Cognitive Dissonance: How It Kept Me Silent
by Alyssa Exposito
To the women who have had enough: yes, you deserve better.
I guess I’ve been someone who always believes in the greater good in people (or perhaps a cynic might view me as someone who is naive). As a young(er) woman, I definitely was perhaps a little naive. Maybe it was easier for me to blindly believe the inappropriate language I experienced from men came from the coined phrase “locker room talk.” For a long time I chose to accept the idea that “boys will be boys.”
Until, that is, I had a male boss at a cupcake shop where I worked part-time tell me a client referred to me as the “cute little chick with the big tits.” The same male boss who has daughters and a wife. Working for a business that was founded and operated by his wife, I felt very uncomfortable to not only work late nights with him, but also to face her without the shame that was knowing her husband felt compelled to tell me a “client” described me in that way.
In my head, I justified the dissonance of knowing this comment was not appropriate and continuing to work at the shop by placing the blame on that nameless client and not on my boss. But as I spoke to co-workers, the common consensus was that none of them felt comfortable around our boss, especially when he would question, for example, any sort of our outspokenness with things like, “Are you on your period?” After that, what I knew was wrong could no longer be justified by the narrative I created in attempt to block out the disturbance in my physical world.
You see, I think that’s something humans do: we actively meet resistance or discomfort by trying to distort or devolve the experience itself. What we know to be wrong is made right because we simply do not want to face (or it’s too painful to face) the absurdity.
Society has done a very good job at perpetuating this cognitive dissonance, especially with regard to the narrative women have with things like harassment (in all its forms). When faced with an incredibly uncomfortable or inappropriate situation, we have become experts at rationalizing it to create the illusion of comfort.
I think the time is up on that, because we deserve better.
Fast forward a few years to working in a big box gym as a personal trainer and there I was, in my manager's office, as he not only asked me about my sexual orientation but also inquired if I lived by myself. Weird, right? Inappropriate, right? I thought so too, but didn't pay much mind to it other than musing, “Why would he ask me that?” I didn’t understand where that came from and again, here I was rationalizing this experience simply with a mere “He’s kind of strange.”
Little did I know he was saying these inappropriate comments to EVERY woman that worked at the gym. One particular comment that I couldn't shake was when he commented on my physique by saying, “My ex-wife had a body like yours, tiny-compact, but still curvy.” It meant he actively took very close notice of me and my body. Again, work became very uncomfortable...yet, I didn’t say anything.
The choice I made to not speak up came from a place of not wanting to feel the backlash of reporting him...and luckily by then I had found a safe space to work: Uplift. However, at the big box gym, there were women who did not face the same cognitive dissonance I did, who knew they deserved better, who weren’t afraid of backlash, and spoke out. Soon after, every woman was questioned by human resources, he put in his two weeks’ notice, and now no longer works at that establishment.
Plenty of other women right here at Uplift and in our own industry have experienced the same things:
Because of her own #MeToo moments, not to mention getting “mainsplained” every single time she went to the gym by other male clients and male trainers, Uplift’s co-founder Leanne told me she has insisted on keeping our space women-only even when many people over the years have tried to persuade her to incorporate male clients in order to increase the bottom line.
Another Uplift trainer shared her experience with me (anonymously) on an unbelievable (well, almost) encounter she had with a male trainer at Equinox, which she had joined to work out at the time. What seemed as a very innocent approach--advice and a consult about a training program--turned into an invasion of privacy and a creepy over-stepping of bounds, all the way to him constantly sending her inappropriate videos and selfies. After she followed the training program, he invited her into his office and offered to take her measurements, where he asked her to remove ALL of her clothes as he told her, “Don’t worry, girls get naked in here ALL the time.”
Wait, was that an admission that he has preyed on multiple women who trusted his “expertise?” Why yes, yes it is. What dawned on my co-worker wasn’t so much how she was conned into a humiliating situation, but more so that this has been something that ACTIVELY happens and even after she approached the gym manager about it, all he had to say was that it had been “handled.”
Which, as we know all too well now, is something big corporations say when feeding the bottom line matters more than the stories multiple women have in common about a predatory employee.
It’s also amazing to me how at any given place, you are more than likely to have something in common with the woman next to you, and, sadly, it often has to do with feeling uncomfortable in one’s skin. Cassie, Uplift’s philanthropy manager, and Teresa, our content manager, shared similar accounts: both recounted situations where the myriad of inappropriate comments from male colleagues became the norm until one caused a “turning of the heel” and forced them each to put in their two weeks’ notice at jobs they loved. The worst part? The managerial staff(s) knew what was going on and did nothing.
So what does this tell US? That in many places the safety of the female staff is compromised to keep the man in question out of trouble. But you know what? TIME’S UP.
This is the battle we face everyday. It’s as if we must walk around with our steel-coated armor to not only ward off the inappropriate behavior, but protect ourselves and our dignity. And as exhausting as it might be, when we need a reprieve there are spaces like Uplift, which I, along with many of my colleagues, found in a time where we needed it most. So when someone asks why these all-female spaces exist, I tell them it’s simple: we are finally creating environments that allow for the safety, celebration, and welcoming of the female experience. AMEN to that.
What have I learned from these experiences and stories? Because we have lived in a society where it has historically been our word versus theirs, and women have always been advised to not “stir up trouble,” the cognitive dissonance so many of us knowingly or unknowingly live in/with reinforces us to live in a way where we constantly reframe scenarios so that we stay put, quiet, and not disrupt the peace in the interest of “knowing our place.”
But finally, we seem to be in the midst of a radical movement where women are no longer reconciling these uncomfortable experiences. We are now coming together in FULL understanding that we deserve SO much more than diminishing what happens to US.