Constructing Your “Woman”

Posted by – March 29, 2008

Lena Dahlstrom posted a video on the mHB message boards made by the Feminist Majority Foundation called “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” and the women in it reminded me, once again, that I don’t feel femme-y enough in either style or presentation and reminded me as well that I’m offended by this PR campaign to convince people that feminists aren’t awful, ugly, fat, hairy women. So when another partner commented about being the resident “big hairy dyke” I thought, “me too.”

I’m aware that others see me as smaller than I see myself, or at least tell me they do, and of course I wax or hide most of my hairiness. Most people wouldn’t think of me as a dyke but I have for a while now, even if I’m still cautious about adopting a lesbian identity out of respect for those who are lesbian-identified and who might see me as something of an interloper. But dyke is an identity I’ve become comfortable with since I think it suits me (no pun intended) & in a lot of ways frees me. (I use ‘het dyke’, too, when it seems right.)

You all know the joke about what women would be like in a world without men, right?

Answer: Fat, hairy, and happy.

Toward the end of my trans lives class, I asked my students Julia Serano’s question: “Would you transition if someone gave you $10 million to do it?” and they, as Serano predicts, shook their heads no. But I think I would. I can joke that it’d mostly be out of a desire to write – $10 million would buy a lot of time – and out of laziness (see joke above) – but I still have this sense of having to “construct” myself as a woman all the time, of having to construct something socially acceptable, someone who worries about & watches her weight, who remembers to re-apply makeup, wears a variety of clothes that suit her, who gets her hair cut regularly and occasionally wears it down & styled, and frankly, it tires me. Mostly I want to roll out of bed to teach, leave school to write, go out to dinner without worrying about what others think about what I order, and have people measure me by my smarts and my skill and my grumpy-but-kind personality rather than by my looks.

In a way this may seem like my usual tirade, but it’s not.

Because I want to hear from others about how they construct their “woman” and how much effort it takes. I don’t mean how much time it takes you to get ready. I’m talking about all of it – how much time you spend thinking about how tall you are, or fat; I want to hear about what things you do that people deem unladylike – like laughing too loud, or smoking, or not smiling enough. I want to hear about the ways you construct your womanness that make you thinner, more petite, more gracious, more delicate, more – small. I want to hear about how you try to take up less space than you might in order to be socially acceptable as a woman.

One of the things I’ve been suspect of about that video – and about femininity in women in particular – is how much *time* it takes. Maybe for others it’s more organic. Maybe others have worked out a routine of doing their hair and shaving their legs in the shower. You know, maybe she’s born with it (but my guess is maybe it’s Maybelline). But mostly I feel like I’m busy, and it’s only when I have to walk out the door to meet someone new – or to meet up with someone who hasn’t seen me in a while – when I think, “goddamn have I become a slob.”

And I have. I still long to have a closet full of the same suit and a few shirts and three pairs of the same black shoes like Brundle in The Fly. It just strikes me that while masculinity is constructed in other types of ways, that you can still be a slob and be an okay guy. But women who are slobs – or who are overeaters, or don’t like make up, or fashion – are still quite suspect if they don’t construct themselves in some way or form.

So, you? How long does it take you to construct your woman?

8 Comments on Constructing Your “Woman”

  1. Jude says:

    One of the reasons I shied away from transition for so long was because I feared / did not want to become that sort of constructed woman – to spend the time and energy to put myself together each day. I’m not that girl. It was only when I started finding myself being read as female in my no makeup, no padding, “jeans and a sweater” form of androgyny that I thought womanhood was within reach.

    And I’ve drifted into a form of low maintenance womanhood that involves little makeup (maybe once a week, and minimal then). I probably get my nails done twice a year. I shave my legs maybe 1-2 times a month except during shorts weather. I see my stylist infrequently enough to get “long time no see” attitude when I do show up. I’m minimizing the hours spent on an electrolygists couch, of course.

    Maybe it’s because I have gotten older, maybe it’s the low expectations for transwomen, maybe I’ve crafted my life so as to avoid having to actually be seen in public, and maybe its just that for me, woman is more natural and less constructed than man used to be, but I used to get a lot more grief for my lack of style and grooming as a guy than I do now. People (family, sig others, professional peers) used to spend an awful lot of time fixing me back then in a way that does not happen now.

  2. JenKG says:

    I’m a traditionally femme woman, but I don’t think I spend a lot of time working on it. I do spend 3 or maybe up to 5 minutes each morning putting on eye cream, face lotion w/ sunscreen and makeup. I wear only long-lasting products – waterproof mascara, liquid eyeliner, cheek stain – that require minimal reapplications. I put on lipstick when I go out (if I remember to) and sometimes take enough time to apply creme blush. Then I have a 10 minute evening routine that involves taking off all the makeup, washing my face, brushing and flossing my teeth and putting on nighttime face cream – and, again, cheek stain. I want to feel and to have my husband think I look pretty even at night, and for me blush is the key to prettiness. My hair is longish and curly, but also minimal maintenance – wash, towel dry, apply product, that’s it. I used to get my hair cut 3x per year, but since I’ve gotten bangs, I have to get more frequent trims, which bugs me even though I think they look nice (when trimmed). Another thing that bugs me is shaving my legs and putting on body lotion after showering – the lotion makes a real difference in my skin and shaving obviously makes a difference too – but definitely each of these things takes a couple of minutes I would rather spend on other things. I’ll shave once or twice a week and put on lotion about the same amount of time.

    I wonder if my morning/evening routine times are off? Perhaps I’ll time myself and update this later on.

    Though my closet is full of cloths, I tend to go through phases of liking some pieces more than others. In fact, I seem to assemble a couple of core outfits each season, limited to just 2 or 3 pairs of pants or skirts (in summer), perhaps 3-5 shirts/tops, and usually 1 or 2 pairs of shoes. Mostly I wrote in to say: Helen, I think you can live your dream of the Brundle wardrobe! I really prefer life that way, in fact. Much quicker and easier.

  3. helenboyd says:

    see? i keep telling people i have feminine friends, but i don’t think anyone has ever believed me. ;)

    & yes, you’re right about the wardrobe. i do a similar thing, but i seem to have to try on 18 other things first.

    of course it’d be a lot easier if i could stay the same size for a year.

  4. VivaZoya says:

    It depends. Getting ready to go out for a job interview, as I have been lately, it seems like I’m getting ready to star in my own drag show, and that’s just wearing black pants, a black blazer, a simple shirt, and black boots. I usually hot-roll my hair, and put on makeup. It seems like way too much work, and I dread the thought of having to do that every day again. Otherwise, I throw on jeans, a black tshirt and my Docs, throw my hair in a ponytail or just leave it hanging all in my face. I use to be much more meticulous about my appearance, “constructing” was half the fun, with all the crazy jewelry, funky hairstyles, and thrift store clothes, I really did try to look a certain way. Nowadays, I just don’t have the energy or desire. And damnit, I still think I look good. =p

  5. Red says:

    i get a lot of anxiety over style, which ties into constructing my woman. i’ve never been much of a style maven, but as i get older i’m realising that how i dress does effect how i feel on a given day. i want to start dressing “like a grown-up,” though without really knowing what the hell that means.

    so right now, since i’ve lost a little weight, all my clothes are too big and frumpy, and i feel like ass. i want to buy new clothes that fit better but the question is…what kind? i have trouble seeing how clothes translate from the rack to my body. i’m not comfortable going butcher right now, and i could go more femme, but that has started to feel like costume. so i’m not sure exactly what i want to present, or where i am.

    and lately i’ve been going to a lot of musical theatre auditions, which feel very strictly gendered. i’ve talked about this before; i’m often the only woman in pants. and i want to get hired, so i’ve been looking at what dresses i can wear to these auditions. it feels like i’m being asked to play my gender, in a way. and i can do that — i have been doing that — but i’m aware of it.

    i dunnow, i like to wear stuff that’s fairly neutral. i look at sporty, well-put-together dykes and i think they’re attractive, but i don’t feel like it’s a style i want to emulate. i’d be happiest, i think, with a good pair of jeans, a nice pair of shoes, and a simple shirt. if only i could find a pair of jeans that accomodated my rump roast.

    yeah. i think about it a lot.

  6. JenKG says:

    A very important key to the limited-but-attractive wardrobe idea is knowing what fits you and what you look good in right now. Helen, why don’t you empty out one drawer, try everything you own on today (once!) and then put *only* the stuff that looks good in the drawer? Then it’s done, and you can choose only from that drawer and pretend that all your other cloths do not exist. It’s like you’re going on a trip and living out of a suitcase packed only with things that you like.

    The goal is to *only* wear the things that fit and look good *now* – and to not have to think about what looks good every day. Maybe you can set a schedule for reassessing/replenishing the drawer on the first of each month or something (not to sound too rigid) or as the seasons change. Right now, though, it sounds like your problem is that you are reassessing everything all the time. That would make anyone crazy.

    Accept your current weight and wardrobe and work with it (even if just for one month or season at a time).

    Sorry if this is too self-help-y! Good luck!

  7. Julie says:

    In order to start trying to hate myself less, I’ve stopped reading all fashion type/make-up magazines–stopped watching commercial teevee as much as humanly possible and basically worked on trying to have no investment whatsoever in any identity-gender, political or orientation wise. But identities and societal standards haunt me like ghosts whispering in my ears. I yearn to belong and get some kind of positive feedback, to relate as a human, to other humans and therefore I must construct my golem of glamour and scribble my desires on my face with cosmetics. Wear lipstick, get positive attention from men, feel better about myself because of that attention. Wear less make-up get read as T and called “faggot,” feel alienated or like a failure. (it’s especially heartbreaking when I wear the make-up and still get called faggot c’est la vie) For trans woman especially the line between man and woman can be how much make-up and or grooming cues you lacquer your self with (not to mention surgical intervention). But it’s a veneer that of course only gets you raped in the end after dinner, and I mean this literally and figuratively, women are raped or dis-empowered by men often based on sex appeal. The inverse can also be true, often the girl that seems most fuckable is the one that gets the job- not the one that is most qualified. Does the lesbian with the hairiest legs win in a queer dichotomy? No matter where I turn or how much energy I put into constructing myself in some identity or another the problem of self love is a rubiks cube that I can’t seem to solve no matter how much energy I throw into it. It’s enough to make one want to shave one’s head wear a robe and just live in a cave the rest of my life. But then the other monks would be like “who does she think she’s trying to impress?”

  8. Susie G says:

    I really don’t know how I construct the woman in me, I don’t care to wear make-up and only put it on when meeting someone new or going to a new place. I love my jeans and I do wear nice shirts, but give me my tennis shoes or my boots when needed and I’m happy. I do take steps to take care of myself physically, like walking a lot and eating right and don’t get me started on shaving, that is an every other day thing. I did paint my nail this month, but normally I keep them short and unpainted. I’m a earthy girl and I really don’t feel like I need to impress anyone in public. But that’s just me.
    Helen, I think you look great and letting your hair grow out is a good idea. I think it’s o.k. every now and again to crawl back into your comfort zone and just be you.

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