Appearance, part 9: mirrors and interaction

I’m rarely reacting to other people’s actual appraisal of me. I’m not even reacting to my interpretation of their appraisal. I’m reacting to my appraisal of myself, using perfect strangers as my proxy.

After writing part 6 of this series, where I mentioned the idea of not looking in the mirror for a month, I found two blogs written by women who did no-mirror experiments. The quote above is from Autumn, who spent a month without mirrors, and the ideas she writes about in that post are also discussed by Kjerstin, who skipped mirrors for a whole year (and wrote a book about it). In her post on sociology and mirrors, she writes: “interactions with people inform how we will view ourselves in a mirror and the mirror, in turn, informs how we understand our interactions with other people”.

I definitely relate to this. Mirrors are a huge part of how I get by socially—I use them to make a judgment of myself, and then I assume everyone around me is making that same judgment. When I imagine not looking in a mirror before going out, I picture being filled with anxiety over not knowing how to interpret people’s looks or interactions with me. Autumn writes (in the same post linked above) of seeing a stranger looking at her on the subway during her project, “I had no anchor to hold onto, no private feeling of, ‘Well, I do look nice today’ or ‘I wish he would stop staring at the enormous pimple on my chin.’ Without having any idea what he might be seeing, I had no idea how I should feel about him looking at me.” Continue reading

Violation of [small, “insignificant”] boundaries

Coyote wrote recently about the violation of nonphysical boundaries, and on unwanted physical touch that doesn’t seem to fall into the category of sexual assault. This post doesn’t have a lot to do with the second topic, but the idea of unwanted touch is still relevant because what this post is about is boundaries, physical and nonphysical, spoken and unspoken, and how little respect people sometimes have for them.

I’ve written before about receiving unwanted (nonsexual) touch from my family. And, as I said in that post, it’s not really a big deal… or maybe I’ve just been taught not to view it as a big deal. If a family member, say, puts a hand on my shoulder, and I pull away, or express my unhappiness with a “Don’t”, I’m the one who’s seen (by the rest of my family) as at fault. The other person wasn’t doing anything to hurt me, they didn’t know I didn’t want to be touched, so I should lighten up and not make it into an issue. Respect for my boundaries and the importance of consent for nonsexual touch aren’t talked about; those ideas aren’t valued. A lot of kids grow up with this idea that they don’t have a right to object to touch from others (as well as other boundary violations), and that can be harmful when, having internalized that idea, they feel like they can’t speak up against abuse or sexual assault, like they can’t tell anyone, because it’s not really a big deal; they don’t have a right to be upset.

But even when this idea doesn’t lead down that path, it’s still a damaging one. I don’t want to have to accept touch that feels like a small violation of my boundaries, of my personal space; I want to feel free to say something when someone puts an unwanted hand on my shoulder. And I want other people to agree that I have a right to object. And more than that, I want them to think or ask before they assume that they can touch me; I want them to be aware that I may have boundaries in place, even when I don’t spell them out.

And I want this with nonphysical boundaries too. When I was with my family for Christmas, there was a plate of cookies on the table, and I took one. And one of my immediate family members said, “No, take a bigger cookie! You need to gain some weight!” and actually picked up my cookie and replaced it with a bigger one. And having someone trying to physically control what I ate, because they’d decided I was too thin, was disturbing to me. If they had actually been concerned, and had approached me in private to ask about my weight, that would have been weird but okay; I wouldn’t have been bothered by that. But obviously this person wasn’t really worried or they wouldn’t have been kind of joking about it… but they still felt the need to try to make me eat more than I wanted to.

I didn’t really say anything but just switched the cookies back when the person wasn’t paying attention anymore. It wasn’t worth an argument, but I also wasn’t going to give in and let someone else decide what I ate.* This person was policing me, saying that my own choice of how much to eat was wrong, so they were going to step in and fix it, make it right. And sometimes, interventions like that are needed (I don’t have personal experience with eating disorders but I imagine that some of what I’m saying here doesn’t apply in those situations). But you should never try to change someone’s mind or behavior through force, through making them feel powerless. Listen to them, give your opinion if you must but don’t insist that they’re wrong about their own body and that you know what’s best—and this applies not just to food but to touch, to unwanted photos like Coyote wrote about, to everything. Everyone gets to set their own boundaries, and everyone else has to respect those boundaries, even when they think they don’t make sense or are too extreme.

As Coyote writes, “I think there’s connections to be made in the way we think about ‘acceptable’ and ‘reasonable’ boundaries and the doubts we have about enforcing them. I want to confront the fact that writing about this feels whiny in light of more serious matters. And I want to provide the world with more examples of boundaries that feel petty and arbitrary that I’m demanding respect for anyway, to encourage everyone to be as petty and arbitrary with their boundaries as they want.”

People make decisions for other people all the time, assuming they know what’s best for someone else or just doing whatever they want and not caring what it’s like for the other person, not caring that what to them is a comforting hug is to the person they’re hugging a violation. And it’s the people who object—the ones who say, “I don’t want a hug, I don’t like hugs”; the ones who say, “I’m eating enough, thank you”—who are seen as in the wrong, in need of correction. Can we please start changing that?

*Side note that’s relevant to me and my perceptions of certain situations but not really to the point of this post: I could perhaps be called a control freak; I feel a strong need to be in control of my life and circumstances, and can have trouble coping when I’m not. And I think part of that comes from being physically small; practically every other adult or even teenager I come into contact with is larger and stronger than me. And the fact that I could be physically overpowered by everyone I meet freaks me out a little, even though I haven’t consciously thought about it like that before. I feel small, I feel weak, and so to cope with the feelings of vulnerability that go along with that, I try to maintain as much control as I can—whether that’s by objecting to small cases of unwanted touch or not letting someone else dictate my food intake. It’s like… I have to grab onto every little way I can find of keeping control of my situation, because I go into every situation knowing I don’t have physical control.

Appearance, part 6: appearance, obligation, and worth

In my last two appearance series posts, I talked about how society compels people to look a certain way based on their sex. In this post, I want to discuss the sense of obligation regarding appearance more generally.

When people are out in public, we expect them to have their looks up to a certain standard. (This can also hold true when it comes to more private settings; one of the most harmful ideas I’ve seen about the obligation to look a certain way is something promoted in some conservative Christian circles, which is the idea that a woman must keep herself attractive for her husband, and that if she “lets herself go” physically, she’s partially to blame if he cheats on her.) I’m not just an observer of this phenomenon but have thought this way myself; despite not prioritizing my appearance particularly highly, I’ve still caught myself feeling that I, and other people, need to look a certain way when we go out.

It’s like we owe other people something when it comes to our looks—cleanliness, neatness, a certain level of stylishness. That it’s framed as an obligation is evident from the wording we use when policing the appearances of others. Just the other day, I thought about a character on a TV show, “He needs to do something about his neck beard.” To someone with unruly hair, we say, “You need to get a haircut.” Appearance is something we feel very free to judge other people on, and we also feel very free to be vocal about those judgments in the form of mandates. When you tell someone they “need” to do something with their looks, you’re saying, “I think you look bad; thus you should change your appearance.” We put our own opinions above those of the person who the body in question actually belongs to.

The ubiquity of appearance-based judgments may be one reason looking good is so important to a lot of people. When you go out, you make sure you look okay, and that the other people with you do as well—think about parents making sure their kids are wearing clean, matching clothes—because (we think) your appearance reflects on you as a person. We make assumptions about all sorts of things based on someone’s appearance (assumptions that are sometimes just going to be wrong)—age, sexual orientation, class, even personality traits like intelligence and friendliness. These assumptions aren’t necessarily conscious, but to some extent we’re judging people’s worth based on what they look like. So if you look good enough (according to whatever the current standards are—what considered to look good and what’s in style is always changing!), you can protect yourself from that. These ideas were touched on in a comment by morgaine has won on my first appearance post.

This appearance-based valuation leads people to feel embarrassment or shame over things that are perceived as flaws in their appearance, such as acne, scars, or a deformity, even when it’s not anything they have control over. You can escape mockery for wearing a stained shirt by changing clothes. But if it’s having a lazy eye that you’re being ridiculed for, there’s nothing you can do about it. Criticizing someone for the choices they’ve made regarding their looks is one thing; the critic is saying, “You have bad taste” or “You don’t take care with your appearance.” But being condemned for having a physical flaw that you obviously didn’t choose and would get rid of if you could hurts on a deeper level, because in that instance what the critic is saying is, “Something is wrong with you.”

As an example almost everyone can relate to, and one that’s kind of in between the two I just talked about, think about those times when, hours after you’ve last eaten, you find that you’ve been walking around with food in your teeth. You think back to everyone you interacted with and wonder what they were thinking about you (and why they didn’t say something!), and feel humiliated. But why should you be embarrassed  about that? It’s not your fault that you didn’t know; you aren’t obligated to check your face in the mirror after every meal. And yet, you do feel embarrassed, and if you see a stranger with food in their teeth or spilled on their clothes or any other sort of imperfection in their appearance that they don’t seem to be aware of but would fix if they knew, you feel embarrassed for them, because people are going to be judging.

Years ago, my sister and another girl I knew did this thing (spurred by a Sunday school discussion of beauty) where they didn’t look in the mirror for a whole month. I couldn’t understand it at all, and definitely couldn’t imagine doing it myself. How would I know if my hair looked okay? How would I know if I had a patch of peeling dry skin on my face? I wouldn’t, and I couldn’t stand that thought. Looking good, or at least not looking bad, was a way to protect myself from the perceived judgment of other people, and being without that protection, which is what the result of avoiding mirrors would be, would leave me vulnerable.

But now that I’m able to see that social acceptance isn’t the ultimate goal anyone should be striving for, and that our ideas of what is and isn’t socially acceptable can be problematic, I see the value in the mirror experiment (especially for women, whose appearances are over-valued and over-criticized). Purposely staying away from mirrors for a month, although still not something I plan to do (since I still have a level of anxiety around my appearance, and knowing how I look helps alleviate it), is a way to send a strong message to other people and remind yourself that how you look isn’t the most important thing about you.

I’ve had times when I’ve had to interact with strangers at a store or the office where I used to work while feeling like I looked ugly. At those times I was very aware of my appearance—specifically the fact that I didn’t look good—and almost expected to be treated coldly because of it. So when I was smiled at by the strangers and not treated any differently than I was at times when I felt I looked okay, I was surprised and grateful. These incidents have been a good reminder that we don’t have to base our entire judgment of another person just on what they look like, and that other people aren’t necessarily always doing that to me or each other (they also make me think that other people probably aren’t critiquing me as harshly as I do to myself). But I shouldn’t have to feel grateful to someone for treating me decently. You aren’t worth less than other people if you don’t look as good as them. You shouldn’t have to feel like you need to change clothes or put on makeup before a trip to the grocery store. You shouldn’t have to fear being judged because of how you look. We don’t owe other people anything in regards to our appearance. Everyone deserves respect and decent treatment no matter what they look like.

Appearance, part 5: appearance and sexism

In the last post in my appearance series, I talked about how the patriarchy makes it hard for men to deviate from a masculine gender expression. Men are seen as the norm in our society, and if a man deviates from looking like society’s conception of how men should be, he’s seen as foolish or weak. Because of this, women are able to present in a somewhat masculine way and receive less backlash than men would for appearing feminine. But even though this is the case, there is still a lot of societal pressure on women to look feminine—which often requires much more effort than looking masculine does.

Putting aside whether or not being feminine actually means wearing makeup and shaving your legs, our society at least has an expectation that women will do these things. In general, men don’t have to remove their natural body hair or add color to their faces to be socially accepted. However, how often do you see a woman walking around with hairy legs? What sort of reaction would one get if she did? Women are told that, because they are female, they must do certain things to their bodies—things that have no purpose other than for looks (and why are women’s looks so important? Because men want to enjoy them, of course!), things that take time, effort, and money. Things that men do not have to do. In one of the articles I linked to in the last appearance post, a boy who showed up at the DMV with makeup on was accused of wearing “a disguise”. No one looks at makeup on women in this way; it’s seen as natural, and if a woman doesn’t wear it, that’s what’s considered strange.

I’ve never actually worn makeup, and have mostly been able to avoid any pressure to do so. But as soon as I began growing leg hair, I was anxious to start shaving it off. I saw the smooth legs of my female peers and didn’t want to stand out for not looking like them. I was nervous about asking my mom if I could start shaving, though, so I went to camp at age 12 with hairy legs, and wore jeans all week and just shrugged when people asked, “Aren’t you hot?” I listened to a girl in my cabin call herself a “hairy ape” because she hadn’t shaved for a few days. My camp counselor said she wouldn’t bother shaving except that “it’s not socially acceptable not to.” And then I had to stand with all the other campers in a big circle around the pool before we all jumped in for our early-morning polar bear swim, with my hairy legs on view for everyone to see, and feel an agonizing shame over them. They were ugly. They were wrong. They made me a social aberrant.

When I finally did start shaving, it was wonderful to be able to show my legs without fear or shame. I fit in! I looked okay! But… I kind of hated shaving. I didn’t want to spend money on nice razors, so I ended up with painful, bloody nicks or razor burn. My showers now took twice as long. I let the hair grow out over the winter, since I wasn’t wearing shorts at all then, and that made the first shave of the summer take forever. But I still kept doing it, because, like the author of this article (which provides a great rundown of the ways the stigma surrounding female body hair is harmful, and ways to combat it), I saw it as necessary for my self-esteem and social acceptance. I felt embarrassed for my mom and sister, who weren’t shaving at the time (they’ve both since started), because they were violating a social norm.

But then last year, after 10 years of removing the hair from my legs and armpits, I read Ily’s posts detailing her experience with quitting shaving, which she dubbed the Hobbit Acceptance Project (she actually says she didn’t directly receive any negative reactions to her hairy legs, which is awesome, but she also mentions how there are certain settings, like work, where she doesn’t display the hair because it wouldn’t be acceptable). In one of them she included two links—one to the Hairy Pits Club Tumblr, which showcases images of women with unshaven armpits, and one to a post on the blog I Blame the Patriarchy, which was one of several posts on that site declaring that feminists must eschew traditional markers of femininity (F-word warning for that link), like shaving.* And those three things—Ily’s posts, Hairy Pits Club, and the I Blame the Patriarchy post—combined were enough to get me to finally put down my razor. Whether or not I shaved was suddenly not an issue of social acceptance, but one of feminism. Society said, “People with vaginas must shave the hair off their legs and armpits.” I said, “That’s bull—-.” (Unfortunately, though, as soon as I started letting the hair grow, I took pains to cover it up, because I was still embarrassed. So sure, I had stopped shaving, and I told a few people I knew, but I didn’t show it off in public. Which kind of defeats the purpose. I’ll try to work on that this summer.)

When I pulled up my pant leg in front of my sisters (one of whom used to not shave—but she had blond hair while mine is dark) to reveal my hairy legs, they reacted with shock, and one with laughter. Women don’t see hairy legs on themselves or other women, because they’re constantly shaving the hair off. So when they do see it, it looks wrong and unnatural, even though of course natural is exactly what it is (Ily points out in one of her HAP posts that nobody knows what’s “normal” when it comes to body hair, because we’re always removing it). But when it comes to women’s appearances, unnatural has become the norm. Of course a million things humans do are “unnatural”—brushing our teeth, living in a house. So my point isn’t that natural is automatically better, but that the standards of what’s acceptable are different for men and women. It’s okay for men to let their body hair grow, and to show their natural faces to the world. But that’s not the case for women.

I think this is why, as I mentioned in the last post, there are more feminine-gendered aspects of appearance than there are male. If men are the norm, then to be feminine, you have to deviate from that norm by modifying your body and wearing clothes that men don’t wear, clothes that are impractical in a lot of situations. Dresses and skirts require you to be careful with your movements and not do anything active, and in a comment on my last appearance post, luvtheheaven mentions her difficulty with finding shoes because of the requirement, in certain situations, that women wear high heels. These are shoes that are hard to walk in if you’re not used to it, and that can cause damage to your feet, legs, and back. But in some situations, it’s practically mandatory that women wear them—while men are always allowed to wear comfortable, flat shoes.

I’m not trying to say that high heels are evil or that no woman should ever look typically feminine (the I Blame the Patriarchy article I linked to does explicitly say that, but I don’t agree and you can read why in the footnote)—just that the expectations and requirements our society places on women, saying that there’s only one right way to be a woman, which requires doing things to your body that range from annoying to downright harmful, is a problem, and that men don’t have to deal with this in the same way. Society is obsessed with women’s appearances, and policing them; it seems like the most important thing about a woman in our culture is her looks, while with men, we focus on personality and achievements. How often have you heard a woman introduced as “my beautiful wife” or “the lovely so-and-so”? Now imagine a man being introduced as “the handsome Mr. whoever”—it does happen occasionally, but it sounds like you’re talking about a little boy, because it’s kind of diminutive to call attention to someone’s appearance like that, especially in a professional context. And how often have you seen women and girls greeted, or been greeted yourself if you’re a woman, with, “You look so nice!”—whether it’s on a date, at work, or in the hall at school. In contrast, men aren’t expected to be noticed for their appearances, so if you greeted a guy with “You look so good today!” he’d probably be flattered but a little surprised and confused, maybe even self-conscious, because he wouldn’t be expecting it.

Women do expect it, though, because to be a woman is to be subject to an intense appraisal of your appearance, all the time. No woman is exempt—when a president’s wife appears in public, the talk is all about what she’s wearing, even though unlike with an actress or model, there’s no reason her appearance should matter. People dissect Hillary Clinton’s appearance, when it has nothing to do with her as a politician. Men just aren’t picked apart like this. Compare this article, in which a female comedian details being cruelly criticized for how she looked at an awards ceremony, particularly her choice of dress, to this one, about a male television presenter wearing the same suit to work nearly every day for a year and never once getting noticed for it. The double standard is painfully obvious, and has painful results when women are pressured, ridiculed, shamed, and condemned, all because of how they look.

*The link included above is the author’s most in-depth post on this subject, but here’s the one Ily linked to, and this is another one where the author, Twisty, lays out her opinions of femininity very clearly. In these posts, Twisty asserts that femininity is “for smushing women”, saying that all typical expressions of femininity degrade women and play into the interests of the patriarchy, and that to be a feminist you have to liberate yourself from feminine-gendered things. I read that post and was inspired by it, as I said above, initially feeling inclined to agree, since I’m not typically feminine and don’t understand the appeal of dresses and makeup—saying, “Yeah, these things are bad, and getting rid of them is one way to fight the patriarchy!” sounded good to me. But after thinking and writing more about feminism and gender, I can’t agree that a woman who enjoys wearing skirts is harming other women. My problem with skirts isn’t that they exist, but that it’s only socially acceptable for one sex to wear them.

There was also one major thing in Twisty’s article (the one I linked to in the body of the post) that didn’t sit well with me from the beginning. She says that if a man would look ridiculous doing something, that proves “how f—ing stupid” it is, and that femininity as typically expressed makes women sub-human. But… doesn’t that just contribute to the setting up of men as the norm? She is explicitly saying that we should judge everything by a standard of maleness, which means that men are right, and women are wrong, and that women should be like men. That sounds pretty anti-feminist to me.

Appearance, part 4b: appearance and gender (society)

Finally returning to my appearance series. This is part two of the last post.

Society encourages, and perhaps even created, the connection between appearance and gender. Whether you’re male or female, your hair is going to grow long if you don’t cut it, and at one time it was common for men to have long hair—but at some point in history long hair became a woman thing, and short hair the appropriate look for men. Men and women used to wear similar clothing, but then it was decided that dresses and skirts were the only acceptable clothing for women, while men wore pants, and it was a big deal in society when women finally gained that freedom.

In western society now, people have much more liberty when it comes to personal expression than they were allowed in the past—but society does still place limitations on people’s appearances according to their sex and gender. Walk into any clothing store and you have to choose a side—the women’s section or the men’s. I’ve admired clothing in the men’s section before, and thought about shopping there, and when I was a teenager I bought a few pairs of guys’ shorts, because they were comfy and long. But I only had the courage to do that after seeing my camp counselor wearing boys’ shorts and hearing her say she’d gotten them from the boys’ section at Walmart (which is a store I no longer frequent), and I still felt self-conscious venturing into that territory where I didn’t belong, looking at and trying on clothes that the store and society said weren’t for me.

Another obstacle to crossing clothing sections is the size issue—I can wear shorts meant for 12-year-old boys, but I’m not going to fit into much of anything made for adult males, and conversely, a lot of men are going to have a hard time fitting into most women’s clothes. So even if I were to be bold enough to seek out more gender-neutral clothing options in the men’s section, I probably wouldn’t have much luck finding items that fit. So besides the issue of cross-dressing not being socially acceptable, it’s also just hard to do from a practical standpoint.

However, I mostly dress in fairly casual clothing (since my office had a very relaxed dress policy and I now work from home), and so I can easily find fairly gender-neutral options while staying inside the women’s section. Sweatpants and t-shirts are basically gender neutral, with only colors or relative tightness marking them as for women versus men. But clothing gets more gendered the more formal you get (ignoring summer clothes, that is, which for women at least can be quite gendered no matter how casual). The next step up, jeans, comes in masculine and feminine styles but does still retain some overlap (e.g., both men and women wear skinny jeans). Business casual  creates more of a distinction; while women can wear pantsuits, they don’t wear ties, and they could also wear skirts and dressy tops (if they wanted to, or if it was expected/required), and men and women wear different styles of shoes at this point. Then you get into cocktail/formal wear, and it’s dresses for women and suits/tuxes for men. At this level you’ve lost the gender-neutral options, and people are forced to take on either a masculine or feminine look. There’s no middle ground.

The most formal events that I’ve been to are weddings. In the one I’ve been in so far, dresses were mandatory for the bridesmaids (not that the bride specifically said, “You must wear a dress”; it was just assumed that we all would)—and, speaking of weddings, of course in traditional ones the bride is always in a dress, and the groom and groomsmen in suits. As a  wedding guest in the future I plan to try get away with wearing pants as much as possible, but if I’m ever in another wedding I’ll almost definitely be asked/told to wear a dress—and I will likely do so, even though it would go against my preferred mode of expression. I just wouldn’t want to create an issue or upset the bride (or call attention to myself), and what would my other options be, anyway? Women have worn suits in weddings, but a suit is still coded as masculine in our society. I wouldn’t have a gender-neutral option to turn to; I would have to either blend in by dressing in a traditionally feminine way, or stand out by dressing in traditionally masculine clothes.

It is at least conceivable, though, that I could request, and be granted the request, to wear a suit in a wedding. But imagine if a groomsman wanted to wear a dress, or even if a male guest were to show up wearing one (in certain communities of course this would be fine, but in most it would not). Most men probably wouldn’t step outside the gender boundaries in this way, even if they wanted to, because of the negative attention it would earn them. Society says dresses are for women only, and it would be really hard to defy that rule at a big social event.

I think the reason it’s more acceptable for women’s dress to cross into men’s territory than the opposite is the patriarchy. Thinking beyond appearance, it’s more acceptable for women to do things that are typically coded as masculine than for men to do anything deemed feminine—because femininity is considered inferior. So a man wearing women’s clothing or doing something “womanly” is going to get mocked for being girly and weak, while women are able to get away with doing/wearing masculine things, because masculinity is seen as the norm, something that people, including women, should aspire to. While sometimes women are still mocked or derided for straying into masculine territory, to get that response their behavior often has to be more extreme than it is for men. For example, women can wear men’s shorts (like my camp counselor and I did), and most people probably won’t take much notice or think it’s that weird, and other women specifically won’t care or make a big deal about it. But if a man wore a skirt…

Another idea related to appearance, gender, and sexism is that it’s easy to look at someone and peg them as looking “girly” based on specific elements of their appearance, but harder to define someone as looking “manly”. I can think of a variety of different looks that could be coded as feminine, but not nearly as many that are definitely masculine-looking. The main image that comes to mind is a guy with a beard and big muscles, which are things associated with male bodies, rather than superficial elements that anyone could put on if they chose, like a dress or makeup.

So a skirt and nice top could be seen as a typical feminine outfit, but what would a typically masculine outfit be? At most, a male-coded look (one possible for anyone, regardless of physical sex or body type) might consist of the few items of clothing men typically wear that women don’t, like baggy jeans or cargo shorts. Otherwise, most clothes in the men’s section could be worn by a woman, and that woman wouldn’t be seen as presenting a masculine gender identity, because most men’s clothes are actually pretty gender-neutral. So masculinity equals the norm, the standard, and deviating from that is being feminine—which, as I said above, is seen as a bad thing. (I’ll address these ideas further in the next post in the series, which will be on appearance and sexism.)

One example of this idea is this article, which describes an incident where a DMV forced a boy to remove his makeup before they would take his driver’s license photo, because he “didn’t look like a boy should”. What could a woman do that would get her the same reaction? I can’t think of anything. With my super short hair, I’ve been told I look like a boy, but haven’t received any comments specifically policing me for not looking feminine enough.

Another example is this article, in which a genderqueer man talks about the difficulties he faces expressing himself in the professional world:

I thought back to all of the times that people had told me to “tone it down for work.” I thought back to conversations with my father, where he told me to put away the “flamboyant shit” if I wanted to be respected. I thought back to former internship supervisors who told me that I would not be respected around the office if I chose to express my gender identity. I thought back to the countless memories from childhood of being mocked for being a “sissy.”

So while women have made many gains when it comes to crossing gender boundaries, our society still has a ways to go before it’s socially acceptable for men to do the same.

Sadly, it’s not just mainstream society that polices the appearance and gender expression of men and women. As Alice writes in this post, the trans* community does the same. For trans women specifically, “If you don’t dress and present in an expressly feminine way – party dresses, false lashes, nails that could hold up the Forth Bridge, enough makeup to keep the Kardashians in business for five years – then you’re ‘not properly transgender’ and just putting it on, seeking attention.”

Being a woman or a man doesn’t mean you have to look a certain way. I wish people would stop insisting that it does.

Making assumptions about different-gender interactions

I read a blog post in which a woman described meeting a man on a plane and getting a glimpse into his fascinating life. She also spoke well of his looks, not in an “I was attracted to him” way, but in a way you might talk about admiring anything beautiful. This was a very small part of the post, which was mainly concerned with her anxiety about talking to a stranger and her gratefulness that she overcame that anxiety and was able to briefly connect with him. But what was the first comment on the post? “Sounds like you found him attractive ;)”. The author had replied to that comment saying that was her husband’s response as well, but not at all what she had felt or meant. And it made me sad that this was both the commenter’s and the husband’s focus, and that they took the author’s words in an entirely different way than she intended them.

People tend to do this to each other a lot, at least in spaces where heteronormativity reigns unquestioned—if someone shows any sort of interest in a person who is perceived to be of the opposite gender, it’s assumed to be romantic interest and treated accordingly, because of course everyone is both straight and interested in romantic relationships, and that’s the only reason they would ever interact with anyone of a different gender than their own. This often means that the person showing the interest gets teased; my teenage sister mentions a male friend, and my whole family starts asking, “Ooh, do you like him?” and making jokes about the two of them as a couple. Reacting to kids especially this way sends the message that the only relationships there can be between people of different genders are romantic ones, which is severely limiting. It’s quite possible to be friends with, be intrigued by, have a good conversation with, or desire to get to know better someone of a different gender without any romantic attraction being present. But heteronormative circles don’t acknowledge this, and some perhaps don’t even believe it.

The typical nature of the responses—“Oooh, you like her”; “You must think he’s attractive”—makes people (again, probably kids in particular) feel like they need to defend these instances of non-romantic interest in those of a different gender, or else causes them to feel that they can’t talk about them to others at all—because other people won’t understand and will turn the occurrences into something they’re not. The FedEx guy who used to pick up my office’s packages every day was really nice, and my brief conversations with him were always pleasant. But I avoided talking about him to certain people, stopping myself from mentioning a fun place he’d recommended I go or a story he’d told, because I didn’t want to get asked, “Ooh, what’s his name? Is he hot?”. I didn’t want anyone insisting I felt something that I didn’t, and I didn’t want the point of my story—“This is a cool guy, and I enjoy talking to him”—to be completely missed.

Even worse, these typical reactions can cause the person expressing interest to be embarrassed, which could lead them to avoid non-romantic encounters with or interest in people of different genders in the future. Several times I have tried to minimize my interactions with a certain man after being teased about him, because the only way I saw to escape getting teased again was to not talk to the man I was being teased about. But how awful is that? At worst, the person I’m suddenly ignoring will be bothered by my apparent rudeness, and even if he doesn’t actually notice or care, I’m still missing out on interaction and possibly a relationship with a fun or interesting or good person, just because he happens to not share my gender.

I think making assumptions of romantic interest is especially harmful when it’s done to kids, because they don’t know to be heteronormative or amatornormative or assume that they can’t be friends with people of different genders until they’re taught to do so (which is done by popular culture as well as interpersonal interactions). Once they learn that they should only be having certain feelings and relating to other people in certain ways, anything that doesn’t fit into this mold becomes something to be ashamed of—something to then defend, or repress, or excise altogether.

Dividing children by gender

Note: Since non-binary genders aren’t recognized in the situations I discuss in this post and I’m not sure how these institutions would handle trans* people, these groups aren’t mentioned, but their lack of recognition and inclusion by and in society is yet another reason why systems that divide children based on their being one of two sexes/genders are problematic.

At some point during (Christian) summer camp orientation, an adult would always announce to the other teens/pre-teens and I, “Girls are red, guys are blue. No purpling.” I never knew exactly what this meant, and I’m sure it wasn’t completely clear to lots of the other kids either. Did it just mean no physical interaction with the opposite gender, or was it meant to discourage us from even hanging out with them? I remember gossiping with my cabin mates one year about Lauren, a girl with purple eye shadow and pretty hair, because she spent lots of time talking to the guys—”Lauren’s purpling,” we said with condemnation and self-righteousness. We would never engage in such illicit behavior.

After a few years of attending that camp I went to a different one, which had somewhat of a different format. Instead of having boys and girls there at the same time, they had three weeks of boys’ camp followed by three weeks of girls’ camp. Their reasoning, if I remember correctly, was both that boys and girls have different interests and that it was better for them to enjoy camp without being distracted by the opposite gender. This is similar, I’m guessing, to the philosophy behind having separate girl and boy scouts (which I’ll go into more in a minute).

I have two problems with these attitudes. “No purpling”—at least when left up to the kids’ interpretation, who may decide it means all interaction with the opposite gender is prohibited—says that you shouldn’t pursue friendships with people who don’t share your gender. If you’re looking for human interaction, socialization, friends, you should stick with people who have the same body parts (because of course everyone is cis!). Besides restricting potential relationships (perhaps romantic, which I assume is what the leaders were trying to discourage, but platonic as well) that could form, this attitude says that it’s dangerous for you to be around the opposite gender. There will be too much temptation for you to do things that the adults would disapprove of, so they’re going to mandate your separation to keep that from happening. But that grossly overemphasizes kids’ sexuality, as if the only possible relationship a girl and a boy could have is a romantic/sexual one. If kids think the opposite sex has cooties, if they think it’s impossible for boys and girls to be friends, if they only think of the opposite gender as potential romantic partners to either reject or pursue, they end up denying the humanity of the other gender. Boys become males first, humans second, and the same with girls, and that becomes awfully limiting because the potential for engaging with someone simply as another human being whom you might enjoy talking to or being friends with is removed. And I don’t think kids would hold this view—that you should avoid the opposite gender unless you’re looking for romance or sex—if it wasn’t for adults cultivating the attitude through their fear. Yes, surely these prohibitions have kept plenty of immature summer camp romances from happening. But how many friendships and moments of connection have they also prevented?

By limiting children in these settings to friendships with those of the same gender, we’re also sending another message—that all boys, and all girls, are the same. The attitude of the second camp that I mentioned especially cultivates the idea that girls and boys will get along best with people of their own gender. Anyone who’s found that they connect more with other genders than with those who share theirs, or who likes and forms relationships with others regardless of whether they’re male or female, is out of luck. And beyond the relational aspect, this camp format, as well as organizations that divide kids by gender like girl/boy scouts, declares that girls are interested in X, and boys in Y. When my brother was in boy scouts, I always thought it sounded like fun—wilderness safety, camping, knot-tying (and my sisters and I always enjoyed Boy’s Life magazine, much more than my brother did). I didn’t know what girl scouts did, but I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be as appealing to me as boy scouts, because I knew that their activities would be different from those the guys got to do. And in fact when I was talking to my aunt and uncle once, who have one boy and one girl who are both involved in scouts, my aunt, who helps with her daughter’s troop, told me that all the outdoor/adventure aspects have been excised from the girl scouts. Nothing has changed for the boys, who still go on camporees and learn how to treat snake bites, but girl scouts are apparently expected to have no interest in such activities. My aunt was unhappy—it was a frustrating process for her to convince the higher-ups to let her scouts go canoeing—and rightly so. Just like all boys won’t enjoy camping, all girls won’t be happy sitting inside earning computer merit badges (which is what my aunt told me when I asked what activities were available to the girls. I guess it’s good at least that computers aren’t considered to be boys-only?).

Couldn’t we just have scouts, instead of dividing the organization into boys and girls? Let everyone choose the activities they’re interested in, instead of only making certain ones available based on the participant’s body parts. And if you’re worried about kids’ hormones running away with them, distracting them or causing them to engage in inappropriate behavior, can you give kids a little more credit and see that you’re keeping them from the chance to have friends who are different from them, friends that some of them might get along with better than those of their own gender? If we stopped keeping boys and girls apart and promoting the idea that they’re innately different, maybe we’d see a difference in their interactions when they grow up to be men and women.