double dare ya

Something interesting happened to me on my way home from the gym last night.

I was dressed in typical, fairly unisex gym clothing (shorts and an undershirt). On the off chance that anyone who doesn't know me personally is reading this, I have a generally low-maintenance uh, look; my hair is extremely short (I cut it myself with a buzz cutter), I don't usually wear makeup, don't shave my legs, etc. Basically I choose to eschew all of that costly and time-consuming maintenance that we are meant associate with femininity.

As I walked home from the gym, I saw a young man draped over the door of a car, speaking to a woman inside. As I passed, he laughed, loudly and sarcastically catcalled me, and then said, "SHE LOOK LIKE A MAN!!" and continued laughing.

(Uh, just as a reminder: I look this way on purpose, and do not base my self-worth on my ability to appeal sexually to men, so this wasn't the devastating experience it might otherwise have been; my feelings weren't hurt or anything, so no need to be like "I'm so sorry that happened!!!" etc. I'm not sorry it happened at all! For reasons which I will try to make clear.)

My immediate reaction was to think, "My god. The blatant ways we try to police one another's gender expression and sexuality in order to reinforce our own."

Prior to him noticing me, I noticed him. His body language was overtly masculine; he was peacocking for the woman in the car, towering over her as she sat in the driver's seat, leaning into her space in a way that was simultaneously casual and meaningful.

So here he was, caught in this moment of extreme heterosexual posturing, and suddenly I came into view. His reaction was SO visceral that I have to believe I was read as a threat. Of course I was. I am a woman who is not playing by the established rules of femininity. This indicates two things:
1) I am possibly intentionally withholding sexual availability from men; at the very least, I am clearly not invested in this moment in garnering sexual attention from men, which is a violation of the heterosexual feminine mandate
2) I am encroaching upon his masculinity with my masculinity

That last one. Oof. Of course he reacted by derisively pointing out my transgressive gender presentation! Masculinity belongs to men! All else equal, relative to women, men are free; their freedom derives from their masculinity and their masculinity is an expression of their freedom. Regardless of how you feel about femme identity, I think we can all agree that presenting as ultrafeminine (as it is culturally defined) takes a fucking lot of TIME and MONEY and EFFORT. Women's shoes and clothing is EXPENSIVE. Makeup is EXPENSIVE and takes time to apply. Shaving your legs and armpits and whatever else you may shave takes a lot more time and costs a lot more money than not shaving. Women's haircuts are EXPENSIVE and women's hair tends to take longer to style than men's. etc, etc, etc.

As a woman who does none of these things, I get to hear a lot of women telling me why they could never do x or stop doing y. These justifications tend to center around not wanting to be perceived as masculine or as sexually unattractive to men (or censured by other women; "if I have to do this, YOU should have to do this, too"). Giving up these markers of femininity frees up time and money and effort, but the cost is great. We are daily reminded that as women, our value lies in the approval of men, since men have more social power than we do; and that we are valued most when we are most feminine. The best bauble. If we are willing to be decorative first, we will be highly prized by the average heterosexual man.

(I am deliberately generalizing here because this is a blog post, not a book; but books can and have and will be written about the many ways this scenario is impacted by class, race, age, sexual orientation, able-bodiedness, etc. all worthwhile and important things to consider.)

Choosing not to be a bauble is threatening to men who are invested in maintaining the status quo. A woman who chooses not to be merely decorative and not to place value upon being objectified is a threat to those whose first-class status relies on her second-class status. And so we police one another. So a man derides a woman who presents as even slightly masculine, or who has not done enough work in his estimation for him to consider her a viable sexual option. So women tear one another down in an attempt to form an alliance with the men who occupy that coveted position of relative power and freedom.

And that is why working on this project was important to me.

We are policed by individuals as well as by cultural messages which are dispersed quite blatantly via advertisements. Advertisements convey and reinforce social law and allow others to profit from our acceptance that these are absolute truths rather than constructed meanings open to critique and even rejection. This is nothing short of tragic. These are not theoretical battles; the impact of these social edicts is tangible and inescapable. I am not infrequently told that I should lighten up, calm down, not think so hard or so much, relax, stop being so serious, etc, etc, etc. Truthfully, sometimes I would love to be able to afford the luxury of not thinking about these things perpetually. Every human being wants to rest now and then. But there is always some peacocking social enforcer lurking round the corner, all too willing to remind me that I can never forget, relax, let my guard down, think less.

And so.

(Side note-This marks the end of this blog as a service learning project, but I do think I will continue to discuss feminist issues here in the future.)


  1. brooke, this is an excellent entry. as a person with some stereotypically feminine characteristics, i am guilty of another crime: being overweight. the reaction to this is much the same from men as the reaction to a woman opting out of the decorations commonly associated with femininity. my appearance has been treated like a personal affront by many men in my lifetime, with a weird visceral anger that i dare to exist on earth without being attractive to them (or worse, BEING attractive to them, which is, to them, wrong, bad, disgusting, etc.).

    i want to commend you for never backing down and never compromising your ideals to make your life easier. i try to do the same, and i fail sometimes.

  2. There is this idea that we MUST embrace femininity, however, since it is *woman* associated and women are hated in this society (in most societies) because they, as a sex,as life-givers, are seen as a great threat.

    As you know, I struggle with gender identity too, but after thinking about it over and over, getting rid of what is considered the feminine gender (makeup, dresses, purses) is what cisgendered heterosexual men already do in their culture, and I feel I should be able to wear whatever, and be treated like it's okay. All people should. This is where "fashion as self expression" blurs the line between consumerism and an expressive art form. I think when the performance is expected to places like the gym, however, that's when it's obvious, as stated in your other posts, that the media is trying to sell women their gender identities. A lot of it is work, I totally agree, but in some cases, it should be seen as an expression of self, or, in all outrageous cases, an expression of financial status.

    Furthermore, fat women and overweight women find more pressure in being hyper feminine in dress (even to the gym) because I think you said it before--in this culture, there is nothing worse than a fat dyke.

    That being said, if women don't fit the outrageous body beauty standards set for women, the less and less privilege they have. For example, if an "overweight" woman was at the gym (or ANYWHERE) without makeup and in guys clothes, she wouldn't get "guy" first, she would get "fat dyke".

    This is considered more of an insult than the previous, since being seen as a guy, even though you're a woman, is empathized with in this cis culture (cis men, "well, who wants to really wear a purse, anyway?") That's why I am noticing previously cisgendered women who are now gender queer saying they "don't mind" when someone calls them a guy. So not only does an "overweight" woman not pass for a "dude", she is still seen as something to degrade and objectify from a male cis-privilege standpoint, where as a "normal to thin" woman, is not degraded in the same way, since she has a body privilege.

    Maybe this is where I could go into how anorexia even permeates young lesbian culture, but I know you are familiar with this.

    Furthermore, "metro sexuality" is the more "acceptable" way of both straight and queer women and men to show extreme consumerism with a masculine bent. Are we getting rid of consumerism by getting rid of hyper femininity? Knowing that GQ exists, I'm going to say no.

  3. P.S. This is Julz. <3 I love you other posts too.

  4. You both bring up excellent points re: how weight factors into this. Thank you for articulating them.

    "i want to commend you for never backing down and never compromising your ideals to make your life easier. i try to do the same, and i fail sometimes."

    Roxy, thank you for saying this! You have been a huge inspiration to me in this regard. Knowing other smart, tough female shitkickers are out there is one of the main thing that sustains me.

    I want to state clearly that I DEFINITELY fall short of my ideals from time to time. Sometimes in small ways, sometimes in huge ways. Like every second-class citizen, I deal with people trying to trespass my boundaries in small and huge ways every day, and it is very exhausting and I don't think anyone really has the resources to stand up and push back with perfect poise and thoughtfulness every single time. I try really hard, and it gets a bit easier every time I can do it and every time someone else I know does it, which is why I like the idea of being vocal about this stuff.