Tag Archives: feminine

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.

Body as landscape

The body as landscape is an obvious thing to explore in earth-orientated meditations. It’s something I’m wary of, because of the relationship between the female body and landscape in certain kinds of writing and attitude. For the colonial explorer, the exotic, unconquered landscape was something to be entered and used. Penetrated. Exploited. Abuse of the land and abuse of the feminine often go together, and using feminine language for landscapes is part of this process.

At the same time, we’ve a long history of seeing the feminine as closer to nature – not as a compliment, but to make clear that wild, intuitive womanhood is inferior to logical, reasoning masculinity. These gender assumptions harm everyone. Thought and feeling, logic and intuition are available to all of us, we should all have the right to them. It’s not a case of being one or the other.

Currently my midriff looks like the surface of the moon – pale and cratered, while my thighs look like the consequence of mediaeval ploughing. I note that the usual woman/world language doesn’t do this so much. The parallels are usually made to evoke richness and beauty, and not the damage and despoiling intended to follow. In my case it’s just the consequence of weight loss – another paradigm where the language is all about beauty, skipping over the truth of an often unsettling process of transition.

I note that the current vogue in female ‘beauty’ is deforestation. I note the parallel.

Hope, skill and beauty

I’ve known Loretta Hope since she was a child and have had the privilege of watching from afar as she’s crafted the life of her choosing. Loretta is an artist, using her body in a range of ways to bring beauty and a sense of amazement to those who see her in action.

All too often, images we’re offered as depictions of feminine beauty are fragile. We’re encouraged to be emaciated, not fit. Loretta personifies strength and grace, and that combination of physical prowess and elfin looks makes her a much better sort of representation of the feminine than those strange, photo-shopped giraffe women who seem to be taking over visual media.

Watching her hang upside-down from silks and ropes is just one of those things that reliably brightens my day.

On Twitter she’s @LorettaHope

Her facebook fan page is here – https://www.facebook.com/lorettahopecouk?fref=ts

The urge to be elfin

Comments on my recent ‘stuff going on in my life’ blog queried why it is that I want to be thin. A valid point and worthy of a ponder. I’ve spent my entire life considering myself to be overweight, and wanting to be thinner than I am. Photographic evidence suggests my child self was not as obese as I then believed myself to be. Post having a baby, I was quite large. In my teens I was certainly buxom, and at the moment I’m the smallest I’ve ever been as an adult. A few years ago I would have said I stood no chance of being this thin, and wouldn’t aspire to be thinner, and yet here I am, and still too big, by some elusive measure.

I absorbed very early on the simple message that only very thin people can be attractive. Super-waifs were fashionable and I longed to be visually appealing. So much pressure is put on girls to be attractive – not good, or clever, virtuous, kind or pretty, just thinly beautiful. I was ‘funny looking’ and too fat, from as far back as I could remember. I couldn’t fix my face, but in theory I could be thin…

The funny thing is that I’m perfectly capable of finding women who are not bone thin, visually attractive. I like curves, when I’m looking at other women. I admire feminine figures. Not my own body, though.

I’ve noticed a thing with weight loss… the idea of lose some pounds every week. There’s no end point, no sense that it should stop when you get to the right place. The kudos is for losing, week after week, even though if you did that forever, you would die. None the less, the concept of getting thinner, as something I should always be doing, is hard to shake off. No matter what clothes size I am, it never seems small enough and the reflection in the mirror looks podgy like a suet pudding.

Intellectually, I know that I am thinner than I have ever been, that bone-thin is not something I find attractive in others, nor is it healthy, but the impulse simply has not gone away. The only bit I found resonant in the otherwise tedious Bridget Jones’s Diary, was her observation that she had always imagined the ideal was to consume no calories at all, to somehow exist without eating. Irrational, troubling, wholly familiar.

It’s been drilled into me from so many sources and for so many years, that this particular demon will take some silencing.
The trouble is that I wanted to be an elf, a willowy fey creature, a nymph, a dryad… something delicate looking and romantic. I have always been solidly built, tall, robust looking such that people are quick to assume that I am all of those things, and emotionally robust as well. I do not look like a delicate little flower, ergo I do not need to be treated like one. There are times when looking like a fragile orchid might have elicited more helpful responses. People see, and make judgements, and I’ve dealt with that all my life. I’m a big girl, I shouldn’t be making a fuss. Smaller, more innately feminine and delicate girls have seemed, from my jaundiced perspective, to get cut a lot more slack. I wanted some of that.

On the other hand it makes me furious, this culturally ingrained idea that in women, only small is beautiful. The less space you occupy, the better. Appetites of any kind are unladylike, and vulgar. Ghosts of the Victorian parlour haunt us yet, with their eighteen inch waists and fainting fits. Half-starved models and actresses modified by surgery. Air brushed pop stars. Disney Princesses with their wasp waists and nice dresses. I know where these ideas come from, but they got in early, and there isn’t much to counter them with.

I spent a lot of years thinking that, if only I was thin enough, I would be loveable. Finding someone who loves me as I am has been a revelation, but there’s a lot of history to this one. I suspect I’m not alone in these experiences. Encountering tales of what other young women endured in order to be thin, and thire fear of weight, have made me realise that no one gets to win with this. The thin girls aren’t happy either, and they see fat girls in the mirror too. There’s an enormous wrong around how we portray ideal femininity, and I’m afraid the Pagan community is as rife with it as any other. Take a look at our representation of goddesses. Waifs predominate. Young, fashionable waifs, often scantily clad. I’d like to live in a world in which the ideal feminine is not profoundly unnatural.

The day I discovered I am female after all

Apparently I’m not the poor excuse for a woman I thought I was. This comes as a surprise to me. I’ve been reading Caitlin Moran’s book on being a woman, and it’s made me realise that I am not a freak. I am not some kind of walking feminine-fail. I’ve talked about gender identity before. About how even though I bleed, have breasts, have given birth, I never felt like a proper girl. In the last 24 hours I’ve turned a corner, and I wanted to share something of that.

So here’s the reasons I felt like a failure. I hate high heels, I do not covet them, I cannot walk in them. In fact, in whatever shoe, I do no walk like a girl, I don’t sashay my hips. It goes further, none of my movements, or postures, are sufficiently feminine. I don’t much like makeup. I don’t paint my face. Mostly I just wash, brush and restrain my hair, I don’t devote hours to it. I do not enjoy clothes shopping.  I also don’t like the kinds of clothes that are bought and worn purely to be sexually appealing. I like sturdy, practical clothes. Being pretty has never really been on my agenda.

For years, I lived with a man who devoted a lot of time to pointing out where I didn’t cut it as a girl. He told me what clothes I should be wearing, what colours and shapes, because apparently I had no idea how to dress myself. He tried to teach me how I should move, walk and stand. He bought me heels. And lingerie. Clothes worn to be sexually appealing, to him.

But of course he was better at being a girl than me. He knew how to move, how to walk. He could walk happily in high heels. He paid a lot of attention to hair and makeup, and loved pretty dresses, and slutty dresses, and lingerie. He was the girl, I was merely the person who looked after the child and did the cleaning. I wasn’t a proper woman. And gradually, my confidence waned, my sense of self eroded and I stopped feeling like any kind of real person at all.

I’d like to pause here and say this is not about transgender. I know quite a few trans folk, one way and another, and the only other one I don’t get on with, the problem has nothing to do with femininity and everything to do with her having a very short temper. People are people, I’m not one to judge, and it doesn’t bother me how anyone else chooses to self identify. But that’s also the point here. How anyone else chooses to self identify. Because there is no self identity in the world, other than ‘total shithouse’, that requires the deliberate and consistent denigration of someone else.

I’m a girl. I would pass the medical. I’ve got all the right reproductive organs, I even managed to produce milk for a while. I bleed. Compared to whether I like handbags, this seems to be the more important qualifier. In all fairness, I struggled with gender identity in my teens, before the advent of the bloke, but that doesn’t let him off the hook in the slightest.

Editing for Giselle Renarde last week, I came across a beautiful line about a trans character who did not pin her gender identity to her body parts. Lovely. What a beautiful, self empowered way to be. So why was my gender identity pinned to whether I met someone else’s definition of what female ought to look like? That’s nuts. And what a representation of female that was – please haul out your worst vision of a drag queen caricature and add in ways of moving that suggest you’re a rather low cost sort of hooker and you’ve got the right image. I don’t want to be a drag queen, I’ve got breasts already.

We all have the freedom to imagine who we are. That does not have to be about what nature gave us. We all have the option to fantasise, and we all have the scope to try and shift our reality that bit closer to the dream. Be that a hair colour, or a false leg, or getting your tongue split, or a new tattoo… who we are is our own business. But as soon as we feel we have to knock someone else down to build that, we’ve gone somewhere entirely dishonourable. It’s as true in spiritual life as in gender identity. To be a Druid, I don’t need to rubbish half the other Druids out there. I don’t need to bitch about other people’s beliefs, or put them down. I reserve the right to comment on things, but that’s about being a questioning human being. I don’t need anyone else to be anything less in order for me to be myself. And next time anyone tries to build themselves up but flattening me, I am not going to co-operate.

For the first time in a long time I feel entitled to this skin I’m wearing, to the gender identity that goes with it, and that bit closer to feeling able to be me.

Facebook Feminism

By the time I discovered feminism, the call to sisterhood and the demand that traditional, female roles and work be taken seriously, had weakened. Growing up in the 1980s, I saw a world in which ‘feminism’ seemed to be about being more like men than the men were. Equal rights meant out to work, with padded shoulders, ruthlessly pushing forward. To my child self, feminism looked too much like Margaret Thatcher, and I wanted none of it. I also encountered plenty of the man-bashing variety, and I didn’t fancy that much either. Years later, at college, I encountered theories of social feminism, of accepting and respecting female roles and history, and all that. I also saw it was a theory, not a practice.

But I was at college in that distant time before Facebook.

Women on Facebook talk about their work, their men, their kids, parents, dogs, dreams and efforts. They post photos of cakes that went well, and cakes that didn’t. Images of things created, rooms decorated, frocks worn. All the traditional things that women have always done, now recorded by digital camera and timeline, and shared, with love. I have one amazing friend called Sharon who is actively reclaiming femininity through the medium of Facebook, and it’s lovely to watch. She’s not the only one, but she’s the most self conscious. It’s femininity on her terms, not anyone else’s. Then, whoever shares, other women and the odd bloke, pile in with observations, congratulations, and friendly noises.

In western culture we equate femininity with emotion, and emotion with irrationality. To show your feelings, to weep, rant, or whoop for joy, is to be emotionally immature. There are some other women who will haul you over the coals for that, even more readily then the men. These would be the women who have donned the suits and attitudes of a still very masculine workplace, and who want to get as far from traditional femininity as they can.

On Facebook, something else is happening. Yesterday, a woman posted ‘I just want to cry all the time. This can’t be normal adult behaviour’ (Or something like that.) Within minutes, other women were there, saying no, I have days like this too. I weep over this as well. Don’t beat yourself up. The anxieties of parenthood, the tears of menstruation, the grief and frustration of the world all sneak out in those few lines of status update. And in the unreal space that is Facebook, we do what many of us would not dare to do in a public, physical space. We say ‘me too.’ We share, and acknowledge and take seriously experiences and emotions that are fundamental to being female.

It’s terrible when you think it’s just you. All the shiny looking women on TV are never spotty, screaming with pre-menstrual tension, covered in baby vomit and holding a cake that failed. All the magazine celebrities shed elegant, solitary tears over betrayals. They don’t howl until their faces are red and snot drips from their noses. At least, not where we can see them.

I have met a lot of men along the way who believe that women are incomprehensible, irrational, unpredictable, unreliable. We’ve all heard the argument that our hormonal cycles make us crazy. I know from doing psychology, that as a culture we view calm rationality (allegedly male traits) as healthy adult behaviour and emotionality as being both female, and neurotic. That’s a hard world to live in, and a bloody unfair one. Rather than fight for the value of emotion, for the power and blessing of being able to express, so many of us have gone along with the pressure to be like men. And you know, I’m not even sure all the biological men are really ‘like men’. I think they’re even more squeezed and restricted by this insane understanding of what being human should mean.

I’m a fine example though. Up until I went through an emotional breakdown last year, I found it almost impossible to cry in front of anyone.

It isn’t easy, to go online and say ‘bad day.’ Just to manage ‘black dog’ or ‘bit gloomy’ is a hard confession to make. But when you do it, and others pile in and remind you that you aren’t alone, aren’t a freak, or incompetent, that’s worth so much. I am very grateful for Facebook. Now all we have to do is figure out how to get that little bit of revolution offline and into the real world.