Learning To Be Unlikeable Is The Best Thing I’ve Ever Done – Here’s Why

It was a Saturday afternoon, and I was having a crap massage. I’ve had many a massage in my life (predominantly to help with my endometriosis flare ups) and invariably, many of them have been crap. And it’s always for one specific reason: I’m trying too hard to be likeable. I’m more concerned that the masseuse should warm to me, should think I’m agreeable, should leave our 60 minutes together thinking, “I wish I had more clients like her,” than whether I am enjoying the experience myself. The experience that I have paid for.

And it doesn’t end with massages. I’ve only ever felt safe if I feel I am behaving in a ‘likeable’ manner. Whether that’s toward a potential employer, rewriting emails to the payroll department over-and-over until I’m satisfied that they don’t sound pushy or ungrateful – even though they’re three months late paying me – a mum at a sensory class (who I try to engage in ‘pleasant’ conversation as I wrestle a nappy back onto my eight-month-old), a server at a restaurant, my doctor during an intimate exam or, more recently, the teacher at my antenatal course, who I was so concerned should like me, that I directed all of my energy toward that aim. Of course, I came away with very little actual advice about actually keeping my baby alive once she was here. 

In fact, even while giving birth, I couldn’t escape the innate need to be liked by the staff. I tried to engage the various midwives, consultants and anaesthetists in witty conversation between each laboured breath, I apologised profusely for not being able to get my own water (due to a shed-load of epidural running through my spine) and kept insisting I didn’t need anything, even though I could think of about 10 things that I needed from minute-to-minute during my 21-hour labour.

And though my pursuit of endless likability felt entirely consuming, and often embarrassingly personal to me, I’m not alone. Women are taught from a young age that we need to be cheerful and agreeable – and if we let this demeanour slip at any point, we are graciously reminded by thoughtful male strangers who approach us, unwarranted, on the street, telling us to ‘smile’ more.

It’s not just ‘regular’ women who often fall victim to the endless – and energy zapping – need to be liked. Only a few weeks ago, director Sofia Coppola explained to The New Yorker that her Apple TV+ project with actor Florence Pugh had been pulled due to their female lead character being deemed ‘unlikeable’ by a clutch of male execs. “The idea of an unlikeable woman wasn’t their thing. But that’s what I’m saying about who’s in charge,” she said, going on to note that there are plenty of male protagonists at the heart of successful shows who are unlikeable. 

Sadly, it’s one of the oldest patriarchal tropes in the book: men in charge are bosses, women are just bossy. Men are professional and driven, women are cold. Men who disagree are ‘standing their ground’, while women are just being difficult. Women must make themselves small and agreeable – we are allowed to stay in the room, but only if we ingratiate ourselves to everyone else in it and sit quietly in the corner.

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