By Jen Jackson Quintano
“I want to be her in my next life,” I heard our client say to her husband. She said it about me. I ducked my head and soldiered on with my work, burning with the shame of knowing that I am nowhere near her perception of me. I am diffident and deferential; in her next life, she wants to be a badass.
I am not a badass.
However, my view of this trait lacks perspective. It’s hard to gauge the badness of one’s ass from within the confines of one’s own skull. Especially when the skull can be such a trap. I don’t know the view from the outside, but the inside is rife with insecurities. Insecurity doesn’t feel very badass.
In 2010, I quit my work as a poorly paid wordsmith and librarian to labor in the trees with sharp and noisy implements. My husband invited me to start an arborist business with him. I responded with an enthusiastic yes. We have been partners ever since. And when I say we are partners in the business, I mean it. I don’t just pose with Stihl equipment for cute website photo ops; I run that shit. Yes, I do hold down the traditional role of keeping the company books, but I also keep the pace on the job site, letting my younger male employees know when they need to beat feet to match mine.
On the surface — running chainsaws, feeding chippers, rigging for big trees to come down in small pieces — it all sounds pretty badass. And sometimes it feels that way… especially when no one is looking.
Some readers may remember the Saturday Night Live skits from 10 years ago featuring Rhianna and Shy Ronnie, played by Andy Samberg. (If you’ve never seen them, check them out. Still hilarious.) The premise is that Rhianna and Shy Ronnie are a performing duo, but while Rhianna is her usual cool and confident self, Shy Ronnie has a case of performance anxiety. He unintelligibly mumbles into the mic. He guffaws nervously. He even wets his pants. However, once Rhianna gives up on her sidekick and leaves the room, Ronnie explodes with some aggressive rhymes. He’s amazing. But when Rhianna returns, it’s back to the mumbles.
Dang it, but I’m a Shy Ronnie.
If I can get the crew to look away or busy themselves with something else, I’ll drop trees, back the chipper into tight places or buck up big logs with terrible tension points. But look my way, and I do the equivalent of mumbling into the mic, as I stall or delegate the task at hand.
Shy Ronnie, Rhianna cajoles, use your outside voice.
Shy Jenny, use your outside skills. Seriously.
The thing is, there’s a term for this. A couple, actually. One is impostor syndrome, and it disproportionately affects women working in male-dominated environments. Though I have been running chainsaws for a decade now, I increasingly find myself deferring to the men on my crew, assuming they are more proficient than I am. Because men are just inherently better sawyers, right? Though I know, on some level, that this is bullshit, there are psychological barriers that prevent me from seeing this clearly.
I am a female arborist and, therefore, an impostor. An oxymoron. I don’t belong. I am a fraud, and I am deathly afraid of being found out as such. So I don’t risk failing — making a bad face cut, getting the chainsaw stuck at a pinch point, etc. — because that would confirm to everyone (including myself) that I shouldn’t be here. Never mind the fact that my coworkers often make mistakes — to err is human, after all — and I don’t question their competence because of it. I just help them get the dang chainsaw out of the dang log and move on.
The other clinical term for Shy Ronnie-ism is stereotype threat, and this also affects women to a greater degree. Stereotype threat is the fear that your actions will serve to confirm negative stereotypes about the group you represent. As the sole woman on the job site, by default, I represent women everywhere. And we all know, women are terrible with machinery, right? So, you there, with the testicles: Get the skidsteer in position for me because my ovaries might make me drive it into the lake. Thank you.
The problem with stereotype threat, though, is that the perceived threat has real and lasting impacts on our actual performance. It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Or maybe culture-fulfilling. If enough of us believe that I can’t competently operate the skidsteer, I’m probably going to navigate poorly or jerk the thing around. My anxiety will hijack my brain, and suddenly I’m conforming to everything you expected of me as a female driver. However, it’s not my ovaries that are to blame; instead, it’s my societally-induced cortisol levels.
Anxieties, be damned.
All of this brings me back to the client who wants to be the outer me—the tough chick. And the fraught inner me that wants everyone to stop watching so that I can just be the me freed of expectations. Is it possible to be a badass and self-doubting? Is it possible that I am a person to be admired, anxiety and all?
Who knows, maybe that’s the most badass thing of all: performing in the face of fear. Picking up the chainsaw day after day, come what may. Making a mistake and understanding that to err is not woman, but human.
Maybe next time — if there is a next time — I can graciously receive a compliment that conveys, you are amazing. Because by not receiving it, and by doubting its truth, I am the one othering myself. I am the one making a big deal out of my gender and my worth. There’s already enough of that going around in this world — I don’t need to get in on the game, too.
Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at sandcreektreeservice.com. See more of Quintano’s writing at jenjacksonquintano.com.
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