When Women Get Called 'Sensitive' It's Not A Compliment, But It Should Be

Photo by Darya Sobol / EyeEm

The following is an extract from Eleanor Morgan's new book, Hormonal: A Conversation About Women's Bodies, Mental Health And Why We Need To Be Heard.

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Another stand-out bit of [lauded performance] Nanette for me is when [comedian Hannah] Gadsby addresses the "Don’t be so sensitive!" slur so often thrown at women when they’re expressing emotion. I had a partner once who told me I really needed to grow a thicker skin to "get on" in this world – a nugget of advice I tried to take on board for a while but, nah: I feel things.

"I get told to 'stop being so sensitive' an awful lot. And it is always yelled. Which I find very insensitive," Gadsby continues in her set. "'Stop being so sensitive.' I don’t understand. Why is insensitivity something to strive for? I happen to know that my sensitivity is my strength. I know that. It’s my sensitivity that’s helped me navigate a very difficult path in life. So when somebody tells me to 'stop being so sensitive', you know what? I feel a little bit like a nose being lectured by a fart. Not the problem." This spoke to me at spinal-cord level.

I’ve genuinely lost count of the number of times in my life I have witnessed noses being lectured by farts. Or, been the nose at the receiving end of the fart. I have been told I am too sensitive my whole life. But if being 'sensitive' means being open and responsive to other people’s emotions, if it means being the friend that people come to when it really matters, when they’re falling off the floor with despair or their child is sick, or if they have been catastrophically hurt by someone, then it’s a privilege. It’s taken thirty-four years and a lot of therapy to realise I can’t really change my sensitivity and nor do I want to, because where the hell would I start? Which part would I begin to unthread first? It makes me who I am.

Since I was a small child I have delighted in the details of the natural world: veins in the sand at low tide, the tiny silver bobbles and yellow cups in patches of lichen, the hot velvet of a horse’s nose, the handsome redness of a rosehip, the baby’s shoulder-like fuzz on a fig-leaf stem. In moments of real distress in my life, of which there have been a few, it has been the details of the bigger world around me, the riot of colour and life that exists and continues being what it is irrespective of what is happening in the world beneath my skull, that has brought the most comfort. I am a chronic noticer. Knowing that bushy odysseys of chlorophyll that’d make a watercolourist blush exist out there, rugged patterns in bark and sloshy mud and bodies of water and animals, birds, insects, all living their essence outside my front door, has always kept me going. Were I not so sensitive, I wonder if this would be the case. I don’t care, really. I wouldn’t change it.

I spoke to the novelist Charlotte Mendelson about this noticing thing. Mendelson’s most recent book, Rhapsody In Green, her first non-fiction, is, on the surface, about an accidental gardening obsession and all the chaos that come with it. Beneath the delicious descriptions of leaves and stems, and the jokes about aphids, beans and slugs, however, is the spirit of someone who has, perhaps, always been noticing and delighting in the details of things as a way of connecting with a world that can feel tricky, alarming and embarrassing at times. Her award-winning novels (Love In Idleness, Daughters of Jerusalem, When We Were Bad, Almost English) have human sensitivity and awkwardness running through them like an artery. My hunch, it seems, was right.

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"I’ve often been called sensitive, and it’s never a compliment," Mendelson tells me. "It means, at least for a woman, too emotional, too touchy and quickly upset. That’s probably true; certainly my life would be easier if I minded less. But if I wasn’t so responsive, so alert to others' embarrassment, the little gestures which show their passions and fears, I wouldn’t be a novelist." And, if she was less aware of the world around her, Mendelson says she "would be deprived of one of the joys of my life: the tiny details of nature, leaf-veins, stone speckles, bark and skin and tendrils. Being a noticer is a curse and a blessing, and it makes me me."

How many women have been called 'over-sensitive' when displaying sadness, fear or anger? Told that they’re over-reacting? As if the 'over' bit is not a wildly subjective conclusion depending on an individual’s own thoughts and fears? All of us at some point, I’d imagine. A colleague of mine at VICE once looked at me with dilated cocaine pupils at the staff Christmas party and told me that, although he thought I was "fucking amazing", I was "too defensive" sometimes. He said "it really lets you down". I went home soon after. I’ve heard it in pubs, living rooms, bedrooms, gyms, hospitals, you name it, and so, I suspect, will you have. It’s usually from men. I’ve heard it come from the mouths of men I respect, including my own family, and men I don’t respect. You hear women say it, too, and wonder what’s going on for them, but it is usually men, isn’t it? They think we either are too sensitive or have gone mad. But what if that 'madness' is, in fact, anger; anger with centuries of momentum behind it? I recall how my friend the writer Sophie Heawood closed a piece titled 'Princess Diana Was As Mad As Any Other Woman' about how bonkers people thought Princess Diana was ("The more dead that woman gets, the more I love her"):

"The older I get, the more I see how women are described as having gone mad, when what they’ve actually become is knowledgeable and powerful and fucking furious."

After she tweeted the piece, the line was retweeted thousands and thousands of times. It’s been in her bio for years now and, she tells me, "may well be carved on my gravestone". Another tweet I saw that went viral – 18,000 retweets and 73,000 likes at the time of writing – was by Erin Keane, Executive Editor, Salon Media Group:

"Every woman I know has been storing anger for years in her body and it’s starting to feel like bees are going to pour out of all of our mouths at the same time."

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These women are right. Of course they are. Other women have shared their sentiments in droves because we know it. Our cells are full of it. Our opinions, emotions and behaviour have been pathologised and written off as unnatural, women positioned as excessive, volatile and downright untrustworthy, whether or not the person saying it actually believes that in their bones, for so long. It’s so convenient, so fucking easy to play the woman-is-monster card when you don’t want to listen to what she’s saying. Or, don’t have the capacity to. The tendrils of stigma, shame and otherising from the 'hysteria' days still poke and prod today. It’s a vapour we all breathe, day in, day out. Let’s just call it what it is: something not very decent. Something that says more, so much more, about the person saying it. At a push we could say it’s gaslighting. "You’re too sensitive" is what people say when they’ve said or done something unkind and want you to believe that they haven’t. It’s gaslighting because when you hear it often enough, the possibility that it might be true spreads over your mind like a bad fungus.

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