I used to be the girliest little girl. I was all about dresses and dolls, but I wouldn’t really say that defined my femininity. More so, it was just a feeling. A feeling like, it was ok to be nice sometimes. Like it was ok to take care of people, or cuddle them. A feeling like we don’t have to be fighting all the time.
Pink used to be my favorite color, but by the time I got to middle school it was uncool to say that, so I changed it to yellow. Girls would talk about how much they hated pink. Some of my friends burned and mutilated the dolls of their past, but I never had the heart to do that. At some point, I packed them all away because it was embarrassing when I had friends over, but I didn’t really want to. I kept them for years after that, as if to reassure myself I can always take them back out if I want.
As an adolescent, it changed again. My friends and I would dye our hair brightly. Some of us took back the colors of our childhood; not only did we like pink again, but we liked neon pink all over our heads. Bright yellow was my usual go to, yellow still being my favorite color and all. I had some different stylistic phases. A goth phase, with heavy eyeliner and black lipstick. An “acid fairy” phase as some of my friends dubbed it, where I dressed in contrastingly bright colors at all times. Yet, even as I worked to reclaim and rework the imagery associated with femininity, I had cast out its soft inner core.
I was a fighter now. I wrestled, I worked hard in my math and science classes. I tried to distance myself from the gentler person I might, perhaps, more comfortably have become. As I grew older, I became less physically affectionate with people around me. Immersed in physical and academic competition, I was more interested in being the best than I was in cooperating with the people around me. And, I got a lot more respect when I was the best. My academic and wrestling accomplishments were far more impressive to people than, say, my community service and it was around these things that I began to solidify my identity.
When I went off to college, I was still in my brightly colored “acid fairy” phase. I remember, once my freshman year, going to get an eye exam and having the eye person, a man in his 40s or so, got a kick out of these bright, goofy tights I was wearing.
“Where are you going to school?” he asked me.
“MIT,” I said.
“Don’t let it crush you. You’re great just as you are.”
I laughed to myself as I went away — how could school ever crush me? But, of course it did. Not just school, everything. Life.
Something I didn’t realize until I was an adult was the burden of carrying femininity. I remember my first week in Boston, I was walking around with my yellow hair and a big smile and this guy comes up to me and says “you’re not from around here, are you?”
“I just moved here,” I said.
“Yeah, I can tell.”
Anyway. I guess these men saw what was going to happen to me long before I did. Sometime between starting college and now, I stopped dressing girly, or loudly, or in any way to attract attention to myself. I suppose “neutral” or “slightly androgynous” might be the best way to describe how I dress. It eventually became kind of a known thing with my friends, that I was not a feminine woman. And, frankly, that hurts. It hurts every time someone tells me I’m not feminine. But it doesn’t hurt as much as getting catcalled. It doesn’t hurt as much as the things people did to me when I was feminine.
Eventually, my femininity had retreated to something that I only did in private. I would put on makeup while watching TV, and wash it before going outside. I would wear a pretty dress, one maybe that I’d saved from ages ago when I was a different person, and then change into my jeans to meet up with friends. I’ve always felt a kinship with trans women who dress up in private, but pretened to be male in their day to day life. I understand why they’d do that; it makes total sense to me.
There’s this story, one of my male friends told me that he read somewhere or something. There was a little boy, and a little girl, and they were friends. The little girl used to be a tomboy, and they’d play these rough and tumble games.
One day, the boy shouted at the little girl “why do you hate being a girl so much?”
She cried, and ran away. But, the next day, she was wearing a dress and she no longer played rough and tumble games.
My friend cried when he told me that story. “Maybe men just really love women,” he said.
And, although I love this friend dearly, I didn’t know what to say. Clearly this story and an appreciation of femininity meant a lot to him, but I was just like how can I ever make you understand.
I hate being a girl because it gets me raped. I hate male fascination with my femininity because it often precedes violence against my person. I hate the male demand of femininity because it prevents the authentic expression of my own femininity. That little boy hadn’t protected the little girl’s femininity; he had destroyed it by robbing her of her agency.
Why did I spend a decade wearing clothes I didn’t like? Why do I try to erase feminine mannerisms from my physical vocabulary? Why did I let my light slowly be dimmed?
Because I’m scared.
Because bad things have happened to me and I was protecting myself. Because I don’t know how to look and act the way I want to while keeping myself safe.
There’s this question I keep returning to, which is “why do you dress that way if you don’t want the attention?” Apparently it’s been on my mind a lot, because when I googled it I found my own fucking article on it.
Truth is, I don’t really have a good answer for that question. I just know that I do like to dress femininely, and I am afraid of attention. If I knew my appearance would never be commented on, I would dress a lot differently.
Of course, the question that is rarely asked, is “why do men still want to comment on women’s appearances even though they know women don’t like it?” but this isn’t that kind of day.
Anyway. As I pull the pieces back together, and try to reclaim a gender expression that feels authentic to me, I see I have to go through a period of mourning for my years of lost femininity. I have to be sad for all that time I wished I could have behaved differently and dressed differently. And, when I think of who cost me that, it wasn’t the feminists (who are often blamed for making modern women “unfeminine.”)
It was the men who claimed to love women. It was the men who told me to hold on to my girly accoutrements without acknowledging what they would cost me. It was the men who catcalled me on the street. It was the men who grabbed my breasts and touched my vagina without my permission. It was the man who had sex with me after I told him I didn’t want to have sex with him. It is the old guy in hospice who told me he liked my figure. It the butch women who patronize me in lesbian clubs. It is everyone who told me I could be so pretty if I just tried a little without ever understanding why trying to be pretty was not safe. It was all the people who demanded gentleness and compassion from me while simultaneously disrespecting me for being “weak.”
It is everyone who acted like my femininity overwhelmed their agency and rendered them irresponsible for their actions.
Fuck you. You cost me so much. Fuck you. Fuck you. Fuck you.