Before being out as feminine, in order to maintain any sense of safety (no matter how fragile), I was always expected and only allowed to express my femininity with certain restrictions, and these restrictions changed depending on who I was with and where I was. This often made things not only confusing, but miserable.
It was difficult to keep up with who I was supposed to pretend to be and where, not to mention repressive, oppressive, and flat out painful because more times than not, it required me to silence other parts of my identity I believed to be the more salient.
I didn’t become completely conscious of these restrictions until I came out as non-binary and transgender in many of the circles I’m a part of. When this occurred, even in circles I am a part of that were accepting and celebratory of queer identities, I experienced a fair amount of policing regarding how I was and was not ‘allowed’ to express myself that worked in tandem with the questioning I would receive about my queer/trans status depending on how much femininity I expressed as someone who’s body has been labeled “female.”
Gender policing and harassment can look like questioning someone for the tone of voice they use, the pitch, their laughter, the way they sit/stand/walk, or any other fashion in which they use, move, and hold their body.
It can also look like verbally or non-verbally questioning how someone identifies. For me, sometimes when I would wear a dress or make-up in public around those who knew I was genderqueer, I would receive strange looks and pushback about my pronouns. “Why do we need to use ‘they’ pronouns with you when you’re just going to dress and act like a girl anyway?”. These questions can be difficult to answer because they’re difficult to make sense of. This is largely because there is no defined way to act or dress like a girl, but it can be hard to explain this to folks confused by gender binaries.
When folks are and are not questioned and policed regarding their gender identity, how they are being questioned, and what they are criticized for is completely arbitrary and based on cultural norms and expectations of others along with an ignorance of systems of oppression molding their critiques and expectations. These expectations also fluctuate depending on who one is talking to and what identities they hold outside of gender (race, sex-body assignments, class, ability status, etc.).
All of this got me interested in who is criticized for socializing in a way perceived to be feminine, so as a response to so much of the criticism I have both witnessed and experienced, I’ve written a list of five identities that often come under scrutiny for expressing themselves in a way perceived to be feminine.
Transgender women and GNC femmes:
This is especially true for trans women of color. Out of the 22 recorded murders of transgender women in the U.S. in 2016, 19 of those murders were of trans women of color. Because of the multiple and intersecting forms of oppression transgender women of color face, they often experience far more scrutiny, criticism, and have their safety put into question by the words and actions of others.
Women of color, immigrants and migrants:
i.e. those who may deviate from normative definitions of what it means to be feminine as defined by white, western culture in a cultural way relating to race, ethnicity, and other aspects of one’s identity relating to their heritage or background. Not only do most women of color not fit
￼into the narrow boxes of dominant white, western definitions of feminism, but their own definitions and understandings of feminine expression defined in non-dominant cultural spaces are not included or understood to the broader public, often leaving their gender expression to be misunderstood, misinterpreted and incorrectly redefined through a western, white cultural lens when it has been decontextualized and from its defining roots.
Transgender men and GNC masculine-identified folks:
A great example of this can be explained by looking at Covergirl’s new ‘coverboy’, James Charles. Charles is a cis boy being celebrated for his gender non-conformity expressed through his love for and skilled use of make up. This example provides a great example of cis privilege. While in many circles Charles is being celebrated for his ability to embrace his femininity and push back against confining definitions of what it means to be a boy or man, the same people who celebrate him now have not done the same for transgender men and masculine folks. If a cis boy wears make-up, he is told by much of the fashion and make-up industry and by many non-intersectional feminists that his actions are admirable, beautiful, exciting, and unique, but these same people will often respond to a trans boy wearing make up in a very different way. When transgender masculine folks and transgender men choose to express their femininity, their gender identity is often called into question.
I’ve experienced this on a personal level and witness it being experienced by others. Even other members of their surrounding queer communities will use this expression of femininity as an excuse to discredit and disrespect the fact that they identify as masculine. In these cases, two things are happening. The first, gender is being equated to sex. A cis boy wearing make-up does not have his gender identity as a boy questioned because his gender is being understood in a cis-normative way. The second, femininity and masculinity are being defined in opposition. Those who critique either or both cis and trans men for their expressions of femininity understand these two gender definitions to exist as opposites.
Many push back specifically against trans men because they believe that if you commit yourself to one gender, you have to stay that way, and if you openly express yourself in the light of the other binary-defined gender, you will are then giving up identifying as the former gender. This shows a strong ignorance to the fact that there is a) more than one gender and b) that genders are not defined in opposition (that is to say, it is possible to be both feminine and masculine at the same time, that what is not masculine is not inherently feminine and vice versa.
Those living in poverty and other low-income folks:
To uphold heteronormativity and patriarchy, femininity has often been defined historically as ‘frivolous’, ‘unnecessary’ and ‘weak’. These definitions often benefit those who look to blame poor and low-income folks for their economic struggles.
Women and femmes are often hyper- critiqued by the media, academia, and others for the clothes they buy and wear, how they spend their money, and how they take care of themselves, among other things in relation to their gender expression and their economic state.
This instills a societal norm that can only be acceptable to be feminine if you are economically affluent, and even then, these folks continue to be questioned and criticized for celebrating, owning, and caring for their femininity.
More Radical Reads: The Feminist Generation Gap: Is There Room for Feminism to Evolve?
Fat, full-bodied, muscular, and curvy folks:
Folks with these body-types are both criticized and excluded when it comes to dominant definitions of femininity. We can see this when we go into clothing stores and see the sizes only go up so high, who the fashion industry chooses to model their work, and how femininity is more broadly portrayed by the media.
Sexist definitions of femininity often depend of equating it with
fragility and weakness, which I believe is part of the reason smaller and thin bodies are the ones chosen to express femininity the majority of the time. The way femininity is commonly defined using these body-types in this way does not only exclude other body-types, but it perpetuates a this sexist understanding of femininity, creating a misunderstanding of femininity in all body- types.
I have focused on some specific identities here, but we must keep in mind that everyone is ridiculed and criticized when embracing femininity. This is one way of maintaining patriarchy and sexism in our institutions and social systems.
[Feature Image: A fair-skinned person of possible Asian identity with neck-length black hair stares into the camera as they stand in a train station. Pexels.]