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Opting out of womanhood isn’t the answer

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

“How can someone be a woman without being born with the female anatomy? I am only a woman because I was born female. With organs organized to produce big gametes. My femaleness is my female body: vulva, clitoris, vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, mammal ducts.” (a tweet that inspired this)

My body is not my personality, but it informs it. It has affected every facet of my lived experience from birth until now, and it will continue to do so until I die. My sex is biological; it’s not a choice or a feeling. How I have been treated because of my sex, on the other hand, has been part of what has formed me. I have been told how to be a girl, a teenager, a woman. Told what I should be, could be, will be. What I ought to do and ought not to do, how I should behave and what would happen if I did not adhere. The consequences were made clear to me early on; sometimes with words, sometimes with actions, but I realised at a devastatingly young age that my sex mattered.

My body is not my personality, it’s a vehicle. But how my body works, its cycles, its peaks and troughs, the joy it can provide, the pain it sometimes causes, the way it is policed by others, how it is shamed, how it’s been abused; these things have had a great deal of input into who I am. And these things cannot be separated from the female body that houses me. My personality has been a rebellion against my femaleness at times. The genuine anger when I was young that I had been born into a world in which girls were expected to conform to a socially constructed idea of femininity created in me first a tomboy, later a moody goth and then an angry young woman. ‘Tomboy’ is a word that’s gone out of fashion lately, but not for the reason I would like.

I am not the clothes I wear; I am not the makeup I sometimes choose to put on and at other times eschew. I am not my clean-shaven or hairy legs. None of this is what defines me, but my choices do. The choices those born female make regarding what we do with our female bodies define us. It’s an act of rebellion for a woman to grow her leg hair as much as it is for a man to wear a dress. Neither of these choices changes the nature of the body we are in. I remember as a kid/teenager saying things like, “I’m having a guy day,” which meant, “I’m wearing jeans and not being ‘girly,’” as if I had to justify my non-conformity. Or, I’d have ‘girl’ days where I might feel more inclined to be ‘pretty’. The ‘girl’ days were rarer as a child, simply because I found them restrictive. I wanted to run, jump, climb, play-fight, etc. – just like the boys did. Like the boys were always allowed to! Hmmm. Is it perhaps that children just want full freedom to play? Is it perhaps that boys’ clothes, from even the youngest age, facilitate freedom more so than girls’ clothes do? Did I in fact want to be like one of the boys, or did I just want to play freely in a society where the scope of that freedom was limited for me as a girl, meaning that the only recourse was to behave ‘like a boy’?

Little girls learning to walk are dressed in wee dresses and cute impractical shoes that are shite for walking in. They fall. They hurt the exposed skin of their knees. They become cautious. If they were in dungarees and kids’ trainers, would they be more successful? Fall less? Become less risk averse as girls are so often described? The little boy in trousers is less risk averse because the risk is less. If he falls, his knees are protected and will likely not bleed. The little girl in her pretty dress and ‘nice to look at’ shoes learns before she has words to express it that performing femininity will cause her pain. At some point, we learn that there are choices. Each choice comes with benefits and challenges. Choosing to not perform the femininity expected from us is unfortunately not an escape from pain, however. The gender non-conforming girl will struggle to see herself represented in society. Her favourite activities are likely very male-dominated. When she looks for role models, she will have to look hard and may find very few. On top of this come the comments and judgement from peers and adults: “Why are you dressed like a boy?” or, “You’d be so much prettier with long hair!” and many other quips designed to shame her back into compliance. She may be shunned by other girls for not being like them. She’s a tomboy – and that’s not an easy thing to be. It is little wonder then that those tomboys are disappearing. Girls and young women are fleeing the pressures of womanhood and finding an out clause, many are now nonbinary. Instead of expanding the scope of what is available to girls and women, instead of breaking out of the prison cell of gender performance they are abandoning the name woman, and in so doing they further alienate themselves from the possibility of being a whole, bold, proud, gender non-conforming woman and the joy and strength that can come from stepping into that and living authentically.

Some of these nonbinary-identified young women are also changing their bodies. They aren’t trying to be men, they aren’t trans. But they are removing their breasts and sometimes, although I would hope only very rarely, they are undergoing nullification surgery to make their body as sexless as possible. Flat. Unwomanly. Safe. Safe from what? Safe from objectification. Safe from groping. Safe from needing to face the fact that their body is the source of so much pain and, for a staggering number of women, trauma. Consider that little girls are told to sit with their legs closed from pre-pubescence. Why? The answer is genuinely disturbing, but many a mother or father has snipped at their little daughters, “Close your legs,” before the child was aware of what the implications of that instruction were. Are we told this because of the clothes we wear? Or is it because, even at that innocent age, there’s something about a girl’s body that must be policed? As awful as the thought is, I think we know it’s not the clothes. Interesting then that girls are put in dresses at all, dresses that require we sit close legged. Surely trousers would negate the need to do so. But no, we must be both exposed and modest, perhaps in training for our future womanhood and the contradictions we will experience.

So, who wouldn’t want to escape all this? I know I do! But we won’t escape the chains of oppressive gender stereotyping by creating a different set of chains with which to constrain ourselves. Sex is real. Female is a sex class. Gender is merely a set of behaviours we expect each sex to perform. Gender identity is choosing to identify with a set of behaviours. What it will never be is a magical transformation into the opposite sex or an out clause for sex-based oppression. Let males be feminine and females be masculine. I’ve always supported that idea as a bisexual gender non-conforming woman.

This ideology that because someone doesn’t conform to gender roles, they have been born in the wrong body is toxic and damaging. It is society that is wrong, not our bodies. I support anyone who suffers from gender dysphoria, and in some cases, there may be cause to alter a body to alleviate extreme suffering, but its not a panacea and it certainly should not be the default approach for those struggling to find peace for themselves within a system of crushing and ever extreme gender expectations.

Kara Hamilton

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