Being Female

For months now I’ve been seeing a lot of posts online that express the simple thought ‘Trans Women are women’ and a smaller number of more complex posts that take issue with the idea. It’s not a conversation I’ve waded into, because my own position has me feeling that I am in no way able to speak for anyone else in this, and my own body/gender identity issues leave me short of language.

From a certain perspective I’m a cis-gendered woman in that I live presenting as a woman with a body that has bled, made a baby, and made milk. I don’t feel any sense of femininity on the inside, but I don’t feel anything else clearly enough to justify trying to make my body look like some other gender either.

It strikes me as an irony that for the feminists who consider being born with obvious female genitals the only way to be female, I count. My body counts for me.

There are plenty of people who appear female who were born with ambiguous genitals. There are women who, for a whole host of reasons, cannot carry children, do not even have wombs or ovaries, cannot produce milk, do not develop breasts or hips to any great degree. There’s a lot of variety in the apparently female form and its ability to conform to gender stereotypes. So at what point does one woman get to say to another ‘you are not biologically female enough for me to feel comfortable with you identifying as a woman’? Can we talk about the erasure of women who are not a neat match for biologically narrow perceptions of what women are ‘supposed’ to be? Ironically, by focusing on penises, there’s a strand of feminism that is treating as non-existent a whole array of female experience.

When you get down to it, who is allowed to say that someone is or is not something, is a big and loaded political issue. Now, this to my mind is where it gets interesting, because part of the issue here is the idea that people who are born men and have male bodies are able to then use their privilege to dictate what does and does not count as female. That’s a real issue, isn’t it? Having someone else tell you who is allowed to be female and what it means to be female. But, this is with us all the time in so many forms.

Because of the way I’m wired, I can’t help but suspect that a big part of gender is a social construct. Let’s pause to consider how ideas of femininity are constructed by the media, the film industry, the fashion industry, the cosmetics industry, the porn industry, and so forth. Last time I checked, these were all fields with significant male influence, if not male domination, constructing femininity for the male gaze. Massive pressures to look and dress in certain ways come down to us from these large, powerful forces that really haven’t woken up to gender equality at all. The female body is something they can exploit for cash, simply.

Imagine a world where women were not under constant pressure to conform to ‘beauty’ norms. Imagine a world where most of the women you see on the screen were not speaking the words put into their mouths by men to conform to outmoded ideas about what women are. Imagine pornography made by women for women if you want to go really radical.

Of course trans women don’t always ‘pass’ they don’t always fit easily into the female gender stereotype as constructed (I think) by historical male preference. Too tall, too hairy, too muscular. I’m tall, hairy and muscular. I can’t help but think that the gender stereotype might be what’s wrong here. I also want to ask who a person is being feminine for, whose permission and acceptance they need to present as they want to. How much do we need our gender identities affirmed by those around us, how much power do we give them? How much is gender identity just a question of what you’ve got in your pants, and if you were in a car accident and what was in your pants no longer looked the same, would your gender identity change?

I wonder sometimes if the main reason I can’t identify with my body identity is that femininity is too narrow a social construct. So for entirely selfish reasons, I’m interested in broadening the definition of what female is, on the off-chance it turns out there is space for me after all.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

16 responses to “Being Female

  • Elen Sentier

    I’ve always felt that I’m a person who happens to be inhabiting a female body, this time around. I’ve detailed and proven memories of being other genders and orientations, including a very funny time when I was a roman soldier (Vercingetorix time) married to a Jewish woman who is/was my husband now. I got killed in the last Vercingetorix battle. We had 9 kids between us, I think I used to come home from a tour and immediately jump on the wife … say no more LOL. Paul remembers it too.

    In consequence of all these memories I find my current gender has little or nothing to do with who I am. I am this spirit inhabiting the current body, rather like a space-suit for Planet Earth.

    I do have a lot of sympathy for those going through trials because their body-gender seems to be at odds with their feelings. I know a lot of people who have been and are going through a load of stuff on this. Having talked with many of them in this vein I’m currently at the conclusion it would be really helpful if everyone knew (not just believed in) reincarnation and what it’s all about. It puts so many things into a realistic perspcetive.

    Ever since puberty I’ve used the adage, “I’m a person, currently inhabiting a female body, I hang the sex on afterwards … if i fancy it!” 🙂

  • Laura Perry

    I’m in the same boat as Elen… I’m currently inhabiting a female body and that works for me this time around, but underneath it all, I don’t identify as a particular gender – to me, souls don’t have gender. But I have a lot of friends who struggle with gender identity in one way or another, and I have to think a lot of that struggle goes back to the pigeonholes and labels you’re talking about here. Identity of any sort is always a social construct – for instance, women with polycystic ovarian syndrome are medically/hormonally intersex even though their plumbing is female by cultural standards. In the end, it seems to me that all the cultural stereotypes do is make a certain percentage of the population consistently miserable. I realize that originally, the idea of identifying clearly as male or female was to decide who gets to be in the dominator/privileged group and who doesn’t (and that’s a big part of why there’s such a pushback against trans people, I think – they’re “trying to belong to the wrong group” in some people’s eyes). Now that we’re beginning to look past that kind of cultural setup and realize there are other options for how to construct society, it would be helpful if we could start softening the edges of those pigeonholes. But I don’t see it happening very quickly, especially since the marketers use those labels as a way to make people feel unhappy enough to buy their products.

    • Elen Sentier

      So agree, Laura. In Britain the pigeonholing is quite recent, really got going with the Normans. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t got roots mor tenacious than a butterbur! I see change happening but I’m not holding my breath. We all need to constantly aware, not letting things get past us or compromising, it will evolve into something good but only if leep on working at it.

  • Scott Tizzard

    Hmmmm…. perhaps there is also the element of empowerment and disempowerment regarding personal identity. It’s a complex web of social, norms, values, politics and biology. As an analogy, I think of the theme of cultural appropriation and consider it to be an outcome of disempowered people reclaiming their identity. Do you think there is an element of feminine disempowerment reclaiming identity? Your question, however, remains relevant as itvreflects the old idea that the personal is political.

  • garycohenblog

    Interesting post and interesting comments on the post. Thank you.
    I would like to comment that something that has unsettled my mood on a regular basis is seeing several shelves in newsagents devoted to magazines on how females ‘need’ to look in order to be successful or sexy or just accepted. Loads and loads of magazines aimed at females telling them how to be a female. Social construct to keep the male dominated capitalist wheels turning. I mean if you don’t buy the make up you are no use to them. You won’t keep the money wheel turning. I know there is a lot more to this issue than my little rant here but I felt the need to comment.

  • Cadno Ddraig

    Why do you think (I am asking this question in earnest, not in an adversarial or ironic spirit) that it is now becoming increasingly acceptable to define one’s own gender as one pleases, but not one’s race, ethnicity or cultural background? In fact, one would be vilified for doing the latter by the very same people who would applaud and support the former.

    • Nimue Brown

      That is a really interesting question, isn’t it? Perhaps this is just the beginning of a much bigger process that will allow us all more freedoms to create ourselves rather than be identified with stuff we had no control over.

  • locksley2010

    Can it be that the problem is the debate on gender itself? It seems to be a very black and white topic and anyone who doesn’t fall into the gender stereotypes of what supposed ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ feel they have no place?
    I, myself am a straight white male, I was born with a male body and identify with my male gender (gender does not mean sex, its what you identify with. Or is it? It’s a complicated subject), yet I do not fall into the stereotype of an overly masculine male. I’m crap at DIY, I don’t drive, I don’t like sports (I was always shit at them) and I’m in touch with my feelings. I have a lot of traits that can be described as ‘feminine’ but I accept them as me, all of these things make me who I am. Could it be that as people are focused on identifying with a gender stereotype, or trope, or disagreeing with them that we are forgetting we are Human? In all the different aspects that being human entails? That’s my two pennies, anyway.

  • angharadlois

    “I don’t feel any sense of femininity on the inside, but I don’t feel anything else clearly enough to justify trying to make my body look like some other gender either.”

    This absolutely speaks to my experience. But thinking of my body as something separate from my self (a self inhabiting a body) has also caused problems in the past, so I am seeking other ways of describing my own experience. Which causes me to reflect on what an interesting time this is – we are all, in our own ways, in this thread, opening up language just a crack to create space for new ways of thinking and being.

  • maenosen

    locksley2010 raises an interesting point. I consider myself female, to all biological purposes I am female, I have never felt the urge to be considered male or gender neutral. Yet many people saw me as a, “Tom-boy,” when I was younger. I pursued a career that is (still!) considered to be one the men do. I do martial arts, DIY, chop wood, fix engines. I have no interest in having a baby. I don’t wear make-up, don’t really like wearing dresses or skirts, I never where high-heels. I’m at home being a woman who likes doing those sort of things. As a friend said to me. “Of course all those things are woman’s things. You’re a woman doing them, so they must be!”

    I realise that for some people it goes beyond this, that they really are born into the wrong body. Biologically it is possible to be both male and female, and I don’t just mean in the gentiles there’s a whole set of body chemistry that can express both. I think this a is a different issue to people who feel they show heavy traits of what we traditionally consider belonging to the opposite gender that we outwardly portray. Society needs to stop type-casting peoples roles in lives and allow us to each be their own person.

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