How often do we make judgments about people based purely on their gender? I have personally been on the receiving end of such judgments many times recently, and have felt insulted as a result. Am I too sensitive to such comments? Perhaps. But I also feel like I have a legitimate reason to be insulted when I am judged based on whether or not I fit into some socially constructed image of what makes a woman. Anatomically speaking, there is no doubt about my gender. But as far as I’m concerned, that’s where gender ends. Everything else about me makes me a person, an individual, someone who cannot and will not be pigeon-holed into a role that is artificial and subjective. So, what in particular has set me off on this particular road today?
Beliefs about how men and women should look, act, etc. go back farther than I care to discuss. Suffice it to say that these gender roles have been, are, and always will be social and cultural constructs. And because they are subjective constructs, they are limiting and unfair to those they are imposed upon. Because I’m a woman, I’m expected to dress a certain way, wear makeup, style my hair, and act in a “feminine” manner. And because I have refused for most of my life to fit into this role, I have often been an outsider, someone who was judged because they didn’t act or look like they “should.” I have not refused this role because I am somehow stubbornly opposed to it; I have refused it because it does not feel like me. I have never liked wearing skirts or dresses. I wore them as a kid to school because that was my uniform, but as soon as cold weather started, I wore pants and felt much more comfortable. I didn’t want to play with dolls or play house. I wanted to be outside running around. At school, I wanted to play football and other sports with the boys, and for the most part I did. Because of this, I was labeled a tomboy and often made fun of by other kids. I learned early in life that not fitting into some preconceived role made you a target for ridicule. I tried being more “feminine” in high school and was promptly called out for looking awkward. It was a lose-lose situation. I felt like an imposter in my own body when I tried to fit into the role defined for me by society. As I got older, I would take some pleasure in getting dolled up in a nice dress and doing the whole hair and makeup routine. Why? Because I liked to shock the hell out of people who weren’t expecting it. Suddenly, people who might not give me the time of day are talking to me and taking an interest in me. All because I now looked the way a woman is “expected” to look. Do you think those same people would have paid as much attention had I not dressed up?
I don’t like spending time on my hair, partly because it does whatever the hell it wants, regardless of my efforts. I don’t like wearing a lot of makeup. If people can’t like me for who I am, why do I want to be around them? And I still sometimes get harassed about my clothes, makeup, and hair by my partner who thinks that I should make more of an effort in my appearance. She is under the impression that I somehow look down upon her for caring about those things. I don’t. Those are her views and I respect them. I expect the same courtesy to be returned. I am not my clothes, my hair, or my makeup. Do I go out looking like I just rolled out of bed? No. Do I look like I spent an hour in front of the mirror? No. I look like me. I dress in clothes that I’m comfortable in. I wear minimal makeup, mostly because my skin is older and I don’t have much of a tan anymore. Should I be judged because I don’t fit into society’s idea of how a woman should look or dress? No. Am I? Every goddamn day.
Then of course there are behavioral aspects of being a woman. I should be maternal, demure, nurturing, etc. And what if I’m not one of those things? Does that make me less of a woman? Does that somehow make me “abnormal?” I would say no. Others, however, are less forgiving. I’ve been told that I am not maternal. I’ve been told that because I don’t want to have kids of my own that I’m abnormal. Can you guess what finger I’m holding up right now in response to those statements? What makes someone maternal? That’s another social construct. My idea of maternal may not be yours. So what? I did not grow up wanting to have kids. When I got older, I still didn’t feel that way. Even when I was married, I knew that having kids was not right for me. It’s not because I don’t like kids. It’s because I recognize my own limitations. I know some great moms. And they have a reserve of patience and strength that I do not have. If every woman in the world had kids because that was their “role,” we’d have an even bigger population problem than we do now. A woman is not somehow abnormal or less of a woman because she doesn’t have kids or doesn’t want to have kids. That’s a harsh and unfair judgment to levy against anyone.
My partner has two daughters and I’m a parental figure to them. I am not their mom; I am not their dad. They don’t need another mom. They do need a parental figure that will hold them accountable for their behavior and lay down rules for them. I am very comfortable in that role, even if I my efforts are undermined by my partner. She complains that I’m not maternal with them. I say that they don’t want me to be maternal with them, and they don’t. They get that from her. My role is different. That role does not, however, make me less of a woman or abnormal. I’ve had friends tell me that if I did have kids, I needed to have more than one. Who are you to sit there and tell me what I should do with my body? Who are you to sit there and judge me because I’ve made decisions that are different from yours? Is it fair to bring a child into this world if you know that something in you isn’t cut out for the role?
Even in my career, I face these issues. I’m a programmer, a profession that is dominated by men. Because I’m a woman in a traditionally male profession, I’m looked down upon by these men as less knowledgeable or somehow inferior to them. How many of them are completely self-taught? How many of them can create a web application one week and turn around the next week and write a decent software manual or go teach a writing or literature course? How many men face unfair scrutiny for their chosen profession? Male nurses and teachers are under the microscope because society somehow sees those professions as belonging to women.
I refuse to be defined by society. I am an individual, with a combination of values, characteristics, quirks, and beliefs that make me unique. We should not hold people to some sort of socially constructed role. We should not judge men and women who do not fit into these roles as abnormal. Our genetics determine our gender, but our world forces constructs on all of us that are limiting. Determine your own role in this world. Don’t be limited by what society thinks you should be. And don’t judge those who don’t fit into your ideas of what makes a man a man and a woman a woman.
I am more than my gender.