Sunday, September 30, 2012

Spiral Notebook Sunday: Thursday, June 6, 1991 & Then Some

[Blurt Alert: This is an absurdly long post, which occasionally mentions words like "boobs." Consider yourself warned.]

[Thanks and/or partial blame for tonight's post goes to TangledLou, whose post "Stick Your Arm In My Washing Machine", which asked some questions1 about femininity, inspired me to dig around in my journals tubs and in my drafts folder for things I've written about it over the years.]

I take comfort in the fact that at least the "i" is not dotted with a heart.

Cheapskate that I am, I often use notebooks I find on clearance for my Spiral Notebook Journal. The one I'm currently using is lavender with the word "Diva" printed on it. I bought it because it was 75 cents and it had a plastic front cover, which is great because regular paperboard covers crumple quickly under the rigorous abuse my notebooks are often subject to.

Overgrown tomboy that I am, it's impossible for me to overstate how inappropriate the word "diva" is to describe me in any way, but a bargain's a bargain.

One night a couple of months ago, I had been writing in my journal in the van while the residents from the halfway house where I work were in an AA meeting. Usually, I tuck everything away into my bag before they get back in the van, but I was in the middle of a thought that wouldn't wait and I was just closing up the notebook as the first resident returned to the van. He is a repeat resident, meaning I've known him (and vice versa) for going on three years. He glanced down as I tried to inconspicuously slide the notebook into the console between the seats.

He said, "Diva?!"

And then he laughed, loud and hard.

And I laughed with him, though not quite as loud or hard.

I said, "I know! It's hilarious, right?"

And he was still laughing, loud and hard.

So, I said, "Gosh. It's not that funny."

And we both laughed some more.

Oh, all right. It was hilarious. And I should've been totally okay with the hilarity for all kinds of reasons--not least because part of the reason I am able to do my job as well as I can is because the men I work with generally do not seem to see me as stereotypically feminine (which for many of them automatically equals "weaker"). Furthermore, I am forty-four friggin' years old and I should, by now, have come to terms with exactly how feminine I am (or am not).

But clearly, I haven't quite because that whole thing stung a little. Even though I don't want to be a "diva," not even a little bit, I guess it bugs me that someone thinks I couldn't be a "diva" even if I wanted to.

This moment was how I learned, again, that my thoughts on femininity in general and my own femininity in particular are still a muddled mess despite years, decades of poking around in them. What follows is excerpts from three entries--the most recent written sixteen years ago--each of which is comprised mostly of things I could've written last week.

[At the time of this first entry, I was enormously pregnant with Son-Three, and did not yet know he was a son.]
Thursday, June 6, 1991
Daughter. I've been announcing to anyone who will listen that this "baby had better be a girl" but the truth is I would not be even a little disappointed if this is a boy, too. The whole thought of a girl terrifies me. I know that's silly--especially since I said only a few minutes ago that the line between girls and boys is narrow. But there are concerns with girls that don't come up with boys. How can I teach a daughter to truly appreciate her femininity when I had (and continue to have) no appreciation for my own? What kind of role model am I? Just the fact that I am concerned about this, that I think there is a right way to bring up a daughter proves how incompetent I am to raise a daughter. Just the fact that I think there is some trick to raising girl babies that there isn't to raising boy babies is proof enough of what little right I have to bring daughters into this world.

Melodrama--maybe. But the truth is I want a daughter who wants to be who she is. I want to instill in a girl the self-esteem I don't have. I want her to appreciate herself, appreciate her right to be whatever kind of girl she wants to be. That is the root of my worries--that I will pass on to a daughter all those stereotypes that I have made myself a victim to. Because I tend to picture "femininity" as a rigid set of criteria (the prissy kind of things, you know) instead of a beginning point for a strong, complete person, I have never strongly identified myself as female. I am the proverbial tomboy, but not because I want to be but because I've always seen womanhood as an either/or proposition. Either you simper and giggle and primp or you hide any sign of your femininity beneath baggy clothes and tough talk. I've never been happy to be female. But I want a daughter to be exhilarated by her femininity--by the possibilities.
Whether this baby is a boy or a girl, this is a subject I need to explore further for my own sake. But not this second. This second I need to go exercise the domestic side of my femininity by making my exceedingly masculine husband breakfast. (Have pity on him. It's nearly 2 p.m. and all I've done today is write. The whole house is starving, myself included.)
Thursday, August 20, 1992
I have been thinking a lot about "femininity." It has been an off and on fascination of mine, rising and falling in my interest according to its own schedule--I never know when the issue will raise its pretty, little head. This time around, its messenger was Little Sister. ...we had one of our marathon phone conversations. Among other things, we talked about friends of hers--KW especially and a couple of other girls, who developed early and couldn't resist teasing Little Sister (who hadn't). Anyway, these girls with chests that Little Sister was surrounded by made her feel so "unfeminine" (her confession on the phone, not a guess by her older sister--just by the way). This was such a revelation to me and it got me thinking.
Maybe because I got my boobs early--before my friends did, way before I had any use for them--boobs have never held any fascination for me. (Nan says I once said I was going to have big2 boobies like her but I must've been very young because I don't remember it and I do remember that by the time Little Sister was asking for a training bra, I was no longer even remotely interested in boobies or bras. Little Sister was six or seven then, I'd guess.) I don't remember ever equating them with femininity because if boobs were what femininity was about, I was feminine. And I never felt feminine, particularly around Little Sister. That's why her comment was so revealing to me--there was Little Sister, who made me feel so inadequate in the femininity department, feeling unfeminine.
And so I've been thinking about what femininity really is. We are force-fed society's narrow definition of femininity from an early age. Things about boobs and fingernails, hair and jewelery, makeup and the right clothes. All of these things that change on the whims of people we never see, people we may guess are sadists and be pretty close to the mark. Boobs are in, then they're out, short skirts (fingernails), long skirts (fingernails) and if we don't stay on top of all these things, we have these twinges of doubt.

Not that I have been ceaselessly chasing some elusive feminine ideal--not that I've gotten out of my chair in pursuit. It's more an occasional pause--am I feminine enough? Why am I not more feminine than I am? Can I be more feminine or will I just look like I'm trying to be more feminine? And all the while, I've never really had a clear idea of what feminine is. I'm full of these vague ideas that I've pretty much covered, things I've rejected for as long as I can remember. I am not sure, though, why I reject society's demands--I don't shave my legs on a regular basis, or wear make-up, or (my god!) pluck my eyebrows, or dress-up. I've kind of run away from these things--I like to pretend I've rejected them on political grounds, having recognized them for the sexist, superficial things they are and though I do see them as sexist and superficial, the more compelling fact is I am afraid of them. I am not very good at them--partly from lack of practice, but the lack of practice comes from not having a knack, an instinct, a desire to really practice.
So, at 24, I have none of the skills of femininity as society defines them. I don't think I can learn them and even if I could, I am sure they would always feel false to me. And it has come time for me to pick up the word feminine and find my own meaning in it. I mean I am female undeniably and by definition, anything I do is "feminine." (I looked up "feminine" in Funk & Wagnall's. It says: "of, pertaining, to or appropriate to women." So there.)
I've been going on for four pages now about this and still feel like I haven't made my point, have not expressed myself convincingly enough. I certainly am not convinced.
As succinctly as possible--I have both loathed and coveted the qualities and accessories of femininity as American society defines it. It has been an issue entwined with my (lack of) self-esteem. At this point, I am unable to walk away from the word "feminine" though my desire is to run and so in order to stop beating myself up, I am going to redefine the word. Being truly feminine is about being truly yourself, comfortable and alive in your own skin. That is the goal I am working toward. Do you follow me?
[At the time of this entry, Daughter-Only was two years old. And I had reached the ripe age of 26, without making any real progress in the "what femininity means to me" department--though I apparently had some clear ideas about what the hell it wasn't.]
Monday, September 2, 1996
The other day, Daughter-Only was dancing around on the deck in nothing but a bandanna, which Hubby had tied on her like a skirt...While Hubby was arranging her impromptu sarong (which she needed because she'd run outside straight from the bathtub carrying only a bandanna), he said, "I hope you plan on buying her some skirts and dresses soon."
I said, "Why?"
In fairness, I won't even try to quote Hubby's answer directly because I don't remember the exact words. His basic message, though, was that he wanted her to be a lady or some such crap. I calmly pointed out that a lady is a lady in jeans and sneakers as much as she's a lady in a dress. He said, "But you're not comfortable in a dress or skirt and some occasions require one."
I pointed out (not calmly, exactly) that the reason I was uncomfortable in dresses has nothing to do with what I wore as a child. If you can find more than six photos of me before the age of 5 in which I am wearing anything besides a dress, I would be surprised. When I picked out school clothes for kindergarten, I chose only dresses. In fact, up until sixth grade, I chose at least one new dress a year. I don't deny I wore them less and less often the older I got. I don't deny I wore no dress at all in seventh or eighth grade. I wore a skirt on a dare for freshman picture day. And after that, the next run-in with a dress was June of my senior year--graduation. (I am still outraged about that. We had to wear them to the school, but everyone took them off and went bare under their gowns because of the heat. Everyone knew no one would keep the dress on--but we still had to wear them to the school. I hated Mr. Biddle before that, but that guaranteed him a place in my Hall of Infamy. The insistence on white shoes pushed him into the number 2 or 3 position.) (In light of the fact that I only now invented the Hall of Infamy, I've no idea who the first and second inductees might be, but it's food for thought.)
Obviously, the whole dress/skirt equals femininity issue is a heated one for me. It didn't go any further between Hubby and I...
But the clothing thing does bother me a lot. I have not been much of a dress wearer since puberty because dresses are inherently uncomfortable to me. Also, if I wear a dress, I want to want to wear it...I am not against dresses on principle--I am against the idea that dresses are superior in some way to pants. I am against the idea of "training" my daughter to be comfortable in dresses because I think comfort in a dress is more nature than nurture. I will not force or "encourage" her to wear dresses anymore than I would stop her from wearing them.
Obviously, my own issues are rearing their ugly has taken me years (a good twelve or thirteen) to realize people who equate "femininity" with frills and lace and knee-length skirts (and not pants, etc) are the people with the problem. It is their flaw, not mine. I am not less of a woman because I wear a dress only rarely. (I had to borrow a dress for Mom's funeral.) In fact, in steadfastly being me, maybe I am more of a woman than I would be if I caved in to others' expectations
I'll be damned if I'm going to set Daughter-Only up for the same problems. If she is dress-inclined--great. She will always have options, but I will not let her learn she is more valuable with her legs exposed than with them covered.

1. One of those questions was "Do you have trouble typing femininity like I do?" I mentioned in my comment that I had an entry in which I had consistently spelled it "feminity." Turns out, I have at least THREE entries in which I did that. But only one in which I went back and fixed it, by repeatedly scribbling out the offending purple ink. Who says I'm not a girl*?
2. 50DD, in case you were all needing something for your "Things I Really Didn't Need To Know" files.
*Practically everybody, actually. Daughter-Only's recent Facebook status, copied and pasted, verbatim:
Good thing I have my dad for my fashion crises.
"Okay, dad, so do I put the tank top under the skirt, or over?" "Under looks better."
*As mom sits there minding her own business.* =P


  1. I love all your thoughts on femininity.

    My Sadie is as comfortable in a skirt as she is in a scout uniform. This makes me very happy. She has a much better grasp on her own femininity than I did at that age. Maybe it's just a matter of being comfortable with who you are.

    1. My daughter impresses me in this regard practically every day. I think part of it is just her natural personality--but I think a lot of it is an easing of those either/or definitions I grew up with out in society as a whole.

  2. Ditto what Jewels said - I love reading your evolving thoughts on femininity. I am floored at your insights from age what? 22 ? in that first post?
    Hell, at 22 I was busy being a wanton college kid and not giving much thought to having a child. Your comment, " Either you simper and giggle and primp or you hide any sign of your femininity beneath baggy clothes and tough talk" is so foreign to who I believe I might have been at 22. I loved wearing the girl stuff but also the overalls (with something sexy underneath) - I did not wear makeup (that was, after all, the early 1970's - make up was out) but I took classes in the Psychology of Women and was an active participant in the Woman's Center on the college campus -- very feminist but not at all afraid to wear girly stuff.
    YOur later post (1994): "Being truly feminine is about being truly yourself, comfortable and alive in your own skin." How did you know that already?
    and I loved the FB status from Daughter-only! You rock!

    1. Thanks, Gracie. About things I might have known at such a young age, I think we've talked before about wisdom on the page and wisdom in practice. ;)

  3. So, I read this a few days ago when you posted it and there is so much to digest. I am fascinated by the evolutionary nature of it; yet your voice from the older entries is the same voice that I recognize as yours today. That seems to belie a certain amount of self-confidence that you profess not to have... hrm.

    Additionally, and I'm going to explore this more, I am so utterly cheesed by the notion that femininity is a fashion statement. It seems to me another way to undermine femininity in general. I can't really think of a masculine equivalent. Like I said, I'm going to have to explore this some more.

    Thank you so much for sticking your arm so far into my washing machine. You shall be rewarded with loose change and Matchbox cars (and probably some Chapstick, if you're lucky.)

    I am working on a "big" essay right now (not for the blog) that is essentially about coming to terms with femininity and its intersection with sexuality. I may send it your way for an edit or two before I submit it anywhere. It would appear we are on roughly the same wavelength about such things. :)

    1. Thanks again for comforting my needy inner first grader. (Look at me, Mom! Mom, look at me!)

      Regarding the confidence/lack thereof conundrum--it goes back to something I wrote on the blog once before: I am roughly equal parts supremely confident and devastatingly insecure. On a good day, I realize that neither extreme is actually justified.

      I would be happy (and flattered) to take a look at the essay whenever it's look-at-able. ;)

  4. I could, if I felt I had the time to actually press my brain to a page anymore and really let my thoughts leak out in any useful way, write as long a post responding to yours or winding on and on about my own past. It's different and it's all the same in some way.

    You make me wonder...

    If I could separate that "elusive feminine ideal" from my own experience of femininity, what might I have to call it that wasn't couched in biological generalizations, consumer-driven desires and inherited assumptions? I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. I'd have me. Is that related to being feminine?

    Ditto on everything TL has said. You were so smart. I have thought this many times before and do again.

    1. I had initially intended to really just do a much shorter post kind of summing up some of the issues I've seen about the limitations of femininity as a concept (and the fact that it's used as both a weapon and a tool), but when I dug out some of the old entries I had written on the subject, it hit me that I feel kind of the same way now as I did then--though the occasional twinges of self-doubt are depressingly persistent.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.