Performative female

I’ve spent the last week or so pondering the idea that gender is largely performative and thinking about my own uneasy relationship with gender. I’ve got a body. I have never known how to get that body to perform as feminine. I’ve been shamed for not being able to do this well enough – for not moving, dressing or wearing makeup like a ‘proper’ woman. I’ve seen the performance treated as more important than the biology. More important than my self esteem and sense of self.

In my teens I tried hard to perform as female. But I can’t walk well in heels – my ankles are problematic. I’m innately scruffy, I don’t do elegant or glamorous well. I don’t mostly feel sexy, or cute, or pretty or any of the things that might go with presenting a conventionally female identity. I can do goth or steampunk or Pagan hippy, because these are performances that allow me to be silly, colourful, grotesque or ridiculous, and I am more those things.

One of the things that has come up for me as I’ve explored this recently, is that I’m carrying a lot of resentment. I often resent women who can perform as women more effectively than me, and who are rewarded for that. I can’t compete with women who can do sexy and glamorous and who are willing to use that to get stuff done. I like to think that if I had options on this score, I wouldn’t use that to get stuff done. But, the reality is that I live in a culture that prefers certain kinds of appearances, and I don’t tick the boxes. I want to be judged based on my knowledge, skill and usefulness, not my face or the shape of my body. I do not get to pick the terms on which I am judged.

Looking back over my life so far I see that attempts at performing gender have made me miserable. Spaces where I’ve not felt any pressure to be more conventionally feminine are always better spaces for me. Situations where I’m valued based on what I can do, not how I look, are always happier and more rewarding spaces. I’ve always felt the performative stuff as performative, it’s why the term has been so resonant for me. It can only be an act for me, a pretence. Trying leaves me feeling fake and uncomfortable with myself. I get a keen feeling of trying to be something I am not, and of taking on something I have no right to.

I sometimes respond to this by resenting the women who can perform female. Resenting the women who can do a better job of looking and acting the part. I’ve tried to trivialise and diminish what for some women is no doubt an important part of self. Part of this is because I am jealous of women who are better looking than me – of whom there are a great many. Jealousy is not an emotion I like, but I can’t do envy here because there is no way I can move towards any of this and not feel totally fake.

My plan in the short term is to watch out for situations where I feel under pressure to perform as female, and see what I can do to change my relationships with those spaces. Alongside this I’m watching out for the idea that being non-binary means being more overtly male, because that doesn’t work for me either. I can’t perform male. I need to build a sense of self that is not about my failure to perform gender, and that allows me a bit more room.

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

8 responses to “Performative female

  • angharadlois

    This definitely resonates with my experience. I’ve always felt that
    femininity was something that had to be ‘put on’ – and, on the whole,
    resented the additional labour involved in putting it on. I know you’ve
    written a bit about this and I need to go away and read more, but it’s inspired me to try & put some words around things I’ve been thinking & feeling recently.

    Getting ill last year gave me time and space to start to get to grips with the
    gender aspect of my identity and life experience. In particular, two
    unexpected things happened: I got interested in drag culture, through a
    drag queen friend, and I started reading queer magazines (autostraddle and
    diva), after coming across a tarot column I really liked.

    Drag, first of all, really helped me articulate this vague underlying
    notion I’d always had that femininity was performative. It is after all
    explicitly about performing the artifice (and, arguably, art) of
    femininity. It also helped me understand that there can be joy in it, when
    I had only ever seen it as a burdensome expectation which people either
    fail or succeed at meeting; it’s helped me to be able to sit back &
    appreciate glamour without feeling I need to join in.

    Queer magazines have helped with the mental health minefield that is
    getting dressed while going through a depressive patch. It has really
    helped to have touchstones which were not based on performing femininity
    through clothes/makeup/hair. Perhaps it seems silly that a magazine column
    would make me feel better about wearing jeans and a t-shirt with unstyled
    hair, but reading is a kind of magic and sometimes a little reinforcement
    really helps.

    This is turning into a mini-essay so I’ll try to keep it short… Through
    these things, and a lot of soul-searching last year, I came to the
    realisation (with equal amounts of terror and relief) that while my gender
    broadly aligns with my biology, it’s definitely towards the middle of the
    spectrum. The reason that performing femininity felt like such a burden –
    aside from the extra time and effort it takes – is that it doesn’t really
    reflect my sense of who I really am. And the more comfortable I feel in
    that, the less pressure I feel to conform to social expectations:
    currently, not very, but slightly more than not at all, and heading in the
    right direction.

    With gratitude for the space & opportunity to put these thoughts &
    feelings into words 🙂

  • Elizabeth

    Ive Struggled with this one too and now I’m my 40’s I’ve come to see that for me the conflict is what this society expects of me as a woman in this time and space. We live in such a sexualised and commodity driven environment where the development of character and integrity are being constantly undermined. I love reading old books where people were valued on these qualities not just the their meat market value. It’s exhausting swimming against the tide.

    • Nimue Brown

      Sexualization is such a big issue, and as you say, so much tide to swim against, but apparently there are quite a few of us who want to explore being female on totally different terms.

  • Ellen Efenricea

    I’ve pondered this a lot over the last year or so and have settled on binary sex being relevant for making babies (I know this stance may seem uninclusive) and gender being a bs social construct. If you’re mutually attracted to someone then that’s enough for a sexual relationship. If you’re presenting a subject in a business meeting then your appearance and the contents of your pants are (should be) totally irrelevant- it should just be about knowledge and delivery.
    This biological standpoint leaves me struggling a bit with trans inclusivity because I think that transgender feeds binary notions of gender that I wish we could let go of and as a society we’re clearly not ready for that. I’m optimistic that our current generation of teens are coming closer though.

  • celticchick

    I think being the way you are makes you unique. Why conform to standards that are, in my opinion, misogynistic. Be true to yourself. We have a lot in common because I’ve never been a ‘girly girl.’ I hate wearing dresses. I was a tomboy and dressed like a boy. I still do. What is femininity? Does it even matter?

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