Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Gender as a Verb Instead of a Noun

“Most people find it hard to believe that gender is constantly created and re-created out of human interaction, out of social life, and is the texture and order of that social life. Yet gender, like culture, is a human production that depends on everyone constantly doing gender.”
-Judith Lorber, Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at Brooklyn College,
"The Social Construction of Gender" 1991.

When I was little, I was never interested in flouncy dresses, with glitter and neat little bows. I rejected dolls proffered by my mother, though I secretly reveled in the soap opera dramas my childhood friend and I created in her home, (another story for another time). To my eyes, my mother was hoping I would become a cupcake princess, dutifully devoted to a life swathed in pink luxury. I presented myself as a “tomboy”, well, almost.
In retrospect, I was something in between feminine and masculine in my clothing, mannerisms, and speech. Androgyny is the wrong word, because “androgyny” implies success. Rather, I always felt that I was not enough of either and so simply was neither as far as I thought about it. My parent’s opinion on my gender confused me then, and continues to now. My mother attempted to get me to wear dresses to school, usually homemade ones. However, my parents, at my request, agreed to cut my hair to the point of it barely scraping the tops of my ears. I kept my hair this way until the teasing at school got to me and I begged my parents to let me grow my hair long. Despite the gender tug-o-war between my parents and I, there was one scenario in which “feminine” always came out on top.
Sunday mornings were not pleasant, I want to apologize to my parents here. Like a lot of children my age, (I was maybe seven or eight?) going to church, meant throwing a fit. For me, it was not that I did not want to go to church, though that sentiment was often prevalent among my complaints, instead, I did not want to wear the required outfit. I remember the dress well. Scratchy material, with flamboyant floral print was edged with three inch creamy lace cuffs. The frill was unbelievable. When my mother brought the dress out, I was filled with dread.
My first instinct was to tell my mother that I hated it. That I never wanted to wear such a monstrosity. I would become physically panicked at its presence. To me that dress embodied everything about femininity that I opposed. The gaudiness of it made me ill. I also knew that my mother had made this dress. She had fitted it for me based on measurement she herself had taken. I remember the cool smoothness of the measuring tape as she wrapped it around strategic parts of my body. Hips, waist, bust, upper arms, shoulders, each measurement recorded with casual flair. That dress was made for me. My body went with that dress. I was a girl, and girls wear dresses, our bodies are fit for them. Those were the facts and my childhood-self did not verbally challenge them, despite the voice in my head saying it was not fair.
Tears dried, apologies made, my mother, father, brother and I sat in the car, my brother’s face was equally as tear stained as mine. To my knowledge, his tantrum had been about what I claimed as my reason: Church is not as fun as doing something else on a Sunday. I pressed my nose against the window and I pouted. I watched my parents through their reflection in the rearview mirror. I remember my mother smiling a lot as she spoke to my father. I smiled into the window, the corners of my mouth creeping upward, my chapped lips splitting. The best I managed was a grimace. I hung my head, I felt inadequate.
Girls like dresses, girls are supposed to smile.
It has been eleven or so years since I was that little girl drowning in ruffles in a church pew. Obviously, a lot has changed since then. My gender has become less the presentation of parental expectations, and more self-expression. When I buy clothes, usually from second hand stores, I don’t limit myself to the women’s section. I buy what fits, in patterns and cuts that I like. The result is a wardrobe that is a hodgepodge of men’s dress shirts, tights, vintage men’s hats, hippie chic, odds and ends from tool boxes, craft supplies, and things found in the road, skirts, jeans, and pieces meant for stage costumes rather than civilian clothes.
The “gender” of these articles is not in my mind when I collect them. However, subconsciously, I’m aware of it. I admit that buying things like men’s hats gives me a small and private thrill. I am unapologetic for taking pleasure in this minor gender assignment rebellion. I almost hate to focus on clothes for these stories, because clothing is such a stark example of how we present our gender identity. However, because clothing is so ubiquitously referenced when talking about gender, I find it easily relatable and in fact the first stories I think of about my personal identity relate to them.
I approached the smiling woman. I stood hesitantly near her, not wanting to interrupt her task of folding cardigans. Finally, I decided that she was not going to acknowledge me first.
“Excuse me… I’m sorry. Can you tell me whether or not men’s jeans are sized length and width or…actually I just don’t know what these numbers mean.” I smiled lopsidedly, hesitantly. I was nervous.
“Ohhhhhh, buying jeans for someone special?”
“No, actually, for myself.” The woman pauses. Her eyes flash, and her smile slips, momentarily.
“We have a women’s section, it’s just over here, I’ll show you.”
“Oh, uh, no that’s okay, I saw it.” The woman looks at me expectantly and I can feel my hands start to shake. For a moment, I am angry. I want to demand that this woman explain to me the sizing system. I want to call her out for encouraging a gender binary system. I want to speak to her manager. And then the anger dissipates. I am embarrassed. I feel myself blush. Her face says it all: I am the one acting out. I yield.
“I’ll just try over there then, thank you for your help.” She nods, encouragingly. I leave the store without buying anything. When I get home I text a male friend asking him what the numbers mean on male pant sizes. He responds that he isn’t sure, and asks me why I was wondering. I reply:
“They’re for a friend.”

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