what does it mean to be a woman?

I think we can all agree that gender is just a social construct. How you do your hair, the clothes you wear, what’s between your legs is irrelevant when it comes to identifying as a gender. Being a woman or being a man can be whatever you want to be!

But if being a woman can mean whatever you want it to mean – what does it mean to be a woman? How do I know that I AM a woman?

Here are the things that I know to be true about myself:

  • I like being feminine: I like dresses and long nails and makeup
  • I don’t experience any dysphoria about my body
  • I feel the same about she and they pronouns but he/him pronouns feel wrong.
  • I hate the idea of my gender expression being limited but being AFAB and socialized as a woman also means that I am a slave to the male gaze!

I’ve tried to think about womanhood as my relationship with other women. I love women, I feel more safe around them and I trust them more implicitly. But those feelings also extend to all femmes as well. It’s not really a relationship with women but a relationship with the feminine.

Judith Butler says that gender is more a thing you do rather than a thing you are, and that becoming a woman is a process. It’s a constant act of becoming. Growing up as a woman you are constantly to become a woman without ever really getting a chance to think about WHAT you want to become. It’s so hard to see yourself apart from that thing because the world sees you as that. I don’t think I would ever be able to present in such a way that the world would think I’m anything but a woman.

And all of these feelings towards gender are further complicated by the fact that I’m not white or thin so societal standards have further bullied me into putting even more effort into appearing as feminine as possible. Of course, there is the constant internalized male gaze that is telling that if I am not pretty and feminine and delicate I will basically die.

There’s a quote by Margaret Atwood from The Robber Bride that I think about all the time.

Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? Up on a pedestal or down on your knees, it’s all a male fantasy: that you’re strong enough to take what they dish out, or else too weak to do anything about it. Even pretending you aren’t catering to male fantasies is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman. You are your own voyeur.”

My perception of my gender and gender expression are colored by my internal sexist voyeur. My value is in my ability to perform womanhood and if I fail at that – what do I have to offer the world?

I know that I can be feminine without being a woman and I can be a woman without being feminine. But trying to ascertain what my relationship with femininity means for my gender feels like trying to describe the way a piece of art makes me feel using a language I don’t speak very well.

Gender ultimately feels elusive. Something I see out of the corner of my eye but am unable to look at head on.

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