Thursday, April 26, 2007

not a pretty girl: thoughts on femininity

My feminity:
  • Greek sandals, hand-made by the son of a poet in Athens
  • Green pants, hand-me-ups from a younger cousin both taller and wider than me, faded to dull gray
  • a pink floral dress that stepped out of the 1930s into the thrift store where I bought it
  • bronze fingernail polish, and ring made of recycled green glass
  • a necklace of silver leaves and wooden beads, from France
  • eau de toilette my mother sent me
  • mineral powder foundation, a free gift for enduring that godawful make-up training session at The Spa

I looked in the mirror the other day and thought, where the hell did you come from?? Perfume? Nail polish? When did I turn into such a...girl?

You say the word androgyny and you think of Grecian hermaphrodites and their perfect marble proportions, the harmony of yin and yang, the Platonic (or was it Aristotle? some dead guy with no gender issues) idea of both sexes achieving that ideal state of unity. But you also think of figures, sexless and neuter, from a sci-fi novel, grey skin and expressionless faces, or conversely, something vaguely monstrous, too many body parts, absurdity and freakishness, the bearded lady, the streetwalker with a dick tucked under her skirt. My androgyny is neither extreme. Not so dramatic, but never that balanced sense of completion either. I'm not intersexed, or transgendered, or genderqueer (depending on your definition, I guess). I like being female, and I like my body as it is. It's my wardrobe that's got identity issues.

I just wish sometimes that you could change names like you change your clothes. That I could wake up in the morning and put on a shirt that hides my small breasts, and a tie, and the moniker "Andy", and go about my day, smiling to myself when people address me as "young man." And then get up the next day and wear an outfit as elegant and refined as the name "Anne." My name means "graceful one", but I've never felt particularly graceful, in any way. My androgyny shifts, constantly, abruptly. Like hormonal fluctuations, something always just slightly beyond my control. It's never something I feel I have a good grasp on.

I love my butchness. I like my boyish charm. I was a tomboy as a kid, and when I was 15 I recreated myself in the image of James Dean. I still remember the indescribable satisfaction when I first cut my hair off. I watch costume dramas and sigh over the waistcoats and hats. One of my goals in life it to own a perfectly tailored three piece suit. Possibly pin-striped. I feel most comfortable with extremely short hair, just shy of a buzz cut, to my mother's eternal consternation. I get a perverse pleasure in confusing people.

My relationship with feminity, however, has always been fraught. I was raised in an environment of white-middle-class-American feminity that felt completely alien and uncomfortable to me. My breasts are too small to put on constant display, and shaving is a painful waste of time. "Women's Interest" magazines bore me. I would look at myself with my big nose and glasses and braces, and at my sister with her long blond hair and perfect tan and concluded that the nurses switched the bassinets. A modern changeling. And I've realized recently that my tomboyishness was also informed by heaps of internalized misogyny. I remember asking my mother if I could get my ears pierced, when I was 11, and she said I was too young, I had to wait till I was 12. My older brother sneered; earrings are so girly. And those days anything my brother said and thought dictated my beliefs, so I decided I would never, ever be girly. I didn't pierce anything till I was 23.

And feminity, girlyness, as I thought of it, seemed inevitably connected to certain behaviors. Normal girls, acceptable girls are feminine. Feminine girls are pretty girls. Pretty girls aren't smart girls. Pretty girls don't read. Pretty girls hang out at the mall and buy lipstick and talk about boys. At lunch pretty girls gossip about who's taking who to homecoming, and what shoes they found to go with their dress. Pretty girls are like women's magazines: boring. I'd never heard of Ani Difranco in high school but I knew that being a pretty girl was not what I wanted to do. And in college part of my coming-out and politicization meant rejecting, piece by piece, everything I'd been raised to believe, which meant everything my mother and sister said were part of dressing "normally." I wanted to stick out, and look as queer as I could.

But. I remember being five and feeling so grown up in my red stockings, my legs crossed, sitting for my portrait in the photographer's studio. Painting my nails with Tinkerbell nail polish. And when I was eleven, I had a paisley skirt and jacket suit that made me feel graceful for the first time. Ugly as sin, now that I look back on it, but at the time I loved any excuse to wear it. My high school senior photo, a tight black dress and gray knee-length jacket and black boots. I think it was the first time I felt sexy, in a traditional sense. Cause I knew I was hot stuff in my jeans and docs and white t-shirt, even if everybody else thought I looked ugly and wierd. But that was the first time I felt comfortable and sexy in a dress.

Now, of course, my notions of feminity are structured by feminism and queerness and postmodernism blah blah blah. But I'm just starting to really, well, embody it myself. Recycled glass jewelry and, someday when I'm filthy rich, perfume from Black Phoenix Alchemy Labs. I'm starting to let my own feelings dictate my gender expression and not so much what I want or fear other people percieving. Sometimes being femme means I look like a boy in drag, and I enjoy that immensely. And sometimes it means looking like a woman in a second hand dress and sandals. And yet I know that my outfit today would still embarrass my sister, and for some reason I feel like that's an achievement. Like it's a sign that I'm on the right track, if I can be comfortably feminine and still make my family cringe, it's some kind of success.


At 5:03 AM, Anonymous Kate said...

Hi, Andygrrl. I came over here by way of Winter's recommendation: "who's talking about gender? what? where?"
-I just finished reading Norah Jones' "Self-made man" and it's got me thinking about all these sorts of issues about queer femininity. I can identify with a lot of what you're saying. Though I've also got this sense, and I'm not sure how accurate it is, that America tends to reinforce femininity in a much narrower way than the UK (hmm. or maybe just a differently narrow way. I was thinking about clothing/apprearance.)
I remember as a child of 3 or 4, there was a long period (a year or so) where I refused to wear anything but dungarees. I had 8 or 9 pairs. All the photos of me from that time show a fierce faced child in dungarees playing with cars. Its funny to me now; I mean, was it some nascent form of feminism, or was it just that dungarees felt...nice? (My favourites were purple velvet plush.)
On a more serious note, the part I found most interesting in your post was about how your brother's influence made you reject the idea of 'girly'. I can remember absolutely HATING anything 'girly' for a long time, well into my teens, even now that feeling creeps back. Its hard to think through and try to figure out, well, how much of that was me absorbing messages from a girl-hating culture? Did I take this hatred out on other girls? (You bet, I cringe to remember.) It also led to me having lots of confusion over my sexual identity (I'm bisexual, so I had a lot of messages telling me that I *was* confused anyway, never mind about gender...took me a long time to figure out that my sexual desires were the least confused thing about it.)
Anyway, thanks for writing this.

At 6:36 AM, Blogger Winter said...

Though I've also got this sense, and I'm not sure how accurate it is, that America tends to reinforce femininity in a much narrower way than the UK (hmm. or maybe just a differently narrow way. I was thinking about clothing/apprearance.)

I've had women who've lived in america say that to me. I remember someone telling me that she arrived at school after the summer in her shorts and t-shirt only to find that femininity had descended on the other girls. Somehow she'd been left out of the loop.

I think I'll have to write my own post on my gender issues because I have quite a few. My overall feeling is that the middle-class white feminity that has framed my experience works to alienate us from our bodies and our own sense of gender -- whether that be feminine or not.

I also have lots of problems with internalised misogyny. When I was younger, people often called me "pretty." I hated it so much; it gave me an almost physical pain. To be "pretty" was to be girly, which was to be weak, and also attractive to men of course. Fortunately for me, the "prettiness" seems to have worn off with age, but I still need to deal with the internalised misogyny.

One of the most painful things for me has been feeling trapped in a body/self-presentation which people read as "feminine" when I don't feel at all feminine on the inside.

At 3:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know, I think you should be what you feel like being. Rebelling against something is just as boring as going with the status quo. Because neither may be exactly what you want. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion raises some questions. Also, pretty girls do read and pretty girls can be very interesting and extraordinarily intelligent. It is not fair to stereotype.... People always judge pretty girls by their looks, how would other less beautiful people feel if it happened the other way?

At 11:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have an ugly soul.


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