red lipstick and blue mascara. People ask me to be brutally honest in my feedback, but the only place to be brutal—savagely violent or unpleasant and harsh, is the gladiator’s ring. The only adjective that should go with honesty when it comes to feedback on a piece of writing is kind. I have made and kept more friends this way.”

I read that paragraph focused on feedback, but with the help of Uju, I’ve gained more by focusing on the blue mascara—which indeed says a lot about Timi if you think about it. In writing, everything rises and falls with the detail—and so it is with the rest of life. This, sometimes, is why I try to hold conversations with people different from me in upbringing, class, gender, even faith. There are perspectives they can offer that I would never get just looking at the world with my own eyes.

It’s a shame that these diverse conversations are becoming harder even as we now have better tools to have them. It’s almost impossible to find people with opposing ideologies having civil conversations on the internet without descending to insults. We all exist in echo chambers, lacking the grace to reach out to the other side and ask that they show us how to feel the tissue or spot the blue mascara, believing instead in the absolute greatness of our ideas, their progressiveness, and their immaculate nature.This, of course, is an illusion. We are all different, and the harder it is to communicate across these differences, the more difficult it will become to expand our understanding of our common humanity.

_______________

Featured image: Yosef Tamir Man and Woman-3, via Flickr by zeevveez

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20 thoughts on “Spotting the Blue Mascara and Feeling for the Tissue

  1. I tell people there are three people on WordPress with such outstanding writing. There’s you, Timi and Diana (Holistic wayfarer). You guys just make my brain go mush 🙂

    I have a friend who managed to pull off writing fiction in the first person, as a woman. When I asked how he managed it, he said, “it was the most agonizing period of my life.” I imagine he had to live, think and breathe female, and communicate with women enough to ‘get’ us.

    **
    You’ve touched on so many salient points in this essay, Ife. Gender differences have indeed become a difficult topic to discuss without one party feeling insulted.
    A friend wanted to know the other day why women wouldn’t have a relationship with a ‘broke’ guy. I could tell he was hurt, but helping him understand what a vast majority of the women think and why they think it, gave him a better understanding of our needs and (hopefully) closure.

    So I agree with your closing line: We are all different, and knowing those differences eases communication and gives us a better understanding of our shared humanity.

    1. You’re too kind Uju.

      I’m actually laughing at ‘women wouldn’t have a relationship with a broke guy.’ Isn’t that obvious enough in this Buhari economy?

      I’ve also been the recipients of people, especially women helping my confused soul so I know how valuable that help can be. Thank you on his behalf. 🙂

  2. I will write a man’s POV and then ask a couple of men to review it (unless I’m writing about an experience), because I think like a woman although I have observed men a lot. I guess I’m searching for authenticity and authority. As you noted, talking about gender in general can be a minefield- I still think men are from Mars and women, Venus, and it’s a good thing. We can complement one another. We just need to learn to coexist in the same space, which is why we mustn’t be echo chambers.

    This made me smile: ” … blue mascara—which indeed says a lot about Timi if you think about it.” Lol! I hope it says I’m a girl’s girl and I want to be pretty at parties! 🙂

    Thank you for reading my essay and then coming back to read the comments. I like it when a ‘little’ detail makes me think and write another article. Your essay is brilliant. Now, I’m off to read/listen to the conversation you recommended.

    1. Lol! I hope it says I’m a girl’s girl and I want to be pretty at parties!

      Lol. It says that and even much more. It shows you’re eager to take a chance, to go against the grain etc., etc.

      I remember that ‘Think like a man’ series on your blog. Some of the most hilarious comments about gender differences are on the posts and comments there.

    1. I’m still trying to think of the appropriate response to the question, Benn. But I think it’s safe to say as long as I’m not the one wearing the lipstick, I’m fine with it. Thank you Benn, for stopping by.

  3. Very thoughtful piece sir.

    I have been taught that people speak and act from their models of world which is usually different from mine. Ordinarily, I am supposed to assume a position of seeing things from the other person’s worldview, but I realize how difficult this can be.

    So, I am learning to let others act and speak from their models of the world while I act and speak from mine. Knowing that neither of our models is superior to the other frees me from wanting to enforce mine. My map is not the territory.

    We are different and we have a lot to learn from each other!

    Thank you for this piece. It drives home a lesson I can’t stop learning.

    1. The difficulty of seeing the world through other people’s eye is often not stated enough. But it’s also not an impossibility. We just have to find ways to be kinder to other people when they try to show us their view of the world.

      Thank you too, Ife, for always reading.

  4. “It’s a shame that these diverse conversations are becoming harder even as we now have better tools to have them. It’s almost impossible to find people with opposing ideologies having civil conversations on the internet without descending to insults. We all exist in echo chambers, lacking the grace to reach out to the other side and ask that they show us how to feel the tissue or spot the blue mascara, believing instead in the absolute greatness of our ideas, their progressiveness, and their immaculate nature…”
    Empathy!

    I am also gravely concerned at how we discuss (argue) online. It’s really sad because most times minds are not changed,nobody learns anything new. It becomes a case of who is the strongest bully.
    Developing more empathy is a solution to this problem. Most people see it as weakness but with empathy writing about the other sex becomes easier.

    1. You’re right that empathy will save us from a lot of crises, the savagery of online arguments being just one of many. How to achieve that empathy is the bigger deal. But a good way to start would be to listen to people carefully without being quick to judge them.

  5. “There are perspectives they can give that I would never get just looking at the world with my own eyes.”
    Wonderful. That kind of openness leads to epiphanies and expands our view of the world exponentially.
    The sad state of affairs today is that then we come from deeply entrenched sides of an issue, we push each other into extremes, never recognizing that both viewpoints may be valid and needed to reach a balance between logic and values, ideals and practicality. The idealists/dreamers call us forward, but the practical reality is we can only progress by inches without creating chaos. Truth is paradoxical. Things that seem either/or are actually often, maybe even always, two sides of the same coin.

    1. This:

      The idealists/dreamers call us forward, but the practical reality is we can only progress by inches without creating chaos.

      One of the downsides we don’t see in trying to make everyone in our image is that our world would be poorer for it. We need all kinds of people to achieve balance and not self-destruct.

      Then this:

      Truth is paradoxical. Things that seem either/or are actually often, maybe even always, two sides of the same coin.

      Truth!

  6. @ “losing blood every month and curling into a ball of pain will make you a different being” Ah, I suppose it does. ‘Men are from Mars, Women from Venus’ holds many truths.

    Opposing perspectives would always exist inter-gender, and also intra-gender, for even the ones who bleed together have become too impatient to see together.

  7. Though I’m late on this one and this is my first time of passing a comment on many of your brilliant and thought-provoking pieces, I must say this, it is harder/practically impossible to “see the picture when you’re in the frame” and this is where seeing the world with other people’s eyes becomes more useful-we should do that more often I think!

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