This X-posted from modernpoly as part of a series of personal stories about Poly and Gender. Thanks go out to all the modernpoly folks for inspiring me to write this all down!
I became a gender non-conformist after discovering polyamory, and delighting in its demand for explicit communication about feelings and relationships. I soon adopted that level of communication in my relationship with myself; in many ways, polyamory inspired and fueled the more conscious exploration of my identity which followed. That journey eventually led to regularly choosing and redefining my gender. In this sense, I've tossed off the traditional role of “woman” that my culture has assigned me, and have been creating new ways of being a woman that I can call entirely my own.
I approach romantic relationships with the goal of staying open to possibilities of deep, flexible, and varied connections. This is also how I approach my relationship with my gender. I have a lot of traditionally “butch” qualities, but that doesn't mean I need to find “femme” in my partners or in any place outside myself. I feel lucky to have a wide range of potential partners and roles to explore, and a relationship model that demands I voice my choices explicitly. These factors create repeated opportunities to challenge false absolutes of gender: I don't just get to choose my partners explicitly and enthusiastically, I also get to choose how I present myself! I get to choose what I'll call this combination of qualities I exhibit, regardless of how it compares to others' placement on the “gender spectrum”.
Being the woman I am pushes at the boundaries of who people have leaned to call a “woman” a bit. I let my body take up all the space it wants without apology. The wide shoulders I flaunt rather than conceal make me no less girly. I don't like being called a “chick” or “bitch”. I can't stand being “baby,” and I am decidedly not a “lady”. But I am not a tomboy; Being into machines and beer and sweat does not make me one of the guys.
My clothing and behavior choices have never comfortably fit within the traditional definitions of the feminine. For now, as a feminist vagina-haver comfortable being called a “woman”, I've taken it on as my personal project to be a woman in ways that are unexpected & unapologetic. I want to make the social construct of what a woman is bigger. Not just for me (although I do like taking up space); if I can get folks to see and respect that I am a (hairy, loud, greasy) woman, maybe it'll be easier for other unconventional women to be seen and respected. To that end, I always expect that people I interact with recognize that I am what I say I am when I say it.
I am extraordinarily lucky; this usually goes over pretty well. I've never had anyone say, “Oh really?” or question my womanhood outright. This privilege has made my life as a woman much easier. But I have had men balk, disgusted at my “manly” pit hair or other 'less womanly' attributes. I've witnessed incredulity on people's faces when I've expressed an attraction to men or put on a pretty dress. It's as if being recognized as a tough woman requires me to look and behave like a butch lesbian at all times. In some ways, I totally look like the “butch lesbian” they assume I am. I love looking and acting this way, but I am more complex than what people think I look or act like. Everyone is.
I choose my womanhood to be big: big enough to be both vulnerable and tough. This isn't something categorically female at all; It's just most comfortable for me to call myself a woman while navigating the bigness of my identity. I claim all my chosen actions as female; when someone insinuates that I or my actions are anything but, it disrupts my comfort.
This bigness isn't always easy to carry, either. The challenges I face in balancing and expressing my womanhood are usually small, but are damn insidious and pervasive. I live in constant denial and critique of the roles being thrust on women by society. They come from a lot of places, but especially from ad culture. I regularly question my clothing & presentation choices. I spend a significant amount of energy trying to make sure what I put on and into my body are things I really want, and not just echoes of the ad industry or my gendered upbringing.
Unfortunately, messages about my womanhood being too big are also buried deeply in my relationships. I can't deny that I get a self-righteous rise out of living in a way that combats ideas that I'm personally & politically opposed to, but I'd be telling a half-truth if I didn't confess that it wears me down. My mother wrinkles her nose and tells me that the pubic hair taking up sparse residence outside the reach of my swimsuit is “embarrassing.” My father touches my stomach and suggests I “get rid of” the bulging belly I've come to love. I love my parents, and we have a great relationship. This is just how close it gets.
The way my gender identity stacks up in my romantic relationships is much more rewarding. I live with one of my male partners, and we usually take about the same amount of time to get ready before going out. He spends more time on his hair than me; he uses product. I don't. I love the outdoors, while he prefers the outdoors “stay out there.” He's wonderfully fussy and detail oriented (which makes him a fabulous editor). I sometimes refer to him as “princess.” This isn't an insult at all, between us; he is beautiful, high maintenance, and far more likely to wear glitter. And I like getting to be prince charming, whether it's for him or someone else.
To be clear, this sort of gender playfulness is just that–play. My partner and I both like playing with gender. Neither of us like that the divisions of binary gender have been made so mandatory in our culture. In my ideal future, the social construct of gender would disintegrate into nothing more than a massive roleplaying game (AKA gender anarchy). But I figure,before that can happen, a strategic vagina-having human like me should start setting their sites on making the boundaries between genders bulge and swell. I want to distend perceptions of gender. I want to show people that the stories they've been taught about “real” men and “real” women are completely made up.
I'd like to think I bring a healthy, important uncertainty to the choices I make about my gender identity and presentation. But sometimes the divisive doubts of the outside world do press into my skin. In the secret holds of my subconscious, the doubts mix into the uncertainty I use to daily choose my feminine self. I sometimes begin to believe I am ugly, fat, or unworthy; that I am not “doing enough” to deserve to be who I say I am; that all I'm doing is forcing my selfish fuss onto others. This often ends in a bawling heap of an anxiety attack.
This isn't every day (or even most days). I'm getting better at recovering back into my own cycles of choosing. More importantly, I'm learning how to tell off folks (men mostly) who try to shove me into their box of compliant, smooth, nurturing, and pretty woman. It's not that any of those words are ones I don't like to be from time to time (I am a world class nurturer, for one), but they are not the qualities I want defining me indefinitely.
I'm much bigger than that. I'm a woman.