Compulsory Femininity, Womanhood, and Me
So, a big part of the last eighteen months or so, I have been asking myself a lot of questions about my gender identity.
I’ve written a little about that before, earlier this year, but I’d like to go into it in some more detail: I always find writing this stuff out helps me put those thoughts in a row inside my head, and I like sharing them with the little blog-audience I have on the Guignol, so here we are.
This all started a couple of years ago, when I realized, quite suddenly, how fucking exhausted I was of being a woman. Do you know the amount of effort that goes into being a passable human female? Not just the obvious physical maintenance – the hair, the make-up, the constant, never-ending shaving, the working out, the food consumption, the clothes, the bra that shoves your tits into just the right pleasing shape of cleavage without looking like you’re asking for it.
But the rest of it, too. The stuff I didn’t even notice I was doing. Walking the other way if there was a man or group of men coming down the same side of the street as me when I was alone. Softening and heightening my naturally-deep voice when I knew that I had to say something unpopular, so I didn’t sound like a bitch. The more I interrogated what I was actually doing to myself to feel that I was an actual, good woman – not morally good, just a passable female – was, for the most part, awful. I hated it. And I wanted it to stop.
As I’ve written about before, this realization happened to fall in line with being the victim of a sex crime which really shook up my feelings about femininity and womanhood in a way that I had never really thought about before. There came a point where I could just see no good in continuing to live my life as a woman – what was the point, if all it seemed to bring me was this constant effort put into stuff that I didn’t even want to do, just to please people who were likely never going to so much as talk to me in the first place?
Ever since I was a young teenager, I really enjoyed androgyny – men’s clothes, shirts, suits, the lot. When I started to grow tits and hips and thighs, I mostly abandoned those things, feeling ridiculous cramming such an obviously feminine-coded body into something so un-feminine, the contrast too obvious to ignore. Right from the start, having the body of a woman felt like it was taking options away from me; couldn’t walk about alone without commentary or worse, couldn’t wear the things that I liked, and had to play up aspects of myself that I was only just starting to wrap my head around being stuck with for the rest of my life.
And that’s what femininity had always felt like to me – something I was stuck with. A millstone hung around my neck in the form of E-cup boobs. I resented having to do it, but performing it seemed to be the only way that I could get the things I wanted – respect, kindness, career success, friendship, romantic love. And when I rejected it, it came with constant reminders that I shouldn’t. Labelled as a dyke in the street for wearing men’s clothes, being called a cunt for arguing harder than I should have, the iconic, constant invitation to “fucking smile” if I didn’t look cheerful enough for random men who saw me in public.
Which led me to an obvious conclusion: I hated being a woman. So I should just not be a woman anymore.
Not that there is any “just” about that statement. I knew then and know now that choosing to transition away from the gender that you were assigned at birth is far from some easy solution: trans people face extraordinary amounts of discrimination and abuse. I had already experienced a tiny corner of what it meant to be gender non-conforming, and that was bad enough. Taking it another step would be to invite a whole new set of problems and public commentary on my body, on me.
And, deep inside, when I asked what I felt like – I knew that I was a woman. I voraciously consumed stories from trans and de-transitioned people, exploring their own experiences moving between identities, both publically and privately. More than anything, I found my own experiences reflected in those people who had de-transitioned after transitioning – that they looked to transition as a means, not to become the person that they knew they were, but to escape the one that they currently found themselves in.
And in some ways, that felt defeating. I wanted to get away from the femininity that had been proscribed to me against my will, but to transition to another gender would just be trying to escape that, not to affirm something that I knew to be true. And that meant that I was going to have to find some way to deal with being a woman, because I knew it was the truth.
And I’m going to be honest with you: there are days when I am just incandescently angry about knowing that my life would have been easier in so many ways if I had not been born with this deep certainty that I Am a Female Person. My writing is taken less seriously. I still find myself fearful of going out without my partner, a lot of the time. I have been taught to hate so much of my body, even though it is mostly functional and healthy. I hate that these problems are not exclusive to me, most of all – I hate that so many women deal with the same problems because of a headily misogynistic culture that has upheld these standards and made this way of living normal, and has made protest about it A Bit Much, Calm Down, Love.
There are times when that anger feels impossible to get past, and I think that makes sense – when the constant re-iteration of these problems is around almost every corner, influences so much of the way that both I and the women I love live our lives, it’s not as though I can just pretend it isn’t there.
But something that has helped, a lot, in the last few months has been stepping away from the idea of femininity as an inherent part of my womanhood.
This has been made easier, no doubt, by the fact that I simply don’t see people most of the time – lockdown has made it so that what I choose to wear and how I choose to present myself are irrelevant to everyone but my cat and occasionally whoever is on the other end of my webcam, and that’s been a huge relief. With a hoodie and a mask on, when I go outside, I am essentially invisible, and it feels great – with social distancing in place, I don’t have to worry about being approached when I am out alone (well, mostly). I shave for comfort, not for short skirts, and that grinding fear that people will judge me for my lack of femininity, and that I will pay for that in some way, has started to wane, because there are less people in my life to make me pay for it (and the ones who are in it never did in the first place).
But more than anything, it has been a surprise to me to realize that I don’t feel any less sure of my gender identity now that I have basically stopped interacting with compulsory femininity. I thought that more masculine clothes, less make-up, less reason to carefully cultivate myself to please standards that I had been trying to meet for decades, would give rise to the feelings of discontent and discomfort in my womanhood that had been bubbling for so long. But, if anything, they’ve made me more certain of what I already knew – I’m a woman. I don’t need any of the costumery of femininity to prove that. I never did. Femininity is optional, but who I am doesn’t change, regardless of how I choose to interact with it.
When the world starts to right itself again, I have no idea how I’m going to feel about continuing to reject femininity. I have no idea if I’ll feel like I have to go back to what I was doing before, to pass, to make sure that I don’t pay the price for being bad at womanhood in the eyes of the world at large. I hope that the people who felt the need to shit on me, and other women who don’t conform, for not sticking to every rule we were given when we knew that we were women, realize that there are better things to do with their time and their lives and their energy. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, I don’t know if any of that will actually happen, but here’s to hoping. No matter what they decide – I have already made my choice. I am a woman, and I am going to do everything I can to enjoy every moment of it.