What does it mean to be a woman? It is not just about femininity

What does it mean to be a woman

From as early as I can remember, I was told in no uncertain terms that things socially coded as feminine were off-limits for me. Assigned male at birth, the phrase “that’s not for boys” was one I heard with crushing regularity; and the sense of shame and dysphoria – heightened discomfort about my body and identity – stuck around for a long time.

I attended a Catholic, all-boys high school where toxic, teenage masculinity was inescapable, and I felt deeply uncomfortable about my relationship with maleness and masculinity throughout my adolescence, until I came out as a trans woman and began transitioning around 2012. I immediately felt more comfortable in my body, in my own skin. But something kind of funny happened when I began blurring the boundaries of what my identity could mean.

Over the first year or two of my transition, I felt very supported in having a more feminine gender expression, and rarely experienced backlash from the outside world. However, I’d face a kind of resistance when I cut my hair short and wore a button-down shirt. My work colleagues couldn’t understand why I was “trying to look like a boy” – the subtext being, that I didn’t look like what they imagined a trans woman looked like. At one point, I experienced the peculiar street harassment of being asked why I was “trying to look like a boy when I was obviously a girl”. Given that, a relatively short time earlier, I’d received the same comments from a stranger in reverse, I had to laugh.

While this kind of gender rigidity goes far beyond clothing and haircuts, it’s a useful metric for understanding my point. I began to realise how much society’s already-small acceptance of trans women was based on our willingness to perform a specific kind of femininity, enact these gendered expectations. I was a trans woman but not trans femme – a conundrum on top of a conundrum for society’s binary idea of what gender looks like.

Ultimately, a patriarchal society punishes women, and in particular trans women, no matter what their proximity to femininity. It demands you stay within an extremely narrow set of boundaries for how you can present yourself – and straying too far away in either direction faces consequence.

I think, then, that there’s a particular tightrope that trans women are made to walk, a kind of exaggerated version of the one all women are. Too feminine and we’re accused of feeding into stereotypes around women and femininity. Not feminine enough and well, why did we bother transitioning at all?

It’s a reductive classification that leaves little space for the obvious fact that gender expression – for anyone – rarely if ever fits into a neat, defined box. There’s been significant progress in dispelling the notion that (cis) people have to conform to a stereotypical “ideal” of femininity or masculinity, but I don’t really see that given to trans people in the same way.

At least part of this, I suspect, is the pressure often placed on trans people to appease a medical model of transition that can be very binary. I’ve had dozens of conversations with friends whose access to medical transition was contingent on their doctors being satisfied they “really wanted” to be the gender they said they were. The first psychiatrist I ever saw when I begun transitioning asked me in very plain terms – why was I transitioning if I didn’t want to wear a dress? Why wasn’t I attracted to men? He was asking me to fit within an extremely narrow definition of womanhood that I didn’t align with whatsoever.

As far as I’m concerned, my relationship with masculinity as a trans woman has effectively changed from one imposed on me, to one that I have some level of agency over. It’s mine, and I own it whenever I make choices about the way I present myself to the world before I step out the front door. It’s empowering to take the gendered norms you had forced upon you as a young person and re-conceptualise, reclaim and subvert them in ways that are active, autonomous choices.

I can understand why many trans women may want to completely detach themselves from masculinity. Having gendered norms forced upon you from birth can be an utterly traumatic experience, and I wouldn’t blame anyone who would want to remove themselves from that. But the idea that masculinity in and of itself is toxic doesn’t gel with my experience, and I hate the idea of trans people being given the freedom to identify how they wish yet forced to abide within arbitrary, pre-conceived limits of that identity.

I want to see a representation of non-conforming gender that doesn’t force us to sit within arbitrary margins of what gender looks like. If all we’re doing as a society by existing outside of conventional gender norms is splitting ourselves into three discrete, rigid categories – women, men, and non-binary people – then that doesn’t seem like enough.

I spent 21 odd years being told by the world the ways I could and could not present myself as I navigated my way through it. It makes little sense to me now that my body reflects the way I conceptualise my gender, that I would continue to let other people and internalized ideas dictate how I dress, or look, or act. Whether you’re trans or not – I don’t think you should either.

Allison Gallagher is a writer and artist.

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