Monday, June 18, 2012

sort of just hair, sort of not just hair. . .

This morning, I found myself re-watching this documentary about gender in advertising.  I've been having a lot of thoughts about my gender identity over the past few months, many of which have been brought on by my hair.  Shaving my head has been very revealing.

Part of the revelation has been in other people's reactions.  I'm glad my first experience introducing it to the world was on campus; people were incredibly kind and supportive about it, and after I'd shaved it I realized that several other people had done the same thing for the same reason.  On the other hand, my mother basically told me it was ugly (and that I looked just like my brother) the minute she saw it, and asks me when I'm planning to grow it out at every chance.  My first visit with the majority of my nieflings was entirely devoted to their being weirded out and upset by it.  People in my neighborhood flinch and look away when I try to smile at them while I'm walking past.  It upsets me, but I can hardly blame them; I had the same reaction, before I had a chance to get used to it.  In a way, this tells me I'm doing something good for the world, since by giving people exposure I see that they do have a chance to get used to it.

Most of the time, I don't really care for how it looks--but I do love how it forces me to confront things I don't like about myself.  I love knowing that even when I look especially fat and manly, I can just get on with my life--knowing how much, ultimately, appearance doesn't have to matter.  It isn't just the fact of not having any distraction from my fat body, though.  When I first looked in the mirror after shaving it, I thought I looked like an ugly, half man/half woman, freak--the face of my brother when he was a teenager over a disturbingly feminine body.  This thought wouldn't have had much traction, though, if it weren't for the feeling that it was true deeper than the surface level.  After all, my hair grows fast, and if I'd felt my appearance really didn't suit me, I could have said, "well, now I've shaven my head once.  I know what it's like, and it was a worthwhile experiment.  Time to grow my hair back out. . . I guess I can just wear a lot of hats between now and then."

Me with super-short hair isn't any more or less me than me with long hair.  My face, even framed by short hair, is just as much my face (arguably moreso, since I had it first) as it is my brother's.  If I were clearly and comfortably feminine, I would simply reject this appearance.  Instead, it speaks to me of things which are dirty and not allowed, but which I want.

None of those things are male anatomy, but they are about masculinity.  They are about power, assertiveness, and aggressiveness being a socially acceptable part of my identity.  They are about getting recognition, respect, promotions, and fair pay for hard work.  They are about being considered well groomed without excessive, expensive, and time consuming rituals about cosmetics, shaving, and hair care.  They are about being able to traverse public spaces without submitting myself to judgments about my sexual attractiveness and availability.  They are about being able to dress up and be considered appealing and well presented without using clothing which calls attention specifically to sexual attractiveness.  They are about having access and recourse to the appropriate use of physical violence, both in defense and in play.  They are about not hiding my intelligence for fear of making others feel insecure.  They are about avoiding the manipulative and deceptive social games women sometimes feel compelled to play for the sake of their patriarchal bargain.

Honestly, sometimes I don't know how anyone can stand being a woman.  That doesn't mean I don't love making people feel better, or have days when all I want to do is hang out in my kitchen, wearing a pink dress and baking for someone appreciative.  It just means I don't have any days when I'm OK with the completely un-necessary ways being female cuts off my choices.  

And I've wrestled with this--alongside struggling to accept my fat body, which is a whole other can of worms--and come to a few conclusions.  I think part of the reason I have this struggle is that gender norms are even more deep-down-encoded for me than they are for most people.  It's harder for me to say, "well, I can have xyz feminine characteristics and uvw masculine characteristics and there's really no conflict there--people are just people."  I was raised with an incredibly gendered religious model of what I ought to be, and it was soon clear that was never going to work.  I was never going to be able to be that thing, and many of the characteristics I had which didn't fit were "masculine" characteristics.  Without role models, I was particularly vulnerable to the representations in advertising--which were just as gendered, damaging, and impossible to fit, although this time the impossible expectations were more centered around my body. 

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