Nowadays, at the very least, men can have their hair long. But, they can have pretty much nothing else from a woman’s traditional clothing and style.
On the other hand, it has become so normal for women to wear (what was considered) men’s clothes that a woman would have to go to extremes to even be considered crossdressing at all. Take a random man on the street, and give a woman his clothes, and it would almost certainly be socially acceptable for her to wear them. Do the opposite, and the man would often be facing some seriously weird looks.
Julia Serano’s book “Whipping Girl” brought my attention to this double standard. As she explained it, it seemed clear: feminism has helped women be more masculine, and helped them succeed in a masculine dominated world. But it hasn’t much helped men to be feminine, or for women to succeed professionally while remaining feminine.
This is because society still believes that femininity is weak, subservient, not worthy of respect. So for a business meeting, a high-powered executive woman can’t don a dress. She must wear a suit. Perhaps a somewhat female-styled suit. But still, a suit. Otherwise she won’t be respected.
Does it feel weird that I’m suggesting a woman should be respected equally if she wears a feminine dress to a meeting?
Well, this sort of stuff felt weird for me, when I began embracing my femininity more than a year ago. At that time I started wearing almost exclusively dresses and skirts, as I do now.
Incidentally, I don’t wear these things exclusively because I think I “should” as a trans woman. Nor do I do it because I want to be seen or accepted as a woman. I just wear them because that’s what feels right to me, because that’s what feels good.
And I don’t think they are just arbitrary symbols of femininity. I think the style of feminine clothes expresses something, and I feel identified with what it expresses.
So, well, it felt weird at the beginning because society had taught me that the feminine style is frivolous, weak, subservient. And I had lived my whole life with a high self esteem, just as I had been taught was my birthright as male. So wearing these clothes, with the meaning I had been taught to see in them, suddenly clashed with my self esteem.
I had to fight to change my understanding of femininity. Over time, I learnt to see femininity as compatible with strength and dignity. (This process is ongoing).
I think many women, in order to embrace strength and dignity, kill their femininity. This is seen as empowerment.
But this comes from a false duality. You don’t need to be feminine OR strong. You can be feminine AND strong.
Of course nowadays it’s more common to see women as strong (we still need more work here, but even so, we’ve made progress). But seeing femininity as strong? Many would laugh in your face about that.
See, I don’t think it’s normal that I should have to dress like a man to be taken seriously. Not in a formal business meeting, and not outside of one. I think this is sexism, clear and simple.
Nowadays explicit sexism is more often directed against femininity than femaleness. But it’s still sexism.
Femininity is more common in women than men. (Julia Serano defines femininity as a set of heterogenous qualities which are more often found in women than in men). So if you discriminate against femininity, you discriminate against women.
I just say that to point out clearly that femininity-phobia is sexism. But either way, it doesn’t really matter: we still shouldn’t discriminate against people for being feminine. And we shouldn’t oblige them to be masculine to be taken seriously.
This means, for example, that we need to shape a society where emotion is seen as just as respectable as cold rationality. (Being emotional and expressive is seen as feminine, and I can report from my own experience that female hormones make you more emotional). Just because someone is emotional, doesn’t mean they’re not also able to think straight. Of course they are. Perhaps better than someone who suppresses his emotions and doesn’t realise how much they are unconsciously affecting his thought processes.
And we need to shape a society where ornamentation is not seen as frivolous, but just as serious a pastime as anything else that doesn’t have a direct purpose – sports for example.
We need a society where the feminine style is appreciated, appreciated enough that it’s understood as only natural that men would want it too, and where feminine men are admired.
Where women are not made to feel less for being who they are. Neither women, nor men, neither if they express femininity, masculinity, or both.
Where no-one is forced to make that impossible choice between receiving respect and their own intrinsic gender inclinations.
Where, in short, there is true gender equality. Because I don’t think we’re anywhere near there yet. Until femininity is empowered just as much as womanhood has become, we can’t even get close to equality.
So let’s get to work.
(This post thanks its existence to Julia Serano’s book “Whipping Girl“. Many of the ideas here are directly inspired from that book – if you prefer, you can see them as a rehashing, rebranding, or a summary of a part of it that stood out to me. I highly recommend you go check it out, by the way).
After writing the first draft of this article, but before posting it, I had a little experience I felt like adding here.
I had an unpleasant discussion with a group on Facebook, which I may write a bit more about later. For now, I’ll explain just the basic story.
This group was declared “LGBT”, but really it only did a very good job of supporting Gay and Lesbian rights. Well, one morning it made a post which seemed to be attempting to support trans* people, but which really only objectified and alienated us. I complained, and expressed my rationale, but found myself receiving a wave of negative replies. Most of them were ignorant and condescending and the basic message seemed to be: “Stop overreacting and shut up”.
This was hard, but in the context of the mental process I was going through at the time (and still am going through), it was really hard. I had been slowly coming to terms with the ubiquitous anti-trans* discrimination in this world. But I just hadn’t expected, just couldn’t believe that even my self-declared “allies” were ignorant and hostile towards me, wanting to speak on my behalf but without my input or consent. I felt even more alone and antagonised than before.
That night, I cried. My partner woke up, and asked me what was wrong. I explained. And I explained just how hard it was to experience discrimination from pretty much every side. I said, “I think I need to be an activist. Otherwise I’ll just go crazy. ” All of this felt so hard to deal with. Such a weight upon me.
A little later I added, with feeling, “But I’m strong. I am so strong.”
I knew I didn’t have to affect false modesty with Anja. This is simply what I felt.
A little later in the conversation, Anja said something like, “You know, when you said you were strong, at first I had a strange feeling, like someone who cries so much can’t be strong. But then of course I knew that that was wrong. It’s just what society has taught me to believe.”
I think that’s a very telling observation. Just because I cry, doesn’t mean I’m weak. It means I’m connected to my feelings, and that’s important, because if I’m not connected with my feelings I’m not connected with my values, my motivations, my understanding of right or wrong. Feelings help us navigate the world; they are part of what makes us human, and yes, I think they even empower us.
What they don’t do is make us weaker. Just because I cry in one moment, doesn’t mean I can’t get up and take action to change the world in another moment. In fact, perhaps I only would have had the clarity to do so if I had let myself cry.
But the masculine-run world doesn’t want to see things this way. Because male hormones dampen feelings and prevent crying, and female hormones do the opposite*, and therefore crying is associated with women and considered weak and inferior.
Well, screw that. Calling crying a sign of weakness is sexist, plain and simple. And I’m not going to alter myself to come up to sexist expectations. I’m going to make the world respect me as I am, and not re-shape myself in order to receive a twisted form of conditional respect.
We need to reshape our male-dominated culture, and that means changing male-dominated value judgements and perspectives. Femininity is worthy of dignity and respect: it’s just that simple.
*This is my experience, and also the experience of pretty much every trans* person who has switched hormones from feminine to masculine or vice versa. Social conditioning seems to do part of this, but hormones objectively also contribute. Despite having broken down my male conditioning and learnt to cry, and despite having fully identified and lived as a woman for more than a year before taking hormones, I still began to cry about twice as often as before once I took them.