Out of the question
Why do we only probe women for the intimate details of their personal lives, asks author Lindsey Kelk
Lindsey Kelk ponders gender bias in the minefield of conversation
FOR A WOMAN, LIFE IS A NEVER-ENDING BARRAGE
OF PERSONAL QUESTIONS. Are you seeing anyone? Are you getting engaged? When’s the wedding? When are you having kids? Will you carry on working? Have you lost weight? Are you on a diet? And every single question comes with the weight of judgement on the other end. But why do we think it’s okay to ask another woman intrusive personal questions when we don’t even know how she takes her tea?
When I was younger, my mum would insist that one day I’d wake up with a burning desire to knock out a mini-me. I waited and waited and waited, fully expecting her to be right. Now, at almost 37, I’ve given up waiting. I love kids, but I don’t see them in my future. There’s no long story, no complicated reasoning, and yet I am constantly asked by lifelong friends and total strangers when I’m going to get pregnant. Strangely enough, no one asks my boyfriend the same thing. They’re far too busy enquiring about his career, his hobbies and whether or not he liked Twin Peaks. You know, the usual stuff you might ask a human who doesn’t have ovaries.
From a very young age, women’s emotional and physical privacy is taken away. The first time I recall being asked an unwelcome question, I was a 21-year-old student getting my first smear test. On Valentine’s Day. I was in the doctor’s office, eyes closed, legs akimbo, while the nurse asked me a million uncomfortable questions about my love life. Did I have a boyfriend? Had I sent any Valentine’s cards? All I wanted to do was ask her to shut up and get on with it but a) that’s tricky when there’s a speculum in your cervix and b) I didn’t want to be rude.
And therein lies the rub. Even if the question being asked is incredibly personal, women feel they have to always be likeable and amenable. So, in order to spare someone else’s feelings, we sacrifice our own. Personally, I’ve always been an oversharer, so setting safe boundaries for myself and expecting others to respect them is a minefield, but I have to and we have to. No one is entitled to information we do not wish to give, even if it makes us uncomfortable to tell them so.
Over the years, I’ve been asked more awkward questions than I can remember. Every Christmas, my aunt would go the full Bridget Jones: put up the tree, bake the mince pies, demand detailed information about my love life or lack thereof. By the time I reached 30, my annual grilling drew a crowd: another aunt, the odd smugmarried cousin. It was as exhausting as it was predictable. And then there was my mother’s funeral, when a (former) family friend cornered me at the wake, patted my shoulder and then said, “It’s a shame you don’t have kids, they make this kind of thing easier. Can you not have any, or is it that you just can’t find a man?” I’d like to think the expression on my face was enough of a response for the monster in question but, thankfully, my equally single and childless older brother, who had been asked no such question, removed me from the situation.
Of course, natural curiosity is something we’re all afflicted with. The time I merrily sat grilling a friend who I knew was trying for a baby, only for her to burst into tears and tell me she’d miscarried, still eats up my soul every time I think about it. My heart was in the right place and I couldn’t possibly have known, but you know what I could have done? Not kept on asking her when she was going to become pregnant.
We can’t help ourselves, we’re British; it’s buried somewhere deep in our DNA, along with complaining about the weather and knowing the recipe for Coronation chicken. Still, I’m trying very hard not to ask people questions I wouldn’t want to be asked myself, not to prod for information before they offer it up freely. And in the future, when someone asks me a too-personal question, I will politely but firmly explain I’m not comfortable discussing the subject and quietly die inside. It’s the only way we can change things for everyone else.
I Heart Forever by Lindsey Kelk (Harpercollins,
£7.99) is out now
“No one asks my boyfriend if he wants KIDS. They’re too busy asking about his career”