We Need To Talk About Cold Women
“I was cold, I’ve been told. I often write stories about women who are perceived as cold and resent that perception. I write these women because I know what it’s like to have so much warmth roiling beneath the skin’s surface, ready to be found.”
— Roxane Gay, Hunger
I’ve been told that I’m cold for as long as I can remember.
There have been variations to the label and colorful descriptive adjectives attached to it, ranging from closed off, too independent, high maintenance to arrogant, distant, self-absorbed, etc.
I’ve been long wanting to unpack this essentialized “coldness”, and after reading Gay’s book I found myself itching to verbalize years of theorizing and parsing, in what has been a year of actively seeking to understand and express my own vulnerability.
First off, I have come to realize that my “coldness” is often none other than my introversion at work.
People can have a hard time seeing that introversion and its particular set of behaviors (turning inwards to recharge, dedicating more time to ideas than to interpersonal interactions, appearing reserved, etc) is often conflated with coldness. Being able to name and honor my introverting and reclaim it from the way it was being perceived was a step towards better understanding myself and better advocating for my needs.
I also think another contributing factor to folks’ coldness attributions is that Thinking is my governing trait.
If you aren’t familiar with the Myers-Briggs typology, Thinking types tend to make decisions by collecting data and engaging in problem-solving centered on fairness and reason. They usually don’t go about actively seeking harmony or considering the emotional impact their decisions might have.
Being a woman and on the Thinking polar end of things adds another dimension to the “coldness”, a dimension that contradicts the role we’re supposed to perform; the gender imperatives of a nurturing nature, a soft voice, a warm presence, a caring heart.
There’s a reason I am specifically writing this piece about cold women; this is a label especially reserved for a particular taxonomy of women. You don’t hear folks talking about cold men. They’ll call them the “silent type”, “stoic”, “mysterious”. Maybe they even meet their manic pixie dream girl, gain meaningful insight and (re)discover their warmth on their way to self-actualization.
Cold women are not treated the same. The Betty Drapers and Quinn Kings of the world are not treated the same.
Claire Underwood is one of the few “cold women” on our screens that is slowly but steadily being seen as the badass that she is, not despite being “cold” but because of it.
She’s paving the path for more nuanced, morally ambiguous (anti-)heroine portrayals. I feel like more folks are focusing on the blurry moral lines of her actions rather than vilifying the blurry lines of her gender performance. Of course, I’ve often thought this may not have been the case were Claire not played by the ruler of gods and mortals Robin Wright, but that’s the topic of another conversation.
If you’re still not convinced there’s a difference in the perception of this “coldness” construct, here’s a fun experiment — check out what google searches look like when typing in “cold women” and “cold men” respectively:
As I’ve been writing this, one particular incident keeps popping in my head, one that I feel strikes at the core of what is most threatening about “cold women” and their presented affect:
“you don’t feel anything, do you?”
While I don’t justify it and it still stings, I understand that this was said to me in the midst of a reptilian-brain takeover of great frustration, and it’s a very familiar type of frustration — one I’ve encountered many times before and believe I’m likely to do so again. The difference being in 1)the way I’ve learned to react to said frustration over the years and 2) the way I’ve been actively seeking to prevent it.
And that took time.
I remember thinking to myself,
“I know I’m not cold. I know I have feelings. What am I doing to make people think this? What am I doing wrong? When will my reflection show who I am inside?”
As empowering as my girl Mulan was, the “I know” started becoming “I think I know” and that in time turned into an “I don’t know, maybe I am?”.
I was told that I’m cold and unemotional and that was bad, therefore I felt bad. I was bad.
I recently realized that the walls I needed to build to protect myself from internalizing these narratives started looking pretty much exactly like the walls people expected me to have up.
“For so long, I closed myself off from everything and everyone. Terrible things happened and I had to shut down to survive.
I am not cold. I wasn’t ever cold. My warmth was hidden far away from anything that could bring hurt because I knew I didn’t have the inner scaffolding to endure any more hurt in those protected places.”
— Roxane Gay, Hunger
It’s also important to remember that this thing we call coldness can look like the behavioral/affect patterns of folks with avoidant attachment style, and it can also be connected to trauma.
The ability to create trusting relationships, to let go, to be cared for, to depend on others, to seek help, and overall to not fight, flight or freeze at the idea of emotional intimacy — these are all things that can be interpreted as coldness when they’re actually deeply rooted defenses against further emotional jeopardy and harm.
As years have gone by, shielding myself by reclaiming and “owning” the coldness became easier and easier. And life seemed easier.
But it didn’t feel right.
And I knew this because I had the capacity to damn well feel. To feel deeply and strongly, regardless of my difficulty naming, processing and expressing said feels.
I’m still working on building the inner scaffolding to understand the dimensions of coldness and warmth as I directly, sincerely, authentically experience them. I’m also working on not fighting fire with fire (or more accurately, ice with ice).
I’m getting back in touch with that part of me that knows, that has always known there is warmth inside, and it is worth protecting. The part of me that knows it deserves that same warmth from my own self and others.
And I know, with conviction matching that of the Faith Militant, that the way my warmth is likely to be expressed and reflected in the public or private sphere will not be dictated by people’s bias, discomfort, or moral judgment.
“I am not promiscuous with my warmth, but when I share it, my warmth can be as hot as the sun.”
— Roxane Gay, Hunger