‘Something More Gender Neutral’

bag

There’s little you can do on the internet that has the potential to get your tender emotions more badly hurt, than publishing a blog post that is bound up in deeply personal desires, beliefs, insecurities and raw wounds, and will be viewed as being on the wrong side of public opinion. But here it is. Please try to be gentle.

I’ve potentially got a new job coming up in September and in anticipation of my morning bicycle commute, I went to buy a new laptop-compatible rucksack from TK MAXX today. I asked the attendant if they had anything besides the array of handbags I’d just sifted through, and she repeatedly impressed upon me that I could find ‘something more gender neutral’ on the other side of that floor. In hindsight it was likely impersonal as she was probably trained to say that, but hearing it addressed to me repeatedly hurt me more than she could have known.

I admit, as a Christian, that I don’t have everything sorted. Like most other people, I have my tender bits and my childhood scars that I’m waiting to be healed from, and I’m still learning to know myself, and to be myself. The attendant’s words stuck in my mind, and they stung. Today I’d plucked up the courage to out my floaty, pastel cotton skirt and my frilly grey shoulderless top with the flower on it, because of how I wanted to identify myself to the world. Not that I’m a follower of fashion, or that my clothes were particularly skimpy or curve-revealing; this wasn’t about ‘sex appeal’. Ultimately, I just wanted to dress both for the weather, and in a way that would make a statement about what I am: a straight woman who is happy to remain so. I was glad to identify myself as the daughter of Eve that God made me, and to express to the world my desire to marry as Eve married before the Fall; a Church-woman to a Christ-man, in imitation of the eventual union of Christ and his Church at the end of the age. It is an identity which is precious to me for the reason that God made it and designed it to be in some way an image of the divine; its meaningfulness is transcendent, and it allows me to display, with my mere fault-ridden self, something of the handiwork and identity of the God I worship.

I imagine that the last paragraph might produce a snigger, or maybe a groan of disgust. What is so remarkable about portraying yourself as female and straight? Isn’t it very normal for a person to present themselves as female and straight? After all, you might say, it is hardly making yourself an object of prejudice to present yourself as a straight person, compared to someone who presents themselves as a lesbian! But here the plot thickens, and I would here request that you have a little grace and kindly read on. The truth is that it isn’t always easy for me to make a statement of femininity in the way I dress because of the social attitudes I’ve absorbed, the expectations that are surrounding me, and my particular situation. In childhood I struggled to feel that I ‘deserved’ to be a girl – this was a result of failing to live up to the social expectations of the playground girls’ cliques: I’d been socialized mainly with boys in toddlerhood – and I can well believe that what I’m battling today, as I strive to feel ‘worthy’ of what I am, is a remainder of the early struggles. Femininity is still something I feel like I have to measure up to, even though I know that this couldn’t be further from the truth, because it was mine from birth and cannot be taken away from me, no matter how badly I fail to measure up to all of the expectations that society has built up around it. Besides this, my physique is not such that I can look good in a lot of easy-to-wear clothes that carry connotations of femininity in my British culture; I’m chunky, stocky, broad and muscular of shoulder, solid of jaw and big-boned. It would suit me if the fashions were different, but they are what they are, and they’re a way of identifying myself as I want to identify myself, so I don’t reject all of them. My hair is usually a mess because I don’t have the money or the time to get it cut regularly, it will never stay put when I brush it and I look like a boy when I tie it back, and I don’t usually wear makeup day-to-day because it’s expensive, time-consuming, messy, mildly uncomfortable, and makes me look vampish in significant amounts – or, as a gay friend once blurted out at a party when he and others were probably too drunk to realise that I would not receive a remark like that as he might have done, “Like a man in drag”. Figure now, if you would, what I might have looked like today in my floaty, pastel cotton skirt and my frilly grey shoulderless top with the flower on it. Sometimes when I look at myself in the mirror, I fear with sadness that my friend was right. Then comes the paralysing moment when I realise that my reaction of distress over looking “like a man in drag” may soon be liable to be judged as an act of intolerance. I’ve been told that I look masculine by family more than once (they do not share my faith or appear to have consistent views of their own on gender), and I’ve sensed that some of the people I’ve come across in life have half-expected me to be a lesbian. But I am a heterosexual woman, and I want to be identified as one, and I want to be regarded as worthy of celebrating and expressing what I am, and of being what I am, as much I want what I am to be regarded as worthy of celebrating and expressing.

I experience, sometimes, what almost feels like an outside pressure on me to dress like what I look like – a feeling that because of the way I look, if I dress femininely, maybe I could be accused of somehow oppressing the lesbian and transgender people whom I allegedly resemble, by promoting conservative ‘stereotypes’. Or maybe that people who saw me dressed that way might regard me as a victim of ‘societal standards’ – when in fact it was a very intentional choice and meant as an act of societal resistance! (Deep down I know that this is only in my mind, but from the things I read sometimes, I get the feeling that the accusation would only be a breath away from the mouths of some. I must admit that my interest in the subject and my recent emergence from studenthood have exposed me to some rather extreme voices from the liberal Left – the fact that they’re extreme, though, does not mean that they are insignificant or incapable of successfully promoting their views to a mass audience.). I know that I would look less remarkable to the eye if I simply caved in and donned a garb that was as apparently unfeminine as my muscular shoulders and my makeup-free face; caving in is certainly easier, and I can’t say it isn’t the norm for me. Ultimately, however, the fact is that I made an effort to dress like what I am today. The attendant’s words today hit me like a slap in the face and seemed to undermine all my confidence. I felt like asking her, “Why? Do I look like the sort of woman who would suit ‘something more gender neutral’ to you?” But I couldn’t make myself do it. If I had, I might have stood accused of being an LGBT-phobic bigot.

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