Tuesday, 26 February 2008
Scared? You should be...
It might come as a surprise to you that I am a bit of a wimp. Although I will happily spar with someone twice my size in an open taekwondo tournament, or get on a horse and gallop across rocky terrain, there are some quite ordinary things of which I am terrified. I have a massive phobia of fish. I don't like heights. I can't stand boats. Violent scenes in movies turn me into a quivering wreck. I am petrified of talking to strangers even if it's just to say something as simple as, "Excuse me". The idea of me ever making a first move on a man is frankly laughable. It's embarrassing being such a total wuss, and I know I would enjoy life more if I could at least get over my shyness, but at least it's accepted. My friends accept and embrace my slightly neurotic disposition, they look after me when necessary and they simply accept that this desperate shyness and propensity for fear is part of who I am, even if I do know how to make a man lose bladder control with my bare hands.
I am currently in the middle of having to face one of my biggest fears: dentists. There is no earthly reason why I should fear the dentist, having never required any dental treatment before in my life, but I do. Horribly so. So discovering that I need to have all of my wisdom teeth removed didn't go down too well with me. Specifically, I was vomiting with fear, crying hysterically (normally I cry about as easily as The Terminator) and unable to eat for the first two days, which has now given way to a sort of numb acceptance brought on firstly by the fact that one of them has started to hurt quite a lot so I'd quite like it if it were no longer there, and secondly by the fact that I've been assured that if I have it done under sedation I won't remember the experience.
Throughout the last few days, everybody has been fantastically supportive. I have had countless cups of tea made for me. Nobody has been in the least bit unsympathetic or even surprised at my petrified reaction, even people who had no idea I had a problem with dentistry. But it's got me thinking: what if I were a man? Would people be quite as accomodating of a man suffering the same fears? I seriously doubt it. Fear is regarded as a normal state for a woman, but not for a man. When is it ever acceptable for a man to utter the words, "I'm scared"?
I just think this is terribly sad. It's hard enough what I'm going through at the moment. It would be much, much harder if I felt that my fear was unacceptable, or if everybody around me thought that I was just being pathetic. Perhaps they do think that I'm being pathetic, but either way, they recognise that my fear is real and distressing and that I need to be treated with kindness. If I were a man, I'd probably be being told to pull myself together. I'd be regarded as less of a man, an inadequate person.
Perhaps this is plain old-fashioned sexism against women - not expecting women to show courage because they are inferior to big, brave, strong men. And I can see that this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy - if girls are taught from childhood that it's acceptable and even desirable to be scared (I remember screaming along with all the other girls at primary school when an insect came into the vicinity, just to fit in) and if boys are taught to suppress their fears, it's not surprising if these attitudes become thoroughly ingrained. Amongst adults, women might well be genuinely more fearful creatures than men.
But male fear is an enormous taboo, almost uniquely so. I can't think of any emotion that is unacceptable to the same extent in women. I would say it's probably acceptable for a man to be scared if he has a terminal illness, or is about to do a 5000ft bungee jump, but other than that, fear and masculinity are thoroughly mutually exclusive. Women who show bravery are applauded. Men who show bravery are just being men. Women who show fear are comforted. Men who show fear are ridiculed. It might be that people expect less of women because they regard them as inferior, but it's men who really suffer because the illusion is not that women are easily scared but that men are not easily scared. Fear is a natural, human emotion not confined to women and children. It really is time we accepted that both men and women feel fear, and that both men and women can be brave and confront that fear when necessary. Personally, I'm fully expecting to come round from my grisly dental operation with an "I was brave at the dentists today" sticker plastered to my chest.
Here's someone who thoroughly enjoys going to the dentist: