What Does It Mean To Be Feminine?
Couple of things happened these recent days, weeks and months that made me ponder about what it means to be feminine, and what’s behind femininity and womanhood in general?
To start with, during my recent weekend away in Antwerp, where my long-time buddies and I had for the first time an opportunity to jointly experience my female vibe, I was surprised to hear one of them say that he knew a whole bunch of gay men who were more feminine than me. Ouch, that hurt… and it wasn’t the first time it hurt me hear my friend talk, since frankly he is somewhat blunt and he will be the first to admit it. And when he said it, I could only imagine how his gay friends or acquaintances move their hands around and tilt their hips to the side, trying to be more feminine than models on a catwalk. Frankly, a caricature of femininity is what these images brought to mind. And fortunately for me it took ample time to dismiss my friend’s judging eye. But my buddy brought up a very interesting point about femininity, and about gender stereotypes in general.
And then another friend of mine, during the same weekend, made jokingly a comment that I would be a “woman with big hands”. At least he didn’t say “a man with tits”, that would’ve be infinitely worse. His words were a harsh reminder that despite my rather “petite physique” as for a natal male, I indeed will never be able to conceal entirely the “damage” my body suffered from years of exposure to testosterone. And I don’t use the word “damage” because I feel ambivalent about masculinity, which I do indeed, but rather because it is the masculine cues that give us, the trans women, away. And again, this experience made me wonder if the size of my hands is something that makes me less of a woman.
And then there is the sudden and painful reversal of my fortunes, in relation to the sexual attraction I once evoked. Because from being ones a handsome, successful, and perhaps sexy guy, one that attracted occasional female attention, I have turned into a woman of some sort, one who’s got larger hands and feet, is taller and broader and has a slightly androgynous look on her face. These days the only place I attract sexual attention is on Skype where some sleazy guys spam me several times a day, wanting to connect with me. I guess my Skype picture is convincing enough… And so, yet again, I cannot help wondering how our physical attributes define how others see us.
And finally, there is my wife whose sentiments about me have turned from cold to freezing cold, where my presence (when occasionally visiting my former home) is barely acknowledged, and where simple fondness for another human being, the one she had spent 23 years with, seems like the oddest thing one could offer. I just cannot help thinking, when confronted with this wall of emotional detachment, that my becoming a female rendered me utterly useless, removing whatever utility I once had to her. And it doesn’t seem I should even try recalling the love we once supposedly had for each other, no, most definitely not – this sentimental word should be turned off for it evokes illusions and platitudes, seems almost like bad taste and happens only in romantic novels. What connected us in the past must have been something totally different, a social contract of some sort… Well, some people will understand this attitude, but I don’t think I do. And the reason I don’t is because this shift in attitude has to do with what masculinity or femininity are to us. And so, this whole thing of female and male becomes very, very personal to me.
And so, I make full circle and I come back to the question of what makes a person female? The answer is pivotal to me, since my future identity and quality of life both depend on it. For I don’t want to question my womanhood each time I look at my hands, or each time I don’t live up to the “feminine” standards defined by someone, or when I feel emotionally shattered and filled with guilt when saying good-bye to my kids and leaving the house that once used by to my home? I just want to be myself, connected with my female identity and connected with other women, sharing in the social context that defines our female gender, and facing head-on the limitations (if not to say oppression) that regrettably come along with it.
Womanhood does depend partly on our biology, but the same biology isn’t our destiny. If anything, womanhood is a social construct, and if we acknowledge this, then we must conclude that we become women by living as women. And so, for most women, that social construct takes hold at birth, because of a vagina and a doctor’s declaration. For others, like me, it starts in early 40ies.
We, trans women are aware that we are female and are meant to have bodies that allow others to gender us correctly. Harry Benjamin, when he started working with trans women, noticed that the medical profession had tried many ways over the years to convince trans women that they were not women. But this not only hadn’t worked but it caused undue suffering. But bodies, and perhaps brains, are changeable. So he designed a way to make it work. Which is why I will eternally by grateful to him…
But let’s come back to the female body and the social construct which, taken together, supposedly make a person female. Definitions of sex are based on only a very few things: chromosomes and hormone dominance for the most part. The combination of those two is what creates a sexed body, but we also know that bodies with vaginas sometimes come with XY chromosomes and vice versa. Likewise, we know that some women are “butchy” which does not mean they are not women.
I am heavily influenced by Susan Browmiller who, in her book “Femininity”, aptly defined femininity, as a romantic sentiment and nostalgic tradition of imposed limitations. Femininity isn’t about the XX chromosomal message, about the estrogen-dominated hormonal balance, the reproductive organs (if you have them and if you use them), and the breasts in whatever size you might have them. Because as we hurry forward into the late 21st century, putting on lipstick and high heel to appear well dressed, is still very, very much what “makes us women”.
Why is this so you might ask?
Well, femininity always demands more [beyond biology that is]. It must constantly reassure its audience by a willing demonstration of difference (from men), even when one does not exist in nature, or it must seize and embrace a natural variations and compose a rhapsodic symphony upon the notes. Because when he is strong, she must be weak, and where he is decisive, she must be full of doubts.
It does not require a great leap of imagination to understand femininity as a grand collection of compromises, large and small, that a woman must make in order to render herself successful. And successful means adherence with- and dependence on established traditions, be it the styles of dress or codes of behavior. It is these traditions that offer a psychological grip on one’s sexual identity, particularly for those whose dimorphic characteristics fall within the statistical overlap that is biologically normal, yet far from the cultural ideal. And for a woman that is slightly androgynous it can be devastating when androgyny is not the intention (such as in my case for obvious reasons).
Which is why I must incorporate the decorative and the frivolous into my dress style, and apply make-up to conceal the subtle and yet easily recognizable masculine cues. For femininity must stand in direct opposition to the masculine seriousness, and the pressure of making one’s way in a harsh, difficult world. And also which is why in its mandate efforts I must avoid direct confrontation and conflict, and operate a value system of niceness, and a code of thoughtfulness and sensitivity that is sadly in short supply in our modern society.
This is a huge change to someone used to enjoying male privileges. Most of us wouldn’t even know what these privileges mean, but you would know if you once lost them, even for a brief moment. “Male privilege” is assuming one has the right to occupy any space or person by whatever means, with or without permission. It’s a sense of entitlement that’s unique to those who have been raised male in most cultures; it’s notably absent in most girls and women but for reasons of nurture and not nature. Male privilege is not something that’s given to men in this culture; it’s something that men take. Male privilege is woven into all levels of the culture, from unearned higher wages to more opportunities in the workplace, from higher quality, less expensive clothing to better bathroom facilities. Male privilege extends into sexual harassment, rape, and war. Combine male privilege with capitalism (which rewards greed and acquisition) and the mass media (which highlights only the rewards of acquisition and makes invisible its penalties), and you have a juggernaut that needs stopping by any means. Fortunately, I know a lot of guys who don’t fit in the above generalized description, and fortunately so, since that would mean an Apocalypse.
You can understand why I feel ambivalent about masculinity. And I can also honestly testify, with absolute clarity and certainty, that the things that are supposed to make me feminine are not entirely my “true nature” and that they neither are entirely “true nature” for most women I know.
And if it isn’t “true nature”, what is it then?
Well, it’s a historical necessity, but one that no longer is needed. Gender does ultimately rest on how the species reproduce, but while femaleness will continue to be defined by the XX chromosomal count and its reproductive potential, many women have ceased to define themselves by their reproductive role. Thank God for the pill! And unlike women, men were never constrained, anatomically or philosophically, to see themselves primarily as fathers. Their reproductive biology never demanded of the similar time, energies, and commitment associated with being a parent.
And so, for thousands of years women remained dependent on men. And often they still remain dependent, emotionally and financially,which is why they will grasp at strategies that seem to have worked in the past and that appear to be still working for some. Even as they reintroduce themselves to the higher heel, the shorter skirt, the thinner brow, the longer lash, and step back with that feminine self-conscious absorption to admire the effect and scrutinize for imperfection, they are thankful they need not put up with the full armature of deceits and handicaps of earlier generations. For things do improve and progress is made, and they are, in their awareness if not yet in their freedom to choose, a little closer to being themselves. What will make things even better is to un-privilege the whole gender system, on the male side of course. And this starts with our sons, my sons…but this is just a side-thought.
And so, having joined the female camp, I just have no option but to tune in and play along the game of rigid bi-polar gender system. By doing otherwise I risk being gendered incorrectly, and this is the last thing I want. So, I will have to play that game so long the gender system is not deconstructed by un-privileging men and further empowering women. But I will try to do so without compromising excessively on who I am, the confident, driven, independent, sensitive, self-aware, and perhaps somewhat masculine woman. Well, so be it, I think I can live with it.
And to the question about what it means to be feminine, for meat least… I think it means the experience of living as a woman, that’s what makes a woman a woman. As the saying goes, “You are not born a woman, you become one”.