Acceptable Femininity: some rambling thoughts about gender roles, high heels, and makeup.

These are the products I typically use on my face when I do my makeup.

Acceptable Femininity: some rambling thoughts about gender roles, high heels, and makeup.

These are the products I typically use on my face when I do my makeup.

Late­ly, as I’ve been delv­ing into what feels like a whole new world of heels and cardi­gans and make­up, I’ve been think­ing about how my opin­ion of fem­i­nin­i­ty has mor­phed through­out my admit­ted­ly short life. I’ve noticed a pat­tern, and I’d like to share it with you:

My accep­tance or rejec­tion of the fem­i­nine with­in myself and oth­ers is direct­ly relat­ed to my accep­tance or rejec­tion of misog­y­ny.

I do real­ly want to stress that this is an intro­spec­tive piece, and that what has held true in my life absolute­ly doesn’t hold true for oth­ers. After all, I’m speak­ing as a white cis­gen­der woman* — I wouldn’t dream of impos­ing my expe­ri­ences or con­clu­sions for myself on oth­ers who have not lived my life.

*What this means is that I was assigned the gen­der of woman at birth, and I’m com­fort­able with that assign­ment. (For those for whom this con­cept is new, I sug­gest check­ing out Hank Green’s won­der­ful video on sex­u­al­i­ty and gen­der that I’ve includ­ed here.)

— 1 —

Drawing of 3-year-old girly me.

Draw­ing of 3-year-old girly me.

When I was a lit­tle girl, I was real­ly into “girly” things. My favourite colours were pink and pur­ple. I loved paint­ing my nails, styling my hair, wear­ing frilly lace and twirling in pret­ty skirts. Jew­el­ry, make­up, shoes, and dolls: these things spoke to my lit­tle girl heart.

You know what I also loved, though? Play­ing with my brother’s Star Trek and Star Wars toys, and play­ing our Nin­ten­do.

Often, play­ing togeth­er involved com­bin­ing his fig­urines & ships with my Bar­bi­es and stuffed ani­mals to cre­ate a rather imag­i­na­tive con­glom­er­a­tive world in which Star Trek and Star Wars coex­ist­ed (some­times along with Indi­ana Jones, Spi­der-man, Bat­man, and Super­man). Grant­ed, my Bar­bi­es often tend­ed to be giants fight­ing for the Galac­tic Empire that the Fed­er­a­tion and the Rebel Alliance had to destroy mer­ci­less­ly, but, I mean, I don’t hold a grudge or any­thing. And some of my fond­est mem­o­ries grow­ing up are try­ing to fig­ure out how to beat var­i­ous video games.

Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t think there’s any­thing inher­ent­ly fem­i­nine about pink or lace or nail pol­ish or dolls. Nor do I think there’s any­thing inher­ent­ly mas­cu­line about video games, sci­ence fic­tion, Indi­ana Jones or com­ic books. How­ev­er, in West­ern soci­ety, par­tic­u­lar­ly with­in a con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian atmos­phere, there’s def­i­nite­ly a gen­er­al under­stand­ing about what’s accept­able or nor­mal for peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly chil­dren, based on noth­ing but their assumed sex.

As for my expe­ri­ences as a child, when I didn’t have the words or the con­scious beliefs that women were to be sub­mis­sive to men, Accept­able Fem­i­nin­i­ty includ­ed wear­ing my pink lacey socks while play­ing Star Trek Wars and feel­ing per­fect­ly com­fort­able doing so.

— 2 —

As I grew old­er, I began to inter­nal­ize quite a lot of misog­y­ny. I don’t attribute this to my fam­i­ly or any indi­vid­ual, but to the cul­ture at large. It’s sim­ply impos­si­ble to grow up as a girl in Amer­i­ca with­out inter­nal­iz­ing sex­ism. Even more so when one grows up sur­round­ed and taught by the con­ser­v­a­tive reli­gious right.

For instance.

I most likely had safety pins in my ears, too.

I most like­ly had safe­ty pins in my ears, too.

In junior high, for rea­sons that have always been fuzzy to me, I began to eschew all things I deemed “super girly” as deter­mined by my under­stand­ing of gen­der in Amer­i­can Chris­tian­i­ty in the ear­ly 2000’s. I shunned pink and fem­i­nine dress (as best as I could attend­ing a con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian school and going to church every Sun­day). Despite being allowed to wear make­up at long last, I often went with­out it, or else opt­ed for very dra­mat­ic goth-inspired make­up that test­ed my par­ents’ already-thin patience with my style. I embraced men’s cloth­ing at every chance I got, being a big fan of raver pants, safe­ty pins, black and army green. I cut my hair very short to aid in what I thought would be a more mas­cu­line — and thus, in my mind, stronger — pre­sen­ta­tion of myself, and most­ly for­sook heels in favor of skater shoes, for rea­sons I shall nev­er under­stand since I have very nar­row feet and skater shoes were nev­er meant for my feet. In my mind, they were more mas­cu­line and so they were prefer­able.

You know what, though? These out­er changes were large­ly super­fi­cial changes. Well, inso­far as any iden­ti­ty or pre­sen­ta­tion is super­fi­cial, which is anoth­er top­ic for anoth­er day. But these “super­fi­cial” changes were indica­tive of the more seri­ous misog­y­nis­tic beliefs I was inter­nal­iz­ing.

I learned in junior high that boys would treat me with a lit­tle less con­tempt if I joined them in their con­tempt for my fel­low female class­mates. In an attempt at self-preser­va­tion, I delib­er­ate­ly sided with guys who bul­lied my friends, lest I come under the same inten­si­ty of their abuse. I was mar­gin­al­ly suc­cess­ful at this self-preser­va­tion and was able to estab­lish myself as the “Not Like OTHER Girls” Token Female Friend. It only cost me stuff­ing down the con­scious­ness that what I was doing was hurt­ful to girls that I loved and oth­er­wise supported…so long as they kept in line.

As many women will tes­ti­fy, this sort of inter­nal­ized misog­y­ny doesn’t just look like polic­ing and judg­ing oth­er women for their con­for­mi­ty to the wide­ly deter­mined “unac­cept­able” aspects of assumed wom­an­hood. It also man­i­fests in suf­fo­cat­ing our own sense of appro­pri­ate thoughts, actions, and emo­tions, then men­tal­ly pun­ish­ing our­selves for our inevitable fail­ure to con­form (or con­grat­u­lat­ing our­selves for “earn­ing” the crumbs of not being treat­ed as hor­ri­bly as oth­er women that the men toss our way as a means of con­grat­u­la­tions for mak­ing our­selves more palat­able to them by way of era­sure). As a girl who was expe­ri­enc­ing severe depres­sion and anx­i­ety that pushed me into an eat­ing dis­or­der, years of self-harm and a cou­ple of sui­cide attempts, I can’t tell you how dam­ag­ing it was to try to hold myself to my misog­y­nis­tic stan­dard of Accept­able Fem­i­nin­i­ty that I loathed myself for being unable meet.

So, there I was, junior high and ear­ly high school Dani, pre­sent­ing as mas­cu­line as I was allowed to present in an effort to dis­tance myself from a fem­i­nin­i­ty that I believed to be shame­ful and unde­sir­able. The lit­tle girl who was able to enjoy both pink nail pol­ish and video games and sci­ence fic­tion was shoved so deep down inside that I didn’t think she exist­ed any­more.

— 3 —

Every­thing changed again when, as I’ve said else­where, in my late teens I began my path down the road of fun­da­men­tal­ism. All of the men­tors in my life seemed to be of one mind: my mas­cu­line pre­sen­ta­tion was a direct affront to God and had only been tol­er­at­ed thus­far because I wasn’t pierced and tat­tooed and doing drugs.

After lots of pres­sure from men­tors and peers alike, I began to assign Amer­i­can Chris­t­ian under­stand­ings of gen­der roles to the Bible and change myself accord­ing­ly. I let my hair grow out a la 1 Corinthi­ans 11, and start­ed wear­ing just enough make­up to “enhance my nat­ur­al beau­ty” but not enough that the guys at my church camp would think I wore “too much” make­up (an infer­ence from 1 Peter 3). I start­ed vol­un­tar­i­ly wear­ing both col­ors and women’s cloth­ing, but was still adamant that I wasn’t a “girly girl.” I shied away from heels, elab­o­rate hair­styles, and skirts (except on Sun­days).

What I didn’t expect was that when I first start­ed wear­ing fem­i­nine cloth­ing, sev­er­al of the guys in my life took…well, shall we say, “spe­cial” notice. Basi­cal­ly, I start­ed get­ting groped in “appre­ci­a­tion” of my new­found fem­i­nin­i­ty, despite any ver­bal or phys­i­cal protes­ta­tion. Once a friend tried to intervene…by explain­ing to a par­tic­u­lar­ly per­sis­tent fel­low that I was “sen­si­tive about that kind of thing.” After that, I most­ly stopped protest­ing since it kept hap­pen­ing any­way and, from my friend’s expla­na­tion, it seemed like it just wasn’t some­thing I was sup­posed to make a fuss about.


I did make a change in my appear­ance for a cou­ple of years after the unwant­ed atten­tion start­ed, how­ev­er: I start­ed dress­ing in extreme­ly bright atten­tion-draw­ing col­ors in an effort to desex­u­al­ize myself while still some­what con­form­ing to the fem­i­nine dress code I was expect­ed to uphold. I fig­ured no man would be attract­ed to a woman in flu­o­res­cent pants and shoelaces, but at least I wasn’t offend­ing God by wear­ing men’s cloth­ing any­more. And besides, it was actu­al­ly real­ly fun. I felt real­ly great about myself when I wore cloth­ing like that.

My rela­tion­ships with my fel­low women did seem to improve as I embraced my part with­in the sis­ter­hood, but my inter­nal­ized misog­y­ny only grew, this time with a West­ern­ized lit­er­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the Bible lend­ing spir­i­tu­al weight to the sex­ism. I still con­stant­ly gaslight­ed myself and oth­ers in an effort to make sure we weren’t Those Kind of emo­tion­al illog­i­cal dra­ma-queens that I believed less­er women to be. Which hon­est­ly? Was some­thing we all did to each oth­er in the gen­uine belief that we were iron sharp­en­ing iron, lead­ing one anoth­er into clos­er rela­tion­ships with Christ. I took the way I was taught to inter­pret the Bible very seri­ous­ly. I tried to force myself into this impos­si­ble box of being fem­i­nine enough to please God but not so fem­i­nine to come under the attack of men.

This isn’t to say that I was a per­fect Amer­i­can Fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­t­ian young woman by any means. I dis­card­ed parts of the Bible I didn’t like when it suit­ed me, just like all West­ern Bib­li­cal lit­er­al­ists do. I pierced my ears mul­ti­ple times. I cut my hair short a few times again, though I was always care­ful to make sure it was a fem­i­nine cut at least, and I even­tu­al­ly decid­ed that it ought to be long enough to wipe the feet of Jesus (I don’t even know, you guys). I still wore men’s cloth­ing from time to time for the sheer com­fort of it. I def­i­nite­ly had Opin­ions About All The Things, and I strug­gled tremen­dous­ly with the con­cept of being sub­mis­sive.

But by and large? I embraced fem­i­nin­i­ty and my fel­low sisters…so long as we con­stant­ly pushed each oth­er to be the kind of women that God would approve of via the men in our lives. Accept­able Fem­i­nin­i­ty was defined sole­ly through the Amer­i­can con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­t­ian male gaze.

— 4 —

When the time came for me to fur­ther my edu­ca­tion beyond my asso­ciates degree in graph­ic design, and I was told I wasn’t allowed to con­tin­ue my edu­ca­tion in a non-Chris­t­ian field, I decid­ed that God was try­ing to teach me to be more sub­mis­sive to the spir­i­tu­al author­i­ties in my life. The best place I could learn this sub­mis­sion, I con­clud­ed, was Bob Jones Uni­ver­si­ty.

After artist series one night at BJU in 2008.

After artist series one night at BJU in 2008.

The short time I was there, I suc­ceed­ed in adher­ing to BJU’s rig­or­ous­ly gen­dered dress code as a stu­dent. In fact, it was at BJU that I final­ly kicked the habit of wear­ing skater shoes and learned to love bal­let flats and even enjoy heels now and then. I actu­al­ly start­ed enjoy­ing dress­ing up, for the first time since my child­hood. My room­mates and I clicked real­ly well, and we often helped each oth­er pick out clothes, cri­tique make­up, or style our hair. I was so, so sur­prised that I found fem­i­nin­i­ty enjoy­able again, rather than just tol­er­a­ble.

In gen­er­al, though? My five months at BJU were hor­ri­ble. Not all hor­ri­ble, of course. I fell in love there. I met one of my best friends. My art edu­ca­tion was top-notch. But some pret­ty shit­ty stuff hap­pened while I was there, stuff that leaves scars. Suf­fice it to say that when I was expelled, I was bro­ken. I felt like I would nev­er heal, would nev­er recov­er from hav­ing become the woman with the scar­let let­ter. I believed that I was a whore, unclean and unwor­thy, and I just couldn’t shake the shame and self-hatred I felt and was sure that God felt towards me.

When I came home from BJU, I com­plete­ly stopped car­ing about myself in any sort of mean­ing­ful way. The joy in the fem­i­nine that I’d so briefly redis­cov­ered quick­ly turned into pan­ic. Try­ing to pull on a skirt or a dress was a night­mare of anx­i­ety unless I man­aged to detach my emo­tions, which was prov­ing extreme­ly dif­fi­cult in the wake of being expelled. For years after­wards, I most­ly stopped car­ing about how I looked, only tak­ing care when I worked two years at a mar­ket­ing com­pa­ny that required busi­ness casu­al dress. I didn’t mat­ter to me, the fall­en hussie that I was, and so how I looked and how I felt didn’t mat­ter, either.

Accept­able Fem­i­nin­i­ty was some­thing I could nev­er achieve, because I had fall­en from grace.

— 5 —

The inter­net is a strange and won­der­ful place, par­tic­u­lar­ly for an intro­vert­ed geek.

When I felt that I was ready, I start­ed lurk­ing around Face­book groups full of peo­ple who had gone to BJU but had expe­ri­ences like mine. This even­tu­al­ly led to me start­ing an anony­mous blog and Twit­ter to work out my thoughts and expe­ri­ences in writ­ing. I began learn­ing about things like soft patri­archy and fem­i­nism as work­able with­in Chris­tian­i­ty. I began to learn the words that final­ly, final­ly, final­ly described the prob­lem with what bib­li­cal lit­er­al­ists teach about women’s sup­posed role in church, soci­ety and the home; the things I’d inter­nal­ized about how women ought to act to be tak­en seri­ous­ly; the way I act­ed as a teenag­er when I sab­o­taged my girl friends to appease the guys around me. The over­ar­ch­ing word I learned was sex­ism, and I saw how dam­ag­ing it is to women every­where, and I real­ized how dam­ag­ing it had been to me.

For the first time in so many years, Accept­able Fem­i­nin­i­ty was nei­ther some­thing to abhor nor an oblig­a­tion to per­form. It was some­thing to admire, embrace, and real­ly enjoy.

Some of my newfound enjoyments.

Some of my new­found enjoy­ments.

It’s been grad­ual, over the past year or so. But I’ve start­ed embrac­ing myself, my whole self, fem­i­nine aspects and all. I’ve been let­ting myself explore the things that I’ve sup­pressed for so long — “girly” things, “child­ish” things, vain and waste­ful things that I only deemed vain and waste­ful because I enjoyed them and I mis­trust­ed my tastes as a woman. I’ve been learn­ing to do what I enjoy and to love myself for the first time in my life.

I have short hair, not because I’m act­ing in rebel­lion against gen­der roles, but because it makes me feel good about myself.

I’ve been paint­ing my nails on a reg­u­lar basis, not because I think it’s some­thing that women are sup­posed to do, but because it makes me hap­py.

I’ve recent­ly begun wear­ing make­up and heels and deep col­ors in form-fit­ting clothes, not because I think that women are sup­posed to look “lady­like,” but because I no longer think look­ing “girly” is evil.

It seems I’ve come full cir­cle.

I’m not sup­press­ing my nat­ur­al incli­na­tions for fem­i­nin­i­ty any­more. I’m let­ting myself be me.

And it just so hap­pens that I’m fem­i­nine.

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