In a time when gender is so political, can it also be personal? The feminist movement tells us our freedom is about choices, but how free are our choices? Can we make them without sending out the wrong messages? We discuss the political and personal aspects of gender in our latest piece.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
I’m a woman and I’ve never identified as anything else. For a brief period in my early teenage years, I may have wanted to be a man but it was a longing based simply on an evaluation of the social settings around me. It seemed like things were easier for boys. It seemed like no one was talking to them about what it was okay to wear, when it was okay to speak, why you need to fear rape or how marriage was a compromise-laden inevitability. It wasn’t because I identified with a masculine spirit or felt that is what was inside me. It was just because I didn’t want to deal with all the social issues of being a woman but I’ve always felt like a woman. That’s easy enough to say.
It’s harder to explain, though.
In general terms, I have always believed that the role of gender is entirely social. It drives social expectations and prescribes social roles, and sometimes those are deeply oppressive things. On a personal level, identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth, or a different one, or none at all seem like perfectly acceptable things and it’s also perfectly acceptable for that experience to mean whatever you want it to mean. In that regard, I wish we could say things like “gender doesn’t matter” without sounding tone-deaf. Unfortunately, sexism doesn’t always care about what gender you identify as, it cares about what gender it identifies you as. So if you present as a woman, or something it doesn’t understand, or something it cannot identify, you will still be fair game to it. I could be a man, and have breasts, but all it will see is the breasts. I could be genderless and have a penis, but it may only see the penis. That’s why I cannot say gender doesn’t matter.
The truth is that in many ways gender is expressed in stereotypes and symbols, even a break from stereotypes is expressed using stereotypes. If you are a man who seeks to expand the definition of masculinity by wearing a dress or putting on make-up because that’s what feels right to you, you’re still using symbols associated with a particular gendered experience. We cannot entirely rid ourselves of that, and the best course of action, and what we usually do is to reclaim, redefine and expand the meaning of these things. And that’s great, it does actually weaken the hold of destructive and restrictive roles and gendered expectations, but it’s not always as “free” as we want it to be. It’s not free from scrutiny, it’s not free from inherent or internalised biases, it’s not free from society and its intervention. That’s one of the main reasons why I strongly identify with my birth-assigned gender. It’s because I define womanhood as a political and social struggle and if I am going to be part of it, and oppressed by it, I will bear its name while I fight. I do not see womanhood as a personal thing. When I say, I “feel” like a woman, it mostly means that I feel, resist and understand the socio-political connotations of that experience. After all, if gender is a social construct, my gender identity would be found in my social experience of womanhood, and that social experience has been rough, but it feels like mine.
But that’s womanhood.
There is also, at least to me, an undeniable part of the gender experience that is deeply personal. It is removed from society and politics, it is not defined by struggles or oppression. I call that femininity, but that’s only what it is for me. For another it could be fluidity or masculinity. Femininity is not political to me. It’s defined instead by the aesthetic and emotional pleasure of enjoying your gender, with or without symbols. For instance, having long, red nails makes me feel feminine. It’s a gender stereotype, but I enjoy it, I opt for it. The aesthetic pleasure of that, the understanding of the colour and its cultural connotations, the shiny tips, they all make me feel feminine. I struggled with that when I was younger, and I wondered often if any of the fight mattered at all if I found some identity is symbols of oppression, but eventually, I came to decide that the personal is not necessarily political. Sorry, Chinua Achebe. The personal is aesthetic, emotional, artistic, sometimes disturbing and sometimes a reflection of behaviours we should know are problematic.
For instance, I find my femininity in being aesthetically pleasing to my partner. I know! Clutch yo feminist pearls which are..anal beads? I like that. Here’s the thing, I love the concept of dress for yourself, put on make up for yourself, be beautiful for yourself, and I would love to participate, but I can’t. I have no desire to look pretty for myself, I just don’t see the point. I’m not looking at myself. I don’t enjoy feeling the odd texture of lipstick on my skin. I don’t see the point of walking on conical structures. I don’t like bright, pretty colours or how lace feels on my skin. I like black pants and black shirts, and I always look exactly the same. I do however enjoy how my partner looks at me and feels when I dress for him. It makes me feel feminine in a way that is visceral and enjoyable. It’s always been hard to adopt symbols of femininity for myself, but it’s much easier, and more enjoyable, to do it for the pleasure of someone else. That doesn’t bother me. I don’t see it as being an object for the pleasure of a man. I see it as being decorated for the pleasure of the person I love. It’s personal and between two people, it does not represent me socially. I will never say that women should make themselves pretty for men, nor do it as a general social expectation, I’ll do it as part of a personal exploration.
Because, as much as we may say that feminism is about choice and you can do anything you want with that choice, our choices are not always free. Recognising that means that you become afraid of being a certain person, representing a certain way and sometimes even identifying with a gendered symbol in any way. I was scared of lipstick, dresses and showing any emotion for the longest time, and it was mainly because I was worried if I could do those things and still be feminist enough. To be clear, no feminist ever told me I couldn’t do those things, but based on what I was seeing, it seemed like those things sent louder messages than I wanted to send. I couldn’t keep my gender behind closed doors, and I couldn’t explore it without worrying what it said about the movement and that is why separating the political from the choice-based (but self-aware) personal was important to discovering my own gender identity and femininity.
For me, the way in was through my sexuality. When I have sex I feel like a woman and it’s not a PIV thing, because I feel like a woman regardless of the gender of the person I am engaging with sexually. It’s a feeling. It’s an aesthetic and emotional intimate feeling that cannot be explored socially. That’s where I ultimately found my feminity, it doesn’t always mean the same thing, but there’s a common feeling. It’s not fragility, though even when it is, it’s okay. It’s not smallness or fear, nor sensitivity, it’s a euphoria driven by something inherent. It’s a part of the self, and it’s the part that enables me to separate the struggle from the self. It enables me to put on lipstick and not feel like a fraud.
That doesn’t mean I’m free from the conflict inside me entirely, just that I’m willing to acknowledge there is a conflict, and I try to deal with it the only way I know how.