How I feel when you ask me to perform femininity

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

I’m not the kind of woman you’d describe as ‘petite.’ Or ‘dainty’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘feminine.’ In fact, I’m a little bit sensitive to the idea of being ‘feminine’, and any suggestion from helpful friends and family if they recommend I get my hair cut more often or try on a pretty dress: it’s not just that I don’t want to be feminine, it’s that I truly don’t think that I can. What came first: my refusal to perform femininity, or the knowledge that I’ll never be able to?

The other day I listened to a Jo Caulfield stand-up set on Radio 4 in which she talks about how as a taller woman, in a group of ‘girly girls’ she often gets pushed into masculine roles, like carrying heavy bags or what have you. And I’m going to apologise in advance for the language and attitudes in this post: equating certain traits with certain genders, and weighing the value of things like ‘femininity’ as if a person’s worth can be reduced to such simplistic concepts. It’s not a matter of life and death for me, though I know it is for many whose relationship with this stuff is much more difficult. You might not want to read on if this sort of thing distresses you, or even if you just find the idea of dissecting these concepts tedious and frustrating.

Femininity and masculinity are both complex topics, and I don’t like the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘real man‘ or a ‘real woman‘, as measured by stereotypes, body shapes and the cut and colour of our clothes. Nor do I want to perpetrate the idea that there’s intrinsic value, for women, in being feminine – it’s reductive and shitty and harmful. But as with a lot of this gendered, damaging bullshit, sometimes you’ve got to state it to slate it. I’ve grown up in a world that’s told me my value lies in beauty, beauty lies in femininity, and for women like me, neither of these things are achievable.

And honestly? It has sort of fucked me up.

What does femininity mean?

I’m a bit like Jo Caulfield: often seen as the ‘boy’ of the group when I’m in a group of girls. In the past I’ve noticed myself doing odd things at hen nights or during women’s-only nights out, like performing notions of chivalry: holding doors for more feminine women, or offering them my seat.

When I heard Jo’s set, I was reminded of an incident which happened when I was about fifteen. A friend of mine – Amy – asked me to walk her home from a house party to keep her safe. I used to worship Amy, and also feel a little frightened of her at the same time. She was the girliest of girly girls, but like me she was also tall. Broad-shouldered and big and brash and all that powerful stuff. But she was also far better at doing ‘feminine’ things than I was – she loved make-up and perfume and dresses and skirts, and she’d often try to give me makeovers to get me involved too.

I desperately wanted them to work. I hoped that a touch of eyeshadow and a nice top and a spritz of hairspray would transform me – you know, the way they always did in teen movies. I always looked shite, of course, but Amy did her best, and I hid my disappointment behind jokes about how long it had taken and how I couldn’t possibly be bothered to attempt this every day. We’d laugh about the results together over a bottle of Lambrini and some gleeful gossip about boys. The boys who would end up snogging Amy instead of me, because the makeover I’d hoped would be magic turned out not to be.

Anyway. One night she asked me to walk her home from a house party. This was in the days before mobile phones, so even a short journey of 15 minutes could be scary for a teenage girl in the dark.

“Can you walk me home,” she asked “so I don’t get raped? I have to go through the alley.”

I said yes and started to get my coat. Fifteen minutes would be just enough to catch up on all our gossip before I made my way back to the party. It was only as we were leaving that it occurred to me to ask:

“What about me? Once I’ve dropped you off I’ll have to walk back through the alley on my own.”

She looked me up and down and told me: “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”

Fine like not rapeable. Fine like not beautiful. Fine like not feminine.

Being feminine, then, was both desirable and also something that might mark me as a target. Did I really want to be feminine anyway? My thirty-five-year-old self could write a thesis-length rant about everything that’s wrong with that incident: from Amy’s assumption that only certain kinds of women get raped to my own sickening need to be ‘desirable’ enough that she’d never have said it. And all the subsequent times when I made similar statements to others – wrapping my humiliation in a spiky, ignorant pride: “I’ll walk alone, thanks. I’ll be fine. I can take care of myself – just look at me haha!”

Wanting to be feminine

I haven’t always been the least feminine woman in the group. Long before Amy, when I was really young, I was a proper (hate this phrase but I don’t really know of a better one) ‘girly girl.’ As a really little kid I liked dolls and My Little Ponies. Sparkly, twirly pink dresses and dainty shoes and those fake make-up kits which were just made of plastic so you could pretend to paint your face without actually making a mess. My sister was the one who couldn’t be arsed with that stuff, and to this day she still takes the piss out of me by sarcastically singing a sickly song with which I used to serenade my doll.

I wanted to be a ballerina, too. I was pretty good at ballet – I even passed my grade 4 exam. Or was it grade 3? One of the ones which is easy enough for smallish kids to do without having to put much work in. I used to adore everything about the classes: the delicate poses, the pointing of feet, and don’t get me started on the clothing! I was seven or eight years old, and tights and tutus were The Dream.

I had to quit ballet in the end. Not because I fell out of love with it, but because my ballet teacher at the time pointed out that I probably wasn’t on track for a be-tutued curtain call, because I was built like a brick shithouse. Not in so many words – she’ll have said something like ‘too tall’ or ‘big boned’ or ‘broad shoulders’ – but enough that I remember it as the first time I realised my body would never be dainty, like I wanted it to be.

When you ask me to perform femininity

It’s far from the end of the world, of course. Gender, appearance, whether you’re ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’: for some people these things are literally a matter of life and death. I’m one of the lucky ones for whom it’s just a source of occasional tears and a bi-annual moan in a blog post. After I finished doing ballet I started embracing my inner tomboy, and then my inner goth, and then eventually settling on the scruffy slag I inconsistently look like today.

But alongside trying to make peace with my physical appearance, I also work hard to cultivate the attitude that I don’t really care.

I don’t care about make-up: it takes too much time. I don’t care about haircuts: they’re far too expensive. I don’t care about high heels: trainers are far more practical. And if you think I’m going to waste money on a spa day when I could go to Alton Towers for half the price, you’ve got another think coming, my friend. I reject things I’m told are feminine, and focus instead on what’s comfortable and practical for me.

Do I do this because I prefer it? Because it’s easier? Both. But there’s another reason I do it too: defensively, instinctively, I reject femininity because I know that I will never achieve it, and the realisation that I can’t achieve it hurts far more than occasionally being told I’m ‘the man of the group’.

At every stage of my life, I’ve been reminded that I will never be properly feminine. Not just by Amy and my ballet teacher, but by boyfriends who’ve made gentle suggestions about what I might like to wear. By relatives who’ve heavily hinted that I might want to buy a new dress for so-and-so’s wedding, because I always look so drab in photos. The men I went on dates with who made uncomfortable jokes about my height. The one who asked me to wear flats when I saw him in future. The lover who told me that when I raced to meet him in the dance tent at a festival, his heart sank when I arrived because I looked so disappointing. I had my jeans rolled up and mud on my face and my hair was a mess. I thought my beaming smile and excitement to see him would be enough, but he’d been dancing with another girl, and by comparison I seemed so plain. So uncool. So embarrassing to be seen with in front of the cool kids in the dance tent.

I know in my heart that femininity does not equal beauty – I have known many beautiful masculine people, and many people who sit elsewhere on whatever this spectrum or graph or sphere actually is. But knowing that this is bullshit in my rational brain doesn’t make life easier for my emotions. I am still not feminine, and therefore I will never feel beautiful, and I will hate myself for not being beautiful almost as much as I hate myself for wanting to be.

When I’m nudged towards femininity, I cannot work out if I’m rejecting it so forcefully because I genuinely don’t want to perform it, or if my rejection is there to protect me from publicly admitting that I can’t.

If you don’t try, then you can’t fail.

And I tried, then I failed: so I stopped.

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