It happened gradually, but there's no denying it - I've developed a pantomimical tic every time a waiter gives me the wrong coffee. Allow me to explain: I like my coffee black, my boyfriend likes his white. Sometimes, if he's feeling particularly decadent - or delicate - he'll request a cappuccino. (I know, keep up...) My order stays the same. But wherever we go, there is a good chance - don't ask for statistics, I can't do maths - that the person handing us our coffees will presume the boy's choice is black and mine is white.
Now, I am loyal to my black coffee. It has been my hot beverage of choice for as long as I can remember. What I longed to make mine ever since I was about seven years old, watching, fascinated, as my (lactose-intolerant) father sipped this bitter, dark liquid as though it held magical properties and the key to contentment (sorry if talking about my dad suddenly seems a bit weird and Freudian - it's not, honest. He also used to eat his cornflakes with apple juice, and I definitely don't do that). Anyway, the point is, my coffee is my coffee and it's black, and that's that.
Except that, according to many perfectly lovely waiters handing us our drinks, mine is always the milky one. Mine is the frothy one. The one with the chocolate sprinkles. Mine is never the strong stuff. That's always given to my boyfriend (OK, 99% always).
At first I didn't think anything of it. Then I started to become aware of it. Then I started to mildly expect it. Then it became a 'thing' - each time a vindication of my suspicions that Something Was Not Right. Our current geographic nomadism living in both Leeds and London reveals it is no regional quirk, but a genuine cross-country issue. It is a strange mishap that only occurs when I coffee (yes, I am using it as a verb) with men, so my one explanation for it is that one drink is perceived as more masculine, the other more feminine. And this rattles me.
And it's this rattling that's led to the tic. It manifests as an over-the-top pointed gesture - a cup-and-saucer swappage so dramatic that children three tables away would be justified in shouting "Oh no, he didn't!" each time a waiter does indeed do it again. Sometimes I say aloud to no one in particular, because the waiter is back at his station now, and I am too British to make an actual issue about it, that "The milk is his, I drink mine black" - as though I am doing the IRL version of live-tweeting my coffee experience - which I think is just called living and talking, actually (to be confirmed on Urban Dictionary).
I know this all seems very small fry (feel free to level the charge of #firstworldproblems at me), but what unsettles me is the assumption. The assumption that what we look like, or what our gender is, or what's there between our legs, determines the flavours and foods we might eat (and the colours we like, and the clothes we wear, and the books we read, and the films we watch, AND HOW MUCH WE GET PAID AND THE JOBS WE CAN DO...).
These are the same assumptions that presume I'm the one who ordered the fruity pink cocktail, not the bourbon, or that the burger and chips must be my boyfriend's, because surely I'm the salady type? Clearly there's something about having a vagina that affects your digestive tract, rendering it incapable of processing anything other than tiny leaves and finely chopped cucumber. Who knew?
Yes, there are terrible, troubling problems in the world right now, awful things we should be thinking about constantly and trying to fix, but these small, seemingly innocuous assumptions are the little things that, day in, day out, contribute to making it harder for us to live more freely as ourselves. Little ant pincers clinging on to misogyny, gender stereotypes and unobtainable body ideals, racism and homophobia and fear of otherness. Little ant pincers of judgement, imperceptible, but powerful and determined, strong with conviction, hard to shake off.
And before I have the Union of Baristas on my case, of course we all make these judgements and assumptions every day. It's hard not to. It's evolutionary, this sizing up of each other, getting the measure of a person, piecing together little clues to try to get the bigger picture in just a few seconds. But it makes us lazy - we resort to superficial shorthand. For me, while not a gender thing, I can be guilty of thinking everyone else has life more sorted. I take outer confidence, beauty and thinness as markers of happiness - I forget we are all just trying to stay afloat sometimes.
But surely we are now far enough ahead in the existence of humanity to keep presuming men and women are so different to the point of how frothy they like their coffee? This is the same bullshit that motivates advertisers to depict women as having orgasms over low-fat yogurt - because nothing gets our pants wetter than a guilt-free* dairy snack. You know what? In all my 34 years, I've never invited friends round to eat yogurt. In fact, I don't think I've ever eaten yogurt with another woman. Maybe you don't know 'til you've tried, but I don't think that particular pastime is for me. Stop marketing foods as gendered. Seriously, stop it.
Because this is not just about coffee. It's an old and tired narrative that tries to keep people in boxes. I don't want a pink drink because I'm a girl. I don't want you to judge what I eat because I'm a girl. I don't want to nibble food because I'm a girl. I want to shove it all in my mouth and not feel transgressive for having an appetite. We need to smash these tiny assumptions one by one because they help absolutely nobody.
Because this is about far more than just coffee.
(Except when it is about exactly that. So please give me that black Americano - it's mine.)
*And 'guilt-free' food can fuck off. But that's another blog...