Home improvement stores and everyday microaggressions

By Thais Bessa

I just moved to a new house with my family and we are at that stage of fixing things up, painting walls, etc, which requires frequent visits to home improvement stores. In my house, I do all the DIY jobs, be them assembling furniture, decorating, building, or fixing stuff. My husband hates these jobs and is not good at them, I love them and do a good job. So it has always been a no-brainer in our family: he watches the kids whilst I fix, build, paint, whatever is needed. It has become our inside joke that we defy this particular gender stereotype.

However it turns out the world is not our little bubble and it took me a while to realise that the home improvement and DIY arenas are male dominated. I mean, it seems so obvious to me now, but it took me a while to connect the dots. Back in 2011 I went out for dinner with my husband and a few of his co-workers and their partners. As we and another couple had just bought our first houses, at some point the conversation turned to home improvement. I remember saying that I had just built some shelves, removed wallpaper and repainted most rooms. The guy laughed and made a comment to the tune that by me I meant my husband. When I said no he widened his eyes and said (to this day I remember his exact words) “oh my wife doesn’t do this type of things, she is very delicate”. He looked at me with a mix of contempt and disgust and started talking to someone else.

I never though much of it, but over the years I have seen so many female friends complaining they needed to wait for their male partner to come home to hang a picture or fix something that broke. They often laughed at their own helplessness, often using the infamous expression “honey-do-list”, which according to the Urban Dictionary is “a lists of chores and/or errands given to a man by his wife or girlfriend”. I follow a fair number of home improvement blogs, a lot of them run by couples (it seems to be a very successful formula). Come to think of it, for the vast majority of them, there is indeed a formula: the woman takes care of the homemaking side of things, including creative design and organising, whilst the man does the “hard work” of building, fixing, and wrangling heavy tools. The gendered representation is clear: men provide shelter, meaning they build the physical home where the “family” (aka children and women) are to be kept. That domestic realm is then passed on to the women to “make the house a home”. Building and tools belong to men; cooking, cleaning and crafting nice things belong to women.

In this sense, home improvement stores are the site where this representation of masculinity is materialised. In hindsight, I now see that every time in my life I went to a home improvement store in any country, 80-90% of people there were men. I vaguely remember occasions when I was perusing the isles in search of a particular tool or supply and being approached by a salesMAN or a “concerned” fellow (male) shopper asking me if I was ok, if I knew what I wanted or if I needed help (and in several occasions the tone was rather patronising). I had never noticed these actions to have any meaning beyond well-intentioned offers of help, and I am sure in same cases it may have been. But they did have a meaning. They meant “you are out of your depth here, you are out of your place. Big tools are dangerous for fragile female hands”.

However, recently I experienced that if this type of store is the site of expression of “masculinity”, it is also where sexual harassment and everyday microaggressions take place. A few weeks ago I went to The Home Depot near me (the main home improvement store in America, similar to B&Q in the UK) to pick up a few supplies. An employee approached me and asked me where I was from. I was taken aback by the question and I should have asked why the heck he was asking that. But I simply answered “Brazil”. He immediately proceeded to tell me in Spanish (sigh) that I was a very beautiful woman, accompanied by a sleazy grim. I was so shocked I just walked away, but I spent the rest of the day mad at myself for not having said anything back.

Fast forward to one or two Saturdays later and I had to go back to the same store. This time I was with my husband and children as we were on our way to somewhere else. We needed quite a few things and decided to divide and conquer. He went to get some stuff with the children and I went to the painting department to ask for a special mix. I approached the employee behind the counter and began to explain what I needed. I had not uttered more than 4 or 5 works when another employee came from the back and started to talk to his colleague in a very locker-room manner. He pointed at me and said “this one is trouble, did you know that? Just look at her and you can see this woman is trouble”. He did not mean it as costumer-who-complains kind of trouble. His tone, body language and again sleazy grim meant a not so subtle sexual innuendo. I immediately remembered what had happened to me at that exact same damn store a few days before and my blood boiled. This time I did not stay quiet. I told him I did not appreciate that type of comment, to which he OF COURSE replied “calm down, I was only joking”. I said that it was not an appropriate joke for a costumer (again in hindsight I should have said not appropriate to any woman or human being for that matter). I thanked them and walked away. As I found my family I was shaking. I told my husband what happened and he asked me if I wanted him to go tell them off, which he meant well but made me angrier. In order to go to the cashiers to pay we had to pass by the painting department, where the two employees were. As they saw me walking with my family they turned pale and avoided my eyes that were firing daggers at them. But they were probably not ashamed from having made sleazy comments to me because I am a human being who deserves respect. No, they were embarrassed because it turns out I was not a woman alone, I had a man with me. I felt furious and humiliated because it may seem small, but these everyday microaggressions matter. They build up, they hurt, they bring a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. So many spaces are still hostile to women and if they dare to enter such spaces they are to be mocked or harassed – or rescued. But most of all I felt a deep sense of sadness to look at my two young daughters and realise they are unfortunately most likely to go through things like this, through harassment, discrimination, and violence, be them big or small.