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.