Before you start reading allow me to state that gender is a social construct. Also, words like “masculine” and “feminine” or “girly” or “manly” are meant to be in quotations and this is my face everytime I use them.
Gender is not a two sided coin, with just two faces, it’s a spectrum that can be expressed however you choose.
I usually write a post many months in advance and just sit on it, revisit it some more before I share it. This also happened with this piece I wrote a little over a year ago, but felt unfinished with it. I agreed with what I was writing and feeling at the time yet still felt the need to reflect deeper. So I did, and think now, while I am still learning, I am ready to share. In cursive will be the piece I originally wrote last year, then I go to reflect on the realization I have been making since then.
I know there is not a single way to define what it means to be a girl. Girls come in all shape and form with different characters. However, there is a specific type of women that are mostly represented in the media and in cultures as an “acceptable” form of a girl. Everything else is being “different”, not the “norm”. Especially growing up, I saw that a lot and was expected to act that way by my family. But I’ve never really been that way. I’ve never identified with the main female character (mostly because they never looked like me) and also because I never felt like what was considered a girly girl. My mom always pushed me to pursue certain behaviors that were attributed as feminine in our culture. I don’t quite know if it was because it was being forced on me or not but I never felt like that was me. I did want that to be me.
Yet,throughout my childhood and even now I struggle with feeling like I am not feminine enough. When I cut my hair, which was the most liberating thing I’ve ever done, but I would sometimes still feel insecure because I wanted to refrain from looking like a boy. In the first months after cutting my hair I would not wear some of my clothes (that I loved!) because they made look too boyish, I regularly got my nails done because they added a sense of femininity to me.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look feminine, but for a long time I felt like it was the only right way to be a girl. I like to think of femininity as a spectrum and I never felt like I was the most feminine. For so long during high school and college I felt like I had to be embody what we call “a bad bitch” in order to be seen as feminine. But it’s hard to be a bad bitch all the time. Sometimes I just want to be regular.
Additionally, I have struggled immensely to view and accept beauty and fashion as strengths. I have mainly embraced them because I was taught to be always look presentable, as a way to show that I belonged and get respect, especially due my socioeconomic and cultural background (combat that all Africans are poor and unkept stereotype, but that is a different conversation).
Obviously, there are a lot of issues to reflect upon after reading that. But for the sake this post I am exploring my resistance against femininity. Because the truth is I did like indulging in feminine things so why the heck was I acting like I did not and trying to suppress those feelings since such a young age! Like why.
I realize now that it’s not that I was not into beauty and fashion or other girly things. I always enjoyed nice clothes, maintenance, love doing my hair and nails, I enjoy watching fashion, makeup, skincare videos on Youtube as much as my history or political videos. I just never had the confident to accept those things, indulge in those things because I perceived them as weak. I tried to show and preferred my masculine habits more, and used those to define myself because I thought that was what it meant to be strong. I did not want my feminine side to showcase me as weak. I was very misplaced in trying to reject certain things in my desire to continue to be strong willed and – I can’t even find a word to describe what I mean that does not have a masculine connotation behind it.
But ironic (or maybe just tragic) enough I knew that I needed to utilize my feminine side mainly in order to combat that aggressiveness that is placed onto Black women. I was aware of how my assertiveness, intelligence, nerdy tendencies were viewed as somewhat too much for a girl with my ethnicity and race.
It’s like because of sexism I did not want to accept my great “feminine” qualities but because of racism I needed to use those qualities so I would not confirm that stereotype of the angry, too masculine, dark-skinned (because yes colorism!) Black woman. Because of these issues I needed to find an intersection where I had just the right amount of femininity to still be desirable yet strong, but too intimidating for people and even worse to scare a husband away.
Now that I am learning more about myself and social constructs I realize how I have been limiting myself, my skills, self esteem, confidence, growth (all of that!) to adhere to society’s level of comfort. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who likes to take risks, and in way does not care about others’ perception of beauty.
Unless it comes to fitting a stereotype.
My fear of fitting a stereotype (surrounding sex, gender, race and even sexual orientation) I realize, is because subconsciously I am subscribing to those prejudices and biases. Even though I know the blatant lack of truth stereotypes carry, I still carry those biases towards myself or others who are affected by similar stereotypes.
In my last post I spoke about Rachel from FRIENDS and how for a while I didn’t like her also because she really indulges in pretty feminine habits. Yes, I have come to realize how wrong that was. But let’s unpack that real quick.
Monica and Phoebe still were very gender conforming in the show, however their most highlighted behaviors were not related to their femininity. Monica was a go getter, hardworking. Phoebe was quirky and tough. Most of these attributes can easily be seen as masculine. Rachel, I would say was the most gender conforming of them all. However, at first, the characteristic highlighted the most was not her fierceness but the fact that she was the pretty girl; along with her storyline being immediately tied to a man. While Phoebe’s lack of a definitive career was made to seem more because of her choice of a nontraditional lifestyle, the lack of definitive career of the more feminine character, Rachel, was because she was the spoiled girl “who still used Daddy’s credit card”, she was the pretty one who never had to work as hard.These wacky unsubstantial storylines are constantly given to more feminine characters in the media.
I even see that with Livin Single (just to pick another great show from that era) with Regine. Regine (I also like to point out light skin, but I will come to that later) love for and sense of fashion, beauty was supreme in that show.
However her choice to pursue those things (which are socially labeled as “girly”), to also ultimately snatch a man (well ain’t that a coincidence!), was often ridiculed and portrayed to be looked down upon.
There is always this negative connotation surrounding a character’s choice to indulge in more feminine things.
Yet, Maxine, who by all means fits the more praised characteristics often associated with a man, still faced some sort of backlash, viewed as being too manly, too aggressive, and needed to be tamed. And yes, if you guessed right Maxine is dark-skinned. Having the same characteristics which are praised in a man or even highlighted as positive in a white woman (as we see with Monica, and Monica and Maxine are very similar), but vilified when it comes to a dark-skinned Black woman creates a harmful perception that continuously affects women like myself.
This sort of internal struggle that I have been experiencing my entire life, yes stems from my personal insecurities, but is deeply deeply rooted in sexist and racist stereotypes and harmful perceptions emphasized by our society and the media.
So why was I rejecting femininity from such a young age? Because I did not want to seem weak. Even though I liked feminine things because that’s just who I am (I mean with all the magical girl anime I watched), I understand now that I was just trying to suppress them because the society viewed them as insubstantial. As a Black woman, additionally, because of racism and patriarchy, there is a lot of pressure and demand to be more feminine, sexual, strong and assertive (but not too aggressive), that makes growing up, navigating life just trying to be yourself much much more complicated.
Video to watch: “The Girly Girl Trope, Explained” The Take on Youtube has a lot of videos explaining “tropes” in media and their social impact. Binge and learn.
Other favorite social commentary youtubers are: For Harriet and Tee Noir. The range of well researched content provided by these Black creators, diving into heavy or light hearted topics, challenging your perspectives…I’m here for it.
P.S. I do not own any copyright to the images included.