What Defines My Womanhood
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
As a nineteen year old white cis gender female, I can honestly say, I was not educated on the concept of gender. This summer, I had the opportunity to educate myself on the sociology of gender through an online summer course. After weeks of studying and being introduced to the gender binary, intersectionality, masculinities, femininities and gendered institutions, I was given the assignment to write a critical self-reflection on my own life’s experiences. When I took the time, I began to see the influence of gender on my life. How I looked at myself in the mirror, what I chose to wear, how I acted in the classroom, and so many other little moments. I realized the influence and the way our Western societal culture defines and presents gender to each of us. So, here is my story and the way womanhood was defined for me and how it shaped my life.
“A woman is something one is, while a man is something one does.” This statement came from professors, Lisa Wade and Myra Marx Ferree, who wrote a fantastic textbook on the introduction to the sociology of gender. As I read the words of this book and the statement itself, I reflected on my own womanhood.
As a little girl, I was never told to “Be a woman!” or “Grow a vagina!” There was no correlation between being a woman and being powerful. My femininity was powerless. The parallel between being a female and being “less than” was the gender rule that was enforced at birth. According to Wade and Ferree, gender rules were defined as instructions for how to appear and behave as a man or woman. Gender rules don’t just appear in my childhood hometown but are internationally implemented. Being a young girl with a loud voice, who was taller and bigger than the majority of her classmates, led me to feel out of place. I was caught in this dance between following the rules, breaking the rules, and understanding why the rules were there in the first place. Gender binary ideologies taught me why I felt uncomfortable in my body, why I felt the need to be more quiet, and how I chose which rules I must follow, and how to follow them.
My short curly hair, tall height, and larger weight that made up who I was as a female
contributed to me feeling out of place due to the masculine and feminine qualities that I was told I could and couldn’t have. Gender expression is defined as a way of expressing one’s gender identity through appearance, dress, and behavior. This expression of my gender showed up when I couldn’t decide whether I should wear pants or a skirt, how I should cut my hair, or even something as simple as defining what it meant to be pretty. As a female, do I define pretty as dresses, flowers, or make up? The gender rules I was expected to follow contributed to the way I wanted to express myself as a woman, the way I wanted to show that I was pretty. The instructions for what the perfect female would look like was someone who was petite, had long straight hair, and was sweet and submissive. I was not given the space to choose which feminine qualities I could follow, all gender rules were applied and expected. Although these instructions might not be the same for all cultures, they were expected of me and, to be honest, none of them fit who I was.
Instead of being a rule-breaker and wearing clothes I felt most confident and comfortable in, I was contained by the gender rules enforced. Besides the way my arms, legs, and stomach looked in clothing, I felt different because of my hair. I have short curls that sit right above my shoulders. All my life I was surrounded by girls with beautiful, naturally straight hair. To follow the rules, I would run to the bathroom every couple of hours to wet down my curls to make them as straight as possible. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago I realized how much I truly loved my unique hair. Even though I decided to break the enforced gender rule, I still receive comments all the time from peers and strangers who say, “Wow, your hair looks so much better straight,” which makes me question my confidence and choice to be a gender rule breaker.
Amidst the struggle of my physical appearance, I began to practice emphasizing my
femininity in my actions. Emphasized femininity, as defined by Wade and Ferree, is an exaggerated form of conventional femininity oriented to accommodating the interests and desires of men. If I couldn’t fit the femininities that had to do with physical appearance, then I would act feminine and “do gender” in other areas of my life. For example, my teachers would enforce that gender binary ideology that girls have neat handwriting and boys have messy handwriting. I became obsessed with this gender binary and being able to prove my feminine identity. I would beautifully color-code my notes and use nice handwriting to make myself more feminine. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized my notes are helpful for studying but it was not necessary to make this piece of informational art. I didn’t need to make my notes a correlation to what makes me a girl. The gender rules that were associated with the female gender identity limited my physical expression, making me feel out of place, and therefore encouraging me to emphasize my femininity in my actions.
Growing up to be a loud and opinionated girl broke the gender rules that I was supposed
to follow, leading me to question my voice and my pariah femininity. Wade and Ferree define pariah femininities as actions that are directly challenging male dominance. I am a person who is passionate about my education, but the idea of a loud young girl leading a group and voicing her opinion did not go over well. I was called too bossy, annoying, and loud. It was even worse when I watched boys in my class to do the same thing and be congratulated for their leadership. I directly challenged male dominance in my classes in an “aggressive” way through my pariah femininities. By using my voice, I was breaking the gender rule for females; I wasn’t submissive and that was shocking to others. In high school, I watched as boys would feel embarrassed if I took a leadership role. I began to challenge myself and try not to speak the whole day just to see what would happen. I put myself lower than others to watch the way I was treated. The expectation fell right into place about how I was supposed to be a follower, not a leader.
I continue to second guess myself and ask: Was that bossy? Is it worth it to say my
opinion? It is a challenge to continuously find ways to balance my masculine and feminine
qualities to excel and be respected by those around me. I have to choose between challenging the gender rule of being loud versus keeping quiet. I began practicing my “feminine apologetic” by following the requirement that women balance masculine interests, traits, and activities with conventional femininity. I would play the supportive group member while knowing that being quiet doesn’t win games, promotions, or elections and having to be okay with that.
After reflecting on my physical appearances and the power of my voice, I needed to
analyze the pair of gender binary glasses I’ve been wearing each day that has shaped my
understanding of what is expected of women in today’s Western society. These gender binary glasses are a pair of lenses that separates everything we see into masculine and feminine categories. The idea that when referring to gender, you are referring to the belief of an inferior and superior version of a person. It relates to the “norm” for a woman to be seen as less than a man. This “norm” is constantly being culturally approved. The gender binary glasses that I have been wearing have shaped how I see gender, the norms I have learned and allowed, and the two specific categories that I place gendered characteristics into.
When looking at pop culture, gender binary glasses play a role in what norms are associated with women and how influential these norms are. For example, consider the Bechdel
test. The Bechdel test is a type of litmus test that assesses the presence of women in movies. This test consists of three questions - if a movie can say yes to all three, then women are adequately present in movies. The questions are:
Are there at least two or more women in the film that have names?
Do the women talk to each other?
Do the women talk to each other about something other than a man?
After learning about the test, I soon realized that many popular films such as Home Alone, The Princess Bride, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off could not pass the test. The test demonstrates the systemic problem and the gendered industry movie making. What this means for me, as a young girl, is that the stories I am watching are not only frequently about men, but built for men and, more often than not, by men . Learning about tests like the Bechdel test sheds light on the constant influence of gender binary ideology by making the binary a norm in our society and making one gender superior to the other.
It is important to also examine the hierarchy of masculine characteristics and androcentrism’s contribution to how to follow gender rules. Androcentrism is defined as a gender-based prejudice: the granting of high status, respect, value, reward, and power to whatever is seen as masculine compared to what is seen as feminine. Androcentrism is different from sexism because it values masculine characteristics, making them a representation of the ideal person while making femininities not universally desirable. When a young girl chooses a green dinosaur backpack over a pink Barbie backpack she will be congratulated for having an interest that is more masculine. She is following a masculine characteristic of liking a dark color, like green, with a scary dinosaur on it versus a pretty pink with a smiling Barbie. We follow the gender binary ideologies, dividing femininity and masculinity, and then applying value to masculinities over femininities each day. This hierarchy of respect applied to characteristics and the understanding of androcentrism enforces the expectation of gender rules for each of us to follow.
In addition to androcentrism, it is important to understand the influence of gender
equivocation and the strategies we can follow to have all of our characteristics valued. Gender equivocation, as defined by Wade and Ferree, is the use of both emphasized femininity and emphatic sameness when they are useful and culturally expected. At this point, we know that gender rules are expected to be followed, these rules dictate based on the gender binary, and that masculinities are valued more than femininities. This leads to the challenge women take on, from a young age, on how to meet the feminine standard, by emphasizing our femininity, while also being a little masculine, by practicing emphatic sameness. If I decide to watch all of The Avengers movies and dress up as Luke Skywalker for Halloween then I am practicing “emphatic sameness” - I am being “just one of the guys” to gain some respect by showing just enough but not too much masculinity. This gender binary contributed to my personal gender identity and my understanding of how feminine and masculine I should be.
Gender binary ideologies have contributed to how I criticize my body, how and when I
choose to express my voice, and the intersection between perfectly expressing my masculinities with my femininities. Simply being born a female, I am automatically handed instructions for how I should appear, behave, and what gender rules to follow as a woman. My short hair made me feel masculine because it didn’t fit my gender’s definition of feminine beauty. My loud voice made me bossy and abrasive instead of a leader and left me to overcompensate with being submissive. My gender binary glasses created a distinction between maleness and femaleness and taught me the only way to be fully respected and valued as a female was to strategically balance being masculine and feminine through gender equivocation. All the different aspects of my life and my ingrained image of gender have been warped by childhood understanding of what being a woman meant. Although I was never told to “Be a woman!” when I was little, the society I live in still expects me to keep to the strict gender rule guidelines that define what it means to be a woman.
This reflection not only gave me the opportunity to self-reflect on my definition and understanding of my gender but educate myself on why I saw myself this way. I was able to criticize the societal expectations of women and men that are shaped by these culturally approved gender rules. I challenge you to examine how you express your gender and why you do so. I challenge you to be mindful and accepting of those around you and how they choose to express their gender. Lastly, I challenge you to educate yourself, whether it is watching a movie, reading a book, asking questions. It is your job to learn about ideas and concepts that you might not understand to make a difference in not just your life but the way you impact those around you.
I grew up in a small beach town right outside of LA and I am a rising sophomore at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I am passionate about international and domestic public health and medicine and majoring in Health Promotion and Health Equity. I am educating myself about the gendered institutions in medicine so I can make a difference. If I am not sharing my voice and story, I am either reading a book written by my favorite author Jodi Picoult or listening to one of my favorite albums, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.