Your Humanity or Your Femininity: Being a Woman Is Never Enough

Friday, February 26

By Ash Haslett Cuff


 

The legendary feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir once said, ‘Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female--whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male’ and the older I get the more I find this to be true. I begin to feel a pressure to decide between my femininity and my personhood, to give up one for the sake of the other. 

 Maybe I need to rethink my definition of what it means to be feminine. Maybe I need to stop clinging to the importance of my recently found femininity altogether. For so long I wore my hair up, found solace in a uniform of jeans and t-shirts, bolstering myself with my lack of publicly displayed emotion and walls of books. It was only relatively recently I found the joy of wearing skirts, of heels, of being called ‘pretty’ even if that validation was shallow and insincere, it made me think that perhaps at last, I had stumbled upon the ‘correct way’ to be female. However with this new attitude I also found myself constantly worried about whether or not I would be taken seriously when I was having particular kinds of conversations or expressing opinions about certain topics. Somehow I felt like I had traded in a certain amount of credibility when I began to accept a more traditional kind of femininity. 

 Now, is this my fault for regarding feminine traits in a certain light? Or is this something I can claim is a by-product of the misogyny so deeply embedded all around me? Perhaps it is a combination of both, but you can only get on blaming your biases on external factors for so long. At a certain point you’ve just got to learn to address them in yourself and/or accept the shitty reality that biases are a part of being human.

But the fact is that on days when I am feeling insecure or anxious, or I am going into new situations, is when I tend to dress, and act, in a more typically masculine fashion. I use this ambiguity as a shield, or perhaps a plea of ‘don’t see me as a female, regard me as a human, please.’ In my sensible shoes and serious sweaters, I feel a little more like I can hold my own in a world that might patronize me in a skirt. 

 How does this reflect in my personal relationships? I have male friends who genuinely respect me and take me seriously. With a few exceptions, my interactions with them are not so different from my interactions with my female friends and, because they are decent human beings, I have never felt like I am less than them or inferior in any way. As friends, this works fine for me, regardless of the gender of the other party.

But what about relationships that are slightly less platonic? It’s an internal battle between ‘find me pretty and charming and see me as more than a friend’ but also ‘please, for the love of God, take me seriously and don’t see me or treat me as something cute, as a pet, as a child’ (sidenote: ‘cute’ has become something that alternates between meaning absolutely nothing and being condescending. Perhaps I am being overly sensitive but it is an adjective I find increasingly irksome). Either way, whatever their adjective of choice, I still find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that I can be taken seriously by men and still be thought of as ‘pretty’ or ‘feminine.’ Perhaps it’s this concept of ideal femininity that we have decided upon that equates ‘desirable’ with ‘childlike’ and so, encourages the idea that if someone is feminine, they are juvenile and should be treated as such but in my head the two have become mutually exclusive. 

 This is also reflected in the way children are raised from the get go. Beyond the binary of toys and clothes, the language inflicted on raising girls versus boys sets them up for a very particular way of thinking. There is a celebration of female accomplishments when we are shown examples of women who became great scientists or writers or politicians, as if they have done something extra remarkable by achieving this feat. Should they be celebrated for their work? Yes. Should they be celebrated for their work on the grounds that they are female? No, because that sends a message that the fact of their being female was a hurdle to overcome. It feels condescending, this congratulations, treating these accomplished women like some kind of novelty. It seems there is a fine line between teaching young girls that, unfortunately, this is a man’s world and with that, they will be experiencing some setbacks singular to being female, and teaching them that they should expect less of themselves and other girls because boys are always going to more intelligent, funnier, or more successful. The whole ‘girl boss’ culture is something I find incredibly off putting. Not solely because of it’s insincere, stomach churning positivity, but because, at its core, is the message of ‘we make do with what we have.’ With that idea being spoon-fed to us from day one, how can we help but feel the impediments of our gender?

How  can we bridge this gap between ‘human’ and ‘female’? How can we stop the feeling that exhibiting feminine traits somehow makes you inferior? For so long the male has been the default mode that even now, in a relatively enlightened era of thinking, the female still feels like an entirely different beast. Changing the language has never been enough. That’s a BandAid for a bullet hole. The issue was never the language, the issue was the astonishment at female accomplishments, the label of ‘cool’ reserved for more masculine women and the underlying that being a woman is not the same as being a human.

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