From the moment I was laid under the fluorescent lights in the hospital room, all proclaimed I was a girl. From the moment I was swathed in a pink blanket and cap, the expectations of girlhood were placed upon me, many years before my brain could compute girlhood and femininity.
I am 27 years old now and my femininity and womanhood have existed as a dynamic, oppressive cloud over my head, changing forms and redefining itself as societal forces shoved my self-concepts around, exerting their power upon me.
This month is also Women’s History Month. As it stands, I have two decades and seven years of history as a woman to share.
The experience is different for every single person who becomes a woman, their own ideas of what it means shifted and molded by the powers that be. I am interested to hear about everyone’s experience, whether they were born with female genitals or a female spirit, or some dynamic other identity that incorporates femininity.
Now, I share my own experience and all the memories and associations that define it.
After being told I was a little girl for over a decade, adolescence brought me the new, jarring idea that I didn’t look feminine. A particular memory rises to the surface: a summer day, standing on a pond’s dock in my friend’s backyard. I was twelve years old, and my friend Casey lounged on a rubber raft on the pond’s murky green water. Her older brother Zane and her brother’s friend sat on the edge of the dock and we exchanged snark, arguing about something that didn’t matter at all.
Zane’s friend ended the argument by zeroing in on my appearance with the examining precision of a doctor in a patient’s room. He pointed to the thick black hair on my legs, pond water forming trails between each strand. He pointed to my square face and my black eyebrows. He patted my broad shoulders.
“You don’t look like a girl. You look like a gorilla!”
I looked down at the brown drops of water trailing down my legs. Shame shot me through the heart; the observation seemed so accurate. My friend, lounging on the raft, wore a bikini and already had a curving shape that I wouldn’t even achieve until I was twenty. Her hair was bright blonde, her face a lovely oval that formed a delicate point with her soft chin. Her lashes were longer, her small shoulders sloped. The blonde fuzz on her legs was invisible.
But me, but me… it was true, I was square: my shoulders square, my frame square, my chin square. Nothing tapered. My hair was thick. I could easily pass for a boy, if I wanted.
His argument silenced me. The boys laughed triumphantly.
Just as easily as a boy could tear me down, unsex me, he could just as easily force my own sexuality upon me and make me feel vulnerable, exposed. This gesture was never anything I could reciprocate. I could fight back with words, but sexuality was always this dangerous last resort. Something I was never prepared for, thus leaving me defenseless and confused. No one had ever given me any guidance regarding what I experienced, and all I had at my disposal was “boys will be boys.”
This began at the same time the criticism of my appearance and femininity began, at twelve years old. The boys that liked me would approach me in the pool and wrap their half-naked bodies against me, forcing my friends to pry them off while I ran. They would trap me in the back of the bus and refuse to let me out until they touched my breasts, still small and developing. I would look to the other boys for help, begging them to help me get away, and they stammered to their friend, “Hey, man…. that’s… that’s not okay.” So timid it had no effect. The same boys I would turn to for help would also make jokes about chopping off my breasts and masturbating to my body. They were my friends.
We were adolescents. They approached this with the same air as a game. There was laughing—I laughed. But I was also the brunt of the joke. Me, and my body, which was in the same stroke prematurely being described as inadequate and masculine. My confusion was thick, the fragments of my identity developing and coalescing poorly, with no answers or direction. I was ashamed.
My body gave me many things I was taught to be ashamed about. When my mother spoke to me about periods, her words were quiet and she warned me against allowing men to see my disposed feminine hygiene products. She told me I had to dispose of it all in a separate garbage can, in another room, away from the eyes of the men in my family. Whatever other instructions she gave me, the message was clear: this is gross, shameful.
I internalized the message. I have a horrific memory of being eleven, walking through the mall with my friend Casey and her mother. While browsing through the stores, I felt my period arrive unexpectedly. We took a bathroom break and I saw that everything was far worse than usual, blood everywhere, dripping down my legs and soaking my pants. Every last fiber of my being was wracked with shame and mortification as I spooled out the toilet paper to make a make-shift pad, standing up and pulling my winter coat down below my bottom. I could have told my friend that I was in a dire situation, but she hadn’t begun her period yet. I should have told her mother, who was ushering us along and running errands, but my shame prevented me.
Instead, I endured and kept completely quiet. Her mother decided to go to the food court, decided to stop at the library. We picked up her brothers. Meanwhile, I stood stiff as a board, legs pressed tightly together, my stomach twisted inside out with sharp, corrosive shame. I spent hours soaked in blood because I was terrified to say anything. Looking back at the awful experience, I see now how easily I could have spoken to her mother after our bathroom break.
But shame is powerful. No one had ever told me what to do, or that this was normal.
Confusion continued to shape my experiences as I moved through my teenage years. My femininity was like an object I couldn’t quite stick a pin in. My male friends pushed it one way, then another; my girl friends pulled it vigorously in another direction; my parents told me I was too abrasive and opinionated for a girl; media and society pressed down from above.
When I was fourteen, I was sitting on the couch with a friend when I noticed her breasts for the first time. They were much more shapely than mine—they turned me on. I realized in a quick, horrifying moment that I was attracted to her body. I attempted to shove this realization out the window, but the seed was planted and these thoughts dogged me for the rest of my adolescence as I ran as fast away from them as I could.
I never escaped it.
When I was twenty, I hesitantly, timidly, tip-toeing, began to think of myself as bisexual. I began to do what I had always wanted to do and kissed girls. Even still, I could never say it confidently until well into my twenties. Again, shame and paranoia shadowed me.
At the age of sixteen, I cut off all my hair. I wanted to look like a boy. It was a subversive act—everyone was always asking me why I don’t date boys, I was confused, and I wanted my difference from the other girls to show. But my confidence only lasted as long as it took until all the hairs were cut from my head. After that, I was again vulnerable and subject to criticism. The other girls in my class asked me over and over again why I didn’t style my hair. It wasn’t enough to say I didn’t want to, and I was too ashamed to tell them I didn’t know anything about styling my hair. My mother had always been aloof about appearances and taught me nothing feminine except to hide my biological functions. I had no guidance, no base knowledge. I had no role models that were women. The other girls implied that this was wrong.
When I did finally strike confidence, I had an explosive oil well of it. I grew my hair out and experimented with my femininity. My shape began to morph, my body blooming later than most others’, while I was in college. My associations were so strong that I wasn’t able to experience confidence until I felt I looked like a woman. I began to take leadership positions and faced the onslaught of criticism with much more energy than I used to have, my shame at that point tucked away in the core of my being.
My mother was mortified by my outspokenness and structured the narrative that I was a bad, selfish person. I made enemies, and they called me aggressive, abrasive, and crazy (in a spectacular long adventure in gas-lighting that succeeded in convincing me and put me in the hospital). I felt as if I had moved from being acceptable and a vulnerable victim, to unacceptable and willing to defend myself.
With all of these trials came experience, and as the years wore on, my experience helped me sift through my identity and gather a coherent picture of myself, as a woman, that wasn’t like any of the images pushed on me, but something unique to myself. It took a long time, but I slowly gained the ability to make affirmative statements: I am bisexual, I am a woman, I am intelligent, I am feminine, I am masculine too, I am a leader.
And I am a role model.
I understand that a lot of my sense of femininity has come from my body—but that’s just my personal experience. Not every woman gets a period or has female sex organs. For me, these were identity-shaping factors, but I recognize everyone has their own experience.
I want everyone who is femme to discover their own womanhood and femininity on their own terms. It shouldn’t be forced upon them, it shouldn’t be explained to them. Every idea that was imposed on me just suppressed and confused me. It’s for each and every one of us to discover for ourselves.
My hope is that it won’t take as long for others as it took for me.