Soon after I got my massage license, I met an acupuncturist who shared space with a doula. Over five years, we traded services every other week. One of the highlights of going to her office was engaging with the little boy who was the son of the doula.
When he was around three or four, he went through a stage in which he only wanted to wear one particular outfit – his Incredible Hulk pajamas and a very stiff pink taffeta tutu. It wasn’t just his favorite outfit. He worked it. For a good three or four months, every time I came into the office, he’d do a runway walk that would make Tyra Banks proud. Then, he’d strike a pose by doing his best Incredible Hulk impersonation with an accompanying roar and bulging mini-muscles. His mom and his dad celebrated his creativity and self-expression.
When I was kid, I was labeled a tomboy — which was odd, because all the girls with whom I grew up loved to play. And we loved to play hard. We’d run. We’d race. We’d climb trees. We’d wrestle with the boys and, most of the time, we’d win. I didn’t like dolls. I wasn’t interested in playing mommy. I did have pets on whom I showered affection, but they were real. I never wanted to play house because I saw, even though I couldn’t clearly articulate it at the time, that women got a raw deal. At times, I wished I were a boy — not because I hated being a girl, but because I saw the freedom that boys had, and I wanted that.
While my girl friends and I played hard, we had to come in earlier than the boys. We always had more chores — or all the chores. Those with younger siblings had to watch or take care of them, even when they had older male siblings. Then, there was menstruation. Once girls started to get their periods, the world shrank. When I got my period, it was deemed prudent that I should no longer spend so much time with my grandfather – even though it was the women in my family who were sexually and physically abusive. He was clearly negligent in his care of me in that he did not protect me from the abuse, but he was the one place of sanctuary for me, and I was no longer allowed to spend any significant time with him. Before my adolescence, we’d go fishing, I’d help him work on his car, and we’d often garden together. But that world — for myself and lot of the girls I grew up with – abandoned us as we blossomed into a very limited definition of womanhood.
The association of tasks and access to space with binary gender roles is an arbitrary cultural construct that is forced down our throats. Men who want to nurture are emasculated and while women who don’t are demonized. Unfortunately, in this western capitalistic society, where money is used as a method of exchange, many have made the mistake of equating the work that results in the accumulation of money with the only work that has value. Since most of so-called “women’s work” does not involve a monetary exchange, it is devalued.
These limitations have filtered into my life in several ways. During my senior year of high school, I wanted to take auto mechanics. To me, it made sense that someone who would eventually own a car should actually know more than how to fill up the tank with gas. My mother, who has borderline personality disorder, went ballistic when she found out I’d tried to register. Although she has mental health issues, I imagine many parents would have had a less volatile but similar reaction. There were only boys in the class and, because I was on was a college track, my advisor said that auto mechanics would have looked bad on my transcripts. So, I was dealing not only with issues of sexism but also of classism.
Luckily, over the years, I’ve known male and female mechanics who not only took care of my vehicles but also wanted their customers to be educated about what was happening under the hood. When I was living in Tampa, I had an older Nissan Altima that I loved. I was planning to move out west, and my mechanic and I developed a maintenance schedule. During one check-up, he let me know that I had an oil leak. He wanted to wait to fix it until I was closer to leaving, because he would be replacing my timing belt and water pump at the same time. It was a small leak, so he advised me to check my oil every two weeks and refill as necessary.
At the time, there happened to be a guy in my apartment complex who showed some interest in me. I thought he was attractive, and we spent some time getting to know each other. We’d made arrangements for an actual date, but then I made a grave mistake — I dared to check my oil in front of him. I had just popped the hood and had the cloth in my hand to wipe down the dipstick. I waved and smiled, and he came over. I noticed he was a little standoffish but didn’t think anything of it.
The next day, he let me know he couldn’t date a woman like me. I was, of course, puzzled. When I asked why, he said, “You’re just too independent.”
He then explained that he didn’t like seeing me changing my oil. “You’re too masculine,” he said.
So, somehow seeing me check my oil was emasculating for this man who was 6’2” and built like a football player. I laughed out loud and looked at him like he was nuts. Because he was. What was I supposed to do? Let the oil run out and my engine overheat while I waited for a penis person to fall for me and take on all the penis-assigned tasks? I’ve encountered more than my fair share of men who had such limited ideas of what masculinity and femininity were.
It was after a few years of watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race” that I had a profound epiphany: most of what is considered masculine or feminine is based in performance. The performance of masculinity and femininity changes across culture and time. Back in the day, it was men who wore high heels first as a means to keep their feet in stirrups when riding horses. Heels then became a fashion statement for both women and men. In Marie Antoinette’s France and prior, upper-class men and women wore makeup and powdered wigs. It is the Fulani men who dress up, put on face paint, and dance to win the hearts of women. So, are the Fulani men considered feminine? I doubt it. I’m sure that, in that culture, the face paint and costumes are considered highly masculine. And let’s not forget the 1970s. Men and women were rocking bright colors and platforms. The taller the better.
I’m very practical about my dress. I go for comfort first. When I first started working in the corporate world, I tried to put on makeup and do my hair. I hated the way makeup felt on my face. It felt suffocating. I hated lipstick that distorted the taste of the food I ate. I also hated that it had to be reapplied in order to look right. As I looked at my male co-workers, I felt a growing resentment. While I was slathering stuff on my face in the wee hours of the morning, they were still sleeping. Not to mention that makeup can be pricey.
I wore heels for work for a number of years. Eight- to ten-hour days running around on stilts were frankly painful. When I became a massage therapist, I threw them all out — except for one pair, which I still have. I wear them for funerals and when I go out for a nice dinner. Performing femininity in our culture costs money and time. Does the fact that I don’t wear makeup and high heels all the time — and find push up bras ridiculously odd and bizarre — make me less feminine? In actuality, I find much of what is deemed necessary for the performance of femininity to be oppressive.
Equating activities and preferences with strict ideas of what is masculine and feminine hurts society as a whole. While I was in college, I read about a group of people native to the South Pacific and the impact the white missionaries had on them. In this culture, there was equitable distribution of household labor, and the women did the fishing. Like the Ama in Japan, the women were given this role because it was believed that the extra body fat was an advantage when fishing. They had lived this way for centuries, with the fishing knowledge passed from mother to daughter.
When the missionaries arrived, they asserted that the men and boys take over this role. However, the men did not have the skills to do the work. They hadn’t been taught, from the time they had begun to walk, the techniques to increase lung capacity for long dives, where the choicest fishing spots were, and how to read the ocean currents. The ocean and reefs were essentially the domain of the women. As a result, the culture suffered tremendous losses in food and resources. They suffered because of a limited view of what women and men could do.
It would be a much better world if everyone — men, women, and people of all other genders — were allowed to freely engage in activities that actually interested and inspired them. I say get rid of the pink AND blue aisles in the toy store. Bust out your version of a tutu and Incredible Hulk pajamas. Mix it up a bit. Giving children and adults the opportunity to express themselves and discover their true likes and dislikes without the arbitrary, culturally created binary labels, makes life better for all of us. It is a world in which everyone can be who they are and truly free.[Headline image: The photograph shows a black person with braided shoulder-length hair and earrings.]