The summer I was nineteen, I seriously questioned my gender identity. Sort of.
What I questioned, rather than something intrinsic to myself, was who I was to the rest of the world. I distinctly recall wondering why I had to be a girlfriend, for instance, because that word seemed wrong to me. I still based a lot of my self-worth off how others saw me. Or who wanted me. If I’m honest, a chunk of the thought process went “I’m into guys who are into guys. Therefore, I should be a guy.”
I hadn’t done much critical thinking about second wave feminism at that point. That was the feminism I was raised on; that was the feminism I thought was right. And I can take parts of it and say “Yes, absolutely this” but there are parts of it I look at and wonder “what have we done to ourselves?” Because for all our good intentions, the result of second wave feminism was to turn out female men.
Look at us, aping “our betters” (hah) in power suits and C-suite careers with no room for family. Look at us, with no idea how to be women in what was still a man’s world. It was anathema, for a time, to be a woman who wanted what women had supposedly wanted since antiquity. At least in the mainstream. I will qualify it like that. In the mainstream, even into the early oughties, if you weren’t aiming just as high as boys had traditionally, you weren’t much of anything.
I didn’t know how to have an ambition that revolved around serving others, or how to do that without showing my soft underbelly. How to want to be softer than ice. How, for a time, to write fully realized women in healthy relationships with men in a contemporary setting. Or how to be one.
Men who wanted me were either power-hungry or powerless. In order to be equal, did I think I needed to be a man?
Thirteen years later, I’ve had time to sort it all through and confirm, multiple times over, that I am a cis woman who can’t even bend as far as butch. But when I was younger and didn’t understand what it meant to me to be a woman, what else was I supposed to think? Time and time again, I had to fight everything that said I wasn’t one because (my breasts were too small and funny-looking/I no longer had periods/I wore my hair short, choose all that apply). In gaining weight, I gained some of my femme verve back. I discovered that yes, unlike my aunt, I would have hips; I have recently found that yes, I’m busting out of my lower-weight bras. Not dramatically. These are still As. But they’re actually 34-36As, and I might be up to a medium Coobie-style bra.
Changes can be terrifying. Changes can be beautiful. Changes can be… both. This time I’m reassured. But what if, at nineteen, I wasn’t reassured at all by who I’d become after leaving Alfred? What if I was grasping at straws, struggling to build an identity that wasn’t “boy, it sucks rocks to be a woman in today’s culture”?
What if I wasn’t ready to address that yet?
We don’t affirm femininity enough. Not a healthy kind. And we don’t talk enough about those times we wished we weren’t women. That we could be anything else, but God alone knew what and He wasn’t telling. We don’t talk about about whether the feelings are coming from an innate mismatch between soul and chromosomes or something external to us. There’s a line somewhere in there that I know I fear crossing, lest anyone mistake me for anti-trans — and I’m not that. I don’t usually have the right language but I want to.
I don’t want to make my trans and nonbinary friends the police of my language, either; they have enough to deal with! Which is why it’s important for cis women to become way more comfortable with fluidity in gender and to teach each other what we learn from our brothers and sisters and those who identify as neither. It’s important that we do examine our own history of (unintentional?) gender role bending. Blow the old roles away, maybe. They’re all over cobwebs and dust.
It may well be women’s work to clean this house. Just one more time.