I’ve been ma’am’ed without my consent.
I’ve always looked young for my age. Carded for cigarettes through my mid-20s. Carded to get into bars and for alcohol into my 30s; and for real, not that flattering kind of carded you sometimes get from bartenders hoping to get lucky. I was 38 and people genuinely (I swear) thought I was 24 or 25.
But once I had my first child at 40, the gap between my real age and my “age people guess” started to narrow. Add two more children, a whole of stress, and menopause, and the gap grew narrower still.
Like everyone, I’d been called “ma’am” by someone working the drive-in window. That doesn’t count; in today’s world, fast food, retail and convenience store workers use “ma’am” and “sir” as a kind of high-level customer service, particularly in the South.
What really hurt was being called ma’am by the nurses in my doctor’s office. And by my doctor, who could be my biological son. And by my kids’ teachers (ditto). And by the lady at the DMV. And the pharmacist. And even the new car salesman, who ran his internal sales logic and decided I’d be most flattered by ma’am because obviously I’m too old to buy “miss.”
Basically, every stranger I now interact with compartmentalizes me into a ma’am—and ma’am is code for old. Mature. Deserving of AARP membership, even.
I get that it’s supposed to be respectful, but it feels anything but. I feels as I’m being sidelined. We are a youth-driven culture, and young people don’t get called “ma’am.” You can’t be hot and be a ma’am. You can’t be hot and even be a madam, as traditionally those are the hookers so old they make arrangements for other hookers.
So every ma’am is a reminder that I’m aging. That men no longer look at me “that way.” That I actually do qualify for AARP membership. That I’m old enough that there’s an entire generation of professionals who could be my biological children.
(And yes, I get the benefits of maturity, I know it’s better than the alternative, and I’m conflicted about my desire for the male gaze, thankyouverymuch.)
Being called ma’am is something that happens to us whether we like it or not, whether we consent to it or not. To protest seems childish, even uncivil. But damn, it stings.