What I Can’t Say

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By Stacey C. Rivera

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It has been coming in waves. Hard, unrelenting, unexpected waves. The kind that roll over your head and flip you around so that you are unsure which way is up until you reach bottom, 15 feet away from where you started and completely without your footing. A reminder that you are not in control of your own self, much as you believe you are/have been. #MeToo? More like, #stoplyingtoyourself.

I recently walked out of a big meeting with a new male colleague who said to me, “I like your style, you don’t speak from a place of fear.” My initial response was, “What do I have to fear?” He, of course, took that as confidence. What I meant was that it’s all happened to me before: belittled in public; male co-workers taking credit for my work in front of me; reminded that my gender (female), weight (size 16), and ethnicity (Latina) made me inferior; yes, comments about tits and ass (sometimes in reference to mine, sometimes not); female co-workers being called cunts; being IM’ed descriptions of dreams a senior male had about fucking me on a bed of pillows (in truth the pillows grossed me out the most, like wtf?); being screamed at and physically aggressed upon; being paid less. Seriously, that’s only half of it—my career has been long. And it turns out, humiliating.

I am often described by people as having a big personality—nice-speak for I have a big mouth and I get shit done. I have a lot to be proud of. There are people in this industry who believe me bulletproof—a mentor and a role model—and I have a drawer full of thank-you notes to prove it (the thing in my career I am the proudest of). They expect that I will do the right thing, for them and for myself, and they do not think I am afraid of anything.

I failed every single one of them. And in truth I failed myself. I could have been stronger, I could have been louder. Where I can fight for writers and budgets and for brand, I failed hard at fighting bro culture every step of my 20+-year career.

But even as I type this, I fight the urge to put in disclaimers. Don’t assume this was so-and-so! This happened to me but it wasn’t when I worked for blank! I know what you have heard, but it wasn’t necessarily true! My instinct is now, and has always been, to protect the men in my career more than I protected myself or the women around me. I operated from a sense of duty to the brand and fear of being deemed difficult. I think it took this line in Lisa Donovan’s recent essay in Food & Wine to really figure it out: “Because some men will always feel like we are the best tools for them to get what they need out of any given situation.

So now, while I am being crushed under the weight of the years of truths I refused to acknowledge and how they have personally affected me (back to that size 16 thing—easiest way to protect yourself is to not be seen in a sexual way), I have the added weight of crushing guilt. I did not do enough. I was a tool—literally and figuratively.

There were times when I did speak up and failed hard. If not deaf ears, it fell on explain-it-away-ears—he didn’t mean it, she is being sensitive, oh he is really harmless, he’s just on deadline, ehh he was just drunk. And over 20 years, I let a part of myself be explained away—the part that knew I was being treated different, that I was being treated as lesser.

Let me pause here to address “he was drunk.” One of the things I don’t think is being discussed enough in this moment is the effect drugs and alcohol—in both the media and in restaurants—have on this problem.

I don’t mean we were all at a party and everyone was drinking/smoking/etc. I mean it’s 1 p.m. and brown liquor is in the glass of a co-worker during a meeting, or, in one of my more memorable jobs, figuring out when you could and couldn’t deliver proofs to an editor based on how wasted he was. Part of the reason I have had such a hard time reporting harassment is because I more wanted to send the offending co-worker to rehab rather than H.R. The most hostile places I worked were also the most drug-and-alcohol fueled. But it’s not cool to narc, and being cool was the only way to survive.

I also came up at a time when being a guy’s girl was the ideal. More Watts than Amanda Jones, my friends were male, my career was male dominated, and I “was cool.” The unfortunate part was that to be accepted, I moved my own personal foul line so far, I accepted a lot of bad behavior as normal.

Excuses, Stacey, excuses. You have made a name for yourself for not taking shit, for not being afraid. WHY NOT SAY SOMETHING, ANYTHING?

I think what it comes down to is this: I don’t trust my own voice—yet. In many ways, I taught myself not to trust my own words, my own feelings, and my own truths, and because I was a tool, I put myself in a position to be useful and was thereby used. So removed from my own reality, I initially thought how lucky was I that I didn’t have a reason to use the #MeToo hashtag. And then it came back to me, one after the other after the other after the other. Literally stealing the air from me—again. Of course #MeToo, oh my god, of course me too.

 

Stacey C. Rivera is a woman becoming a certain age in media. A mother, editor, Latina, and a baker, she has also made content on each of those topics. Currently the digital content director for food at Time Inc, she is a graduate of New York University and holds a professional pastry and baking arts degree from the Institute of Culinary Education and is maybe one of the only people on the planet who can say she worked at Hallmark and Playboy. She can be found at @staceriv3 everywhere the cool kids are.

 

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Rachele Morino