Lately, as I’ve been delving into what feels like a whole new world of heels and cardigans and makeup, I’ve been thinking about how my opinion of femininity has morphed throughout my admittedly short life. I’ve noticed a pattern, and I’d like to share it with you:
My acceptance or rejection of the feminine within myself and others is directly related to my acceptance or rejection of misogyny.
I do really want to stress that this is an introspective piece, and that what has held true in my life absolutely doesn’t hold true for others. After all, I’m speaking as a white cisgender woman* — I wouldn’t dream of imposing my experiences or conclusions for myself on others who have not lived my life.
*What this means is that I was assigned the gender of woman at birth, and I’m comfortable with that assignment. (For those for whom this concept is new, I suggest checking out Hank Green’s wonderful video on sexuality and gender that I’ve included here.)
— 1 —
When I was a little girl, I was really into “girly” things. My favourite colours were pink and purple. I loved painting my nails, styling my hair, wearing frilly lace and twirling in pretty skirts. Jewelry, makeup, shoes, and dolls: these things spoke to my little girl heart.
You know what I also loved, though? Playing with my brother’s Star Trek and Star Wars toys, and playing our Nintendo.
Often, playing together involved combining his figurines & ships with my Barbies and stuffed animals to create a rather imaginative conglomerative world in which Star Trek and Star Wars coexisted (sometimes along with Indiana Jones, Spider-man, Batman, and Superman). Granted, my Barbies often tended to be giants fighting for the Galactic Empire that the Federation and the Rebel Alliance had to destroy mercilessly, but, I mean, I don’t hold a grudge or anything. And some of my fondest memories growing up are trying to figure out how to beat various video games.
Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t think there’s anything inherently feminine about pink or lace or nail polish or dolls. Nor do I think there’s anything inherently masculine about video games, science fiction, Indiana Jones or comic books. However, in Western society, particularly within a conservative Christian atmosphere, there’s definitely a general understanding about what’s acceptable or normal for people, particularly children, based on nothing but their assumed sex.
As for my experiences as a child, when I didn’t have the words or the conscious beliefs that women were to be submissive to men, Acceptable Femininity included wearing my pink lacey socks while playing Star Trek Wars and feeling perfectly comfortable doing so.
— 2 —
As I grew older, I began to internalize quite a lot of misogyny. I don’t attribute this to my family or any individual, but to the culture at large. It’s simply impossible to grow up as a girl in America without internalizing sexism. Even more so when one grows up surrounded and taught by the conservative religious right.
In junior high, for reasons that have always been fuzzy to me, I began to eschew all things I deemed “super girly” as determined by my understanding of gender in American Christianity in the early 2000’s. I shunned pink and feminine dress (as best as I could attending a conservative Christian school and going to church every Sunday). Despite being allowed to wear makeup at long last, I often went without it, or else opted for very dramatic goth-inspired makeup that tested my parents’ already-thin patience with my style. I embraced men’s clothing at every chance I got, being a big fan of raver pants, safety pins, black and army green. I cut my hair very short to aid in what I thought would be a more masculine — and thus, in my mind, stronger — presentation of myself, and mostly forsook heels in favor of skater shoes, for reasons I shall never understand since I have very narrow feet and skater shoes were never meant for my feet. In my mind, they were more masculine and so they were preferable.
You know what, though? These outer changes were largely superficial changes. Well, insofar as any identity or presentation is superficial, which is another topic for another day. But these “superficial” changes were indicative of the more serious misogynistic beliefs I was internalizing.
I learned in junior high that boys would treat me with a little less contempt if I joined them in their contempt for my fellow female classmates. In an attempt at self-preservation, I deliberately sided with guys who bullied my friends, lest I come under the same intensity of their abuse. I was marginally successful at this self-preservation and was able to establish myself as the “Not Like OTHER Girls” Token Female Friend. It only cost me stuffing down the consciousness that what I was doing was hurtful to girls that I loved and otherwise supported…so long as they kept in line.
As many women will testify, this sort of internalized misogyny doesn’t just look like policing and judging other women for their conformity to the widely determined “unacceptable” aspects of assumed womanhood. It also manifests in suffocating our own sense of appropriate thoughts, actions, and emotions, then mentally punishing ourselves for our inevitable failure to conform (or congratulating ourselves for “earning” the crumbs of not being treated as horribly as other women that the men toss our way as a means of congratulations for making ourselves more palatable to them by way of erasure). As a girl who was experiencing severe depression and anxiety that pushed me into an eating disorder, years of self-harm and a couple of suicide attempts, I can’t tell you how damaging it was to try to hold myself to my misogynistic standard of Acceptable Femininity that I loathed myself for being unable meet.
So, there I was, junior high and early high school Dani, presenting as masculine as I was allowed to present in an effort to distance myself from a femininity that I believed to be shameful and undesirable. The little girl who was able to enjoy both pink nail polish and video games and science fiction was shoved so deep down inside that I didn’t think she existed anymore.
— 3 —
Everything changed again when, as I’ve said elsewhere, in my late teens I began my path down the road of fundamentalism. All of the mentors in my life seemed to be of one mind: my masculine presentation was a direct affront to God and had only been tolerated thusfar because I wasn’t pierced and tattooed and doing drugs.
After lots of pressure from mentors and peers alike, I began to assign American Christian understandings of gender roles to the Bible and change myself accordingly. I let my hair grow out a la 1 Corinthians 11, and started wearing just enough makeup to “enhance my natural beauty” but not enough that the guys at my church camp would think I wore “too much” makeup (an inference from 1 Peter 3). I started voluntarily wearing both colors and women’s clothing, but was still adamant that I wasn’t a “girly girl.” I shied away from heels, elaborate hairstyles, and skirts (except on Sundays).
What I didn’t expect was that when I first started wearing feminine clothing, several of the guys in my life took…well, shall we say, “special” notice. Basically, I started getting groped in “appreciation” of my newfound femininity, despite any verbal or physical protestation. Once a friend tried to intervene…by explaining to a particularly persistent fellow that I was “sensitive about that kind of thing.” After that, I mostly stopped protesting since it kept happening anyway and, from my friend’s explanation, it seemed like it just wasn’t something I was supposed to make a fuss about.
I did make a change in my appearance for a couple of years after the unwanted attention started, however: I started dressing in extremely bright attention-drawing colors in an effort to desexualize myself while still somewhat conforming to the feminine dress code I was expected to uphold. I figured no man would be attracted to a woman in fluorescent pants and shoelaces, but at least I wasn’t offending God by wearing men’s clothing anymore. And besides, it was actually really fun. I felt really great about myself when I wore clothing like that.
My relationships with my fellow women did seem to improve as I embraced my part within the sisterhood, but my internalized misogyny only grew, this time with a Westernized literal interpretation of the Bible lending spiritual weight to the sexism. I still constantly gaslighted myself and others in an effort to make sure we weren’t Those Kind of emotional illogical drama-queens that I believed lesser women to be. Which honestly? Was something we all did to each other in the genuine belief that we were iron sharpening iron, leading one another into closer relationships with Christ. I took the way I was taught to interpret the Bible very seriously. I tried to force myself into this impossible box of being feminine enough to please God but not so feminine to come under the attack of men.
This isn’t to say that I was a perfect American Fundamentalist Christian young woman by any means. I discarded parts of the Bible I didn’t like when it suited me, just like all Western Biblical literalists do. I pierced my ears multiple times. I cut my hair short a few times again, though I was always careful to make sure it was a feminine cut at least, and I eventually decided that it ought to be long enough to wipe the feet of Jesus (I don’t even know, you guys). I still wore men’s clothing from time to time for the sheer comfort of it. I definitely had Opinions About All The Things, and I struggled tremendously with the concept of being submissive.
But by and large? I embraced femininity and my fellow sisters…so long as we constantly pushed each other to be the kind of women that God would approve of via the men in our lives. Acceptable Femininity was defined solely through the American conservative Christian male gaze.
— 4 —
When the time came for me to further my education beyond my associates degree in graphic design, and I was told I wasn’t allowed to continue my education in a non-Christian field, I decided that God was trying to teach me to be more submissive to the spiritual authorities in my life. The best place I could learn this submission, I concluded, was Bob Jones University.
The short time I was there, I succeeded in adhering to BJU’s rigorously gendered dress code as a student. In fact, it was at BJU that I finally kicked the habit of wearing skater shoes and learned to love ballet flats and even enjoy heels now and then. I actually started enjoying dressing up, for the first time since my childhood. My roommates and I clicked really well, and we often helped each other pick out clothes, critique makeup, or style our hair. I was so, so surprised that I found femininity enjoyable again, rather than just tolerable.
In general, though? My five months at BJU were horrible. Not all horrible, of course. I fell in love there. I met one of my best friends. My art education was top-notch. But some pretty shitty stuff happened while I was there, stuff that leaves scars. Suffice it to say that when I was expelled, I was broken. I felt like I would never heal, would never recover from having become the woman with the scarlet letter. I believed that I was a whore, unclean and unworthy, and I just couldn’t shake the shame and self-hatred I felt and was sure that God felt towards me.
When I came home from BJU, I completely stopped caring about myself in any sort of meaningful way. The joy in the feminine that I’d so briefly rediscovered quickly turned into panic. Trying to pull on a skirt or a dress was a nightmare of anxiety unless I managed to detach my emotions, which was proving extremely difficult in the wake of being expelled. For years afterwards, I mostly stopped caring about how I looked, only taking care when I worked two years at a marketing company that required business casual dress. I didn’t matter to me, the fallen hussie that I was, and so how I looked and how I felt didn’t matter, either.
Acceptable Femininity was something I could never achieve, because I had fallen from grace.
— 5 —
The internet is a strange and wonderful place, particularly for an introverted geek.
When I felt that I was ready, I started lurking around Facebook groups full of people who had gone to BJU but had experiences like mine. This eventually led to me starting an anonymous blog and Twitter to work out my thoughts and experiences in writing. I began learning about things like soft patriarchy and feminism as workable within Christianity. I began to learn the words that finally, finally, finally described the problem with what biblical literalists teach about women’s supposed role in church, society and the home; the things I’d internalized about how women ought to act to be taken seriously; the way I acted as a teenager when I sabotaged my girl friends to appease the guys around me. The overarching word I learned was sexism, and I saw how damaging it is to women everywhere, and I realized how damaging it had been to me.
For the first time in so many years, Acceptable Femininity was neither something to abhor nor an obligation to perform. It was something to admire, embrace, and really enjoy.
It’s been gradual, over the past year or so. But I’ve started embracing myself, my whole self, feminine aspects and all. I’ve been letting myself explore the things that I’ve suppressed for so long — “girly” things, “childish” things, vain and wasteful things that I only deemed vain and wasteful because I enjoyed them and I mistrusted my tastes as a woman. I’ve been learning to do what I enjoy and to love myself for the first time in my life.
I have short hair, not because I’m acting in rebellion against gender roles, but because it makes me feel good about myself.
I’ve been painting my nails on a regular basis, not because I think it’s something that women are supposed to do, but because it makes me happy.
I’ve recently begun wearing makeup and heels and deep colors in form-fitting clothes, not because I think that women are supposed to look “ladylike,” but because I no longer think looking “girly” is evil.
It seems I’ve come full circle.
I’m not suppressing my natural inclinations for femininity anymore. I’m letting myself be me.
And it just so happens that I’m feminine.