A Mere Woman

“I am no man.” – Eowyn.

The femininity debate always brings me back to the summer of 1993, spent at my grandparents’ old dacha outside Kiev. As I recall, when we weren’t melting cheese on sticks by an evening fire, or listening to the radio and petting the cat on the veranda as the rain came down, the other children and I were busy reenacting Alexander Dumas classics.

My relative prowess when it came to dueling with sticks and speaking the occasional grammatically incorrect French phrase meant that my desire to be d’Artagnan, a favourite character, went unopposed. Almost.

My friend Sasha, an older boy, suggested that I “get into character:” tie up my long hair, maybe, swap my pink shirt for something a little more musketeer-esque, and, most importantly, draw a moustache on my face with soot.

To give you some perspective, by the time that summer rolled around, I had already been the victim of assault and abuse. Boys had punched me on the nose and dragged me around by my hair. One particularly inventive young boy, God help his shit-stained soul, choked me until I passed out, and had me convinced I was about to die. And there had been worse than that. So the rage with which I responded to Sasha’s suggestion came from a place inside me that I could not yet describe, but I felt it stronger than anything else in the world at the moment, stronger than the midday sun on my skin.

My d’Artagnan was cocky and witty and strong. He had nothing to do with goddamned facial hair. I didn’t need to look or act like a boy in order to be like him, or to believe in him. I didn’t want to look or act like a boy either. But more importantly, I didn’t want to be un-girlified. My shirt too pink for d’Artagnan? It was an insult of the highest order.

I was always one of those girls to whom the sentiment “if only she were a boy” was applied with ease. I liked the things that boys were “supposed” to like, toy guns and action films especially. But what I didn’t understand, what I hated, in fact, was the idea that my female body was somehow an impediment or else an unfortunate accident in all of this.

When I grew older, and started reading Nabokov and Tolkien, I was incensed at the idea that sublime interiority and the magnificent spirit of creation were viewed as “men’s work,” that in order to fit in among the masters a woman must try to remain from being too feminine (as one of my greatest professors unfortunately put it: “a novel that deals with housework? Too girly for me”), or that feminine could even be used as an insult against anyone, or that the feminine is decoration while the masculine is the essence.

This incensed me in particular because it had taken me so many years to enjoy living in my own damn body after all the things that were done to it. And also because as much as we talk about men othering women, the truth is, women also other men, and I am no exception (and if you don’t believe me, take a good hard look at the romance section of your local bookstore). Even though we are not nearly as socially powerful as the men, we still project things onto them and desire to consume them. And I, viewing men as the occasionally fun, sexy other, could not conceive of erasing what it was that made me feel different from them.

Twisty is right, femininity is a lot more than rhinestone barrettes. Femininity is many things. It is subjugation, slavery, and needless death, and it’s also liberation, art, and the marrow of life. When people tell me that “pink is political” in a tone one would normally use with a puppy who peed on a Persian rug, I have to wonder if they know who they’re even talking to. For many women, pink becomes political on the first day that someone tells them they ought not wear it, and the same goes for the men.

There’s nothing singular about femininity. It’s neither good nor bad. It is defined by the individual who posseses it, or rejects it, or examines it, or laughs at it, or cries about it, or is torn to pieces by it. This is why the calls to have strictly academic discussions on the subject strike me as disingenuous. “Strictly academic” means, to me, that we all break out our copies of Dworkin and nod our heads in agreement, and anyone who doesn’t is, at best, a deluded victim and, at worst, a savage. Someone who grew up looking up to their purple lipstick-wearing tank of a grandmother, a typical Soviet woman in most regards I might add, doesn’t feel particularly welcome at this kind of party.

Now, I too get tired of the litany of “well, I shave my legs, but…” or “I don’t wear skirts, and…” What I don’t like about such conversations is that they remind me too much of the fundamentalist discourse surrounding the conversion and chastisement of women: “you must forgive the sister if she still wears nail polish, sinful habits are hard to break, and who can blame her for wanting to fit into the society at large?” There is the assumption that the only reason why we do the things we do is because we’re either victims of Evil or else too weak-willed to care about said Evil. There is the further assumption that if we like a certain aspect of our behaviour, it is because we simply haven’t examined it enough. Any minute now, we shall see the light.

And what gives me the heebie-jeebies about that is the underlying idea that there is this One Pure State that a woman can achieve, if only she reads enough Dworkin and Raymond and wears proper hija.. sorry, uniform. It’s the same thing as the Virgin Mary, only with combat boots instead of flowing robes or milk-swollen breasts. It ascribes one motive, one morality, to every human action and emotion.

That scares me, because as much as I am aware of both the benefits and drawbacks of being feminine in a society where women hold little social power, I have to say that I have found that one of the reasons why women like me practice different forms of femininity has to do with the fact that we want to sharply differentiate ourselves from men. It’s certainly not the only motive, but it is a powerful one.

I wear a pretty damn feminine outfit even as I type this post in the privacy of my home. Why? Because I want my hips and boobs to be apparent to anyone who takes even a glance at me, even if it’s just me, glancing in the mirror. I want the softness of the tiered ruffles of my skirt to belie the softness of my lily-white round ass. I want my jeans to hug said ass in a tight and loving embrace. My first impulse, believe it or not, is not to look pretty (in fact, as I’ve written here, I am the queen of unpretty), my first impulse is to inhabit my body as the women whom I have admired most inhabited their bodies.

This is no blueprint or manifesto. Unlike my sisters, who think they have both the needs and desires of every woman from here to Gallifrey figured out, I am not so bold.

But a “mere woman” as I am, I will not be told what I “should” do with myself. Not by Sasha. Not by you. Not ever.

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10 thoughts on “A Mere Woman

  1. I love this post.

    This is exactly what I mean and how I feel. I take pleasure in my body–MY body. Its femininity and its strength. I adorn it as I see fit, with tattoos and dresses, makeup and muscles, pink boxing gloves and red patent shoes. Glitter nail polish and hair dye.

    Because it gives ME pleasure.

  2. These two paragraphs:

    That scares me, because as much as I am aware of both the benefits and drawbacks of being feminine in a society where women hold little social power, I have to say that I have found that one of the reasons why women like me practice different forms of femininity has to do with the fact that we want to sharply differentiate ourselves from men. It’s certainly not the only motive, but it is a powerful one.

    I’m wear a pretty damn feminine outfit even as I type this post in the privacy of my home. Why? Because I want my hips and boobs to be apparent to anyone who takes even a glance at me, even if it’s just me, glancing in the mirror. I want the softness of the tiered ruffles of my skirt to belie the softness of my lily-white round ass. I want my jeans to hug said ass in a tight and loving embrace. My first impulse, believe it or not, is not to look pretty (in fact, as I’ve written here, I am the queen of unpretty), my first impulse is to inhabit my body as the women whom I have admired most inhabited their bodies.

    Yes. YES. YES!!!!!!! To the point of tears in my eyes.

    And it pains me so much, that because my body differs from what society considers a properly-formed female body, that I get mocked and harassed, rather than appreciated, when I allow myself to be fully feminine. But I can always look at myself in the mirror, and value the occasional complements I get from other women.

    (Note to twistylutionaries who may be reading here: “appreciated” does not equal harassed, cat-called, etc. There is a freakin’ difference.)

  3. The other thing is, gay men who have been told that they’re “not man enough” throughout their lives, where do they fit in? And, as you’ve mentioned, GG, where do transfolk fit in?

    Is my dad, who’s been concerned about me hating my body, just being your standard Oppressor when he tells me I should put on a dress and go dancing with my friends?

  4. Fabulous post Natalia. It resonates hugely with me. When I was a child, I never understood why people told me I couldn’t do XYZ because I’m a girl.

    It’s being told what to do with my body that I resent the most. I don’t respond well to commands and never obey them. I think it was my dad paying me to lose weight when I was a kid that really started to wonder why I am insufficient or even too sufficient to be acceptable. That was when I threw out the “acceptable” feminine standard. I hated pink for ages but am now introducing it back into my wardrobe. I don’t care any more that the world considers me to be insufficiently feminine.

  5. Is my dad, who’s been concerned about me hating my body, just being your standard Oppressor when he tells me I should put on a dress and go dancing with my friends?

    Sounds like he’s being a supportive parent.

  6. Pingback: season of the bitch » Reclaiming femininity

  7. This is a very good, complex post. This part:

    Because I want my hips and boobs to be apparent to anyone who takes even a glance at me, even if it’s just me, glancing in the mirror. I want the softness of the tiered ruffles of my skirt to belie the softness of my lily-white round ass. I want my jeans to hug said ass in a tight and loving embrace.

    made me uncomfortable, but if there’s one thing I hope a few years of feminist blogosphere reading have taught me it’s not to dismiss something out of hand just because it makes me uncomfortable. So instead I am trying to figure out what about this makes me uncomfortable, and seeing where that takes me. So far I’m coming up with things like:
    -but I know that me personally I only do things like shave my legs because I feel like I have to
    -but I shouldn’t presume to speak for anyone but myself
    -but how DOES one tell, really, whether you’re doing something because you want to or because you feel like you have to?
    -but anyway, as much as some days the idea that we should do away with feminine trappings altogether appeals to me emotionally, I then remember that if we did that, things like dying my hair blue and getting my eyebrow pierced would probably have to go too, because they’re products of effort for vanity, even if they don’t fall into the usual feminine script
    -and why is it, exactly, that whenever someone writes a defense of femininity my emotional (not intellectual) reaction is that they are trying to tell me to be more feminine, even though most of the time this is clearly not what they are doing? why is it so hard for me to read “you know what, I LIKE wearing lipstick” without thinking “but but but I DON’T WANNA WEAR LIPSTICK” all defensive?

    Oy. Lots to think about and this comment is getting long. I suspect I’ll wind up writing a post of my own on this when I’ve had time to let it marinate some more. Thanks for giving me food for thought.

  8. but how DOES one tell, really, whether you’re doing something because you want to or because you feel like you have to?

    What makes you happy? There are things that we must do in life, and we do them, but they don’t necessarily make us happy. Not really. They may make us feel safe, or content, or perhaps they make us feel like righteous martyrs, but they don’t make our bellies fill with warmth, or make us smile without realizing it.

    Is there ever such a thing as a pure action or motive? I doubt it. I like approval as much as the next person. But I also know what makes me happy.

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