Tuesday, April 23, 2013

F-words galore: Femmeness vs Femininity

I had an interesting conversation about gender presentation with a friend several weeks ago. She would be surprised to hear that's what it was about, but it was nonetheless. We were discussing our "types"--the kind of people we're romantically attracted to. I mentioned that I'm generally drawn to women who are as, or more, feminine than myself.
"That must make things difficult," she said.
"How so?" I asked, genuinely puzzled. Lots of things make dating difficult for me--lack of time, painful shyness, the fact that the dating pool for lesbians is smaller than for pretty much anyone else--but the fact that I'm attracted to feminine women has never struck me as one of them.
"Well, you're really feminine," she said.
"What?" I was kind of taken aback by the statement, as if someone had told me, "You have really pretty wings." It seemed like an impossibility.
"Well, look at you right now, in your little sundress, with your girls on display...long hair, heels, red lipstick...you're pretty feminine."
"But most days of the week I'm in sweats and scrubs and that pair of Chuck Taylors I've had since college. And I wear makeup a few times a month, tops."
She shrugged noncommittally. "Just saying."

So this got me thinking about the difference between femininity and femmeness. The truth is, I don't see myself as feminine. To be feminine, to me, is to be 'good' at being a woman, in the socially constructed sense--and I'm not. It is of course worth noting that there are multimillion-dollar fashion, diet and cosmetic industries whose continued profitability depends on making all women feel insufficiently feminine, so it's probably not just me. Femininity is the ability to adhere to the rules about female-presenting appearance, conduct, and even thought that are imposed by one's culture...and there are a lot of rules.

The idealized feminine body--slender but with curves in the 'right' places, toned but not disarmingly muscular, absolutely and effortlessly hairless, with clear, even-toned skin--is not mine. My arms aren't wispy; after years of weight lifting and other vigorous exercise, they aren't even toned--they're BUILT. I've never grown beyond the 34 A I wore in middle school (if 'real women have curves,' I guess I'm out of the running). I am, to put it politely, hirsute, and staying on the right side of the femininity police would require shaving every other day, which I have no patience for (also not enough blood--as shaving my legs always seems to result in at least one semi-mortal injury. Seriously, sometimes it looks like I've been slaughtering pigs in the shower). That's what pants and tights are for, right?

As for feminine conduct and interests, I'm completely out of my element. Every so often I read a Glamour or Self that someone's left in the gym--it makes elliptical time go by more quickly--and I skip over half the articles, easily, because I don't give one lonely, solitary shit about most of the content. Fifteen ways to please your man? Don't have one, don't want one. New makeup trends? Yeah, I get by with black eyeliner and Revlon Red lipstick--but mostly Burt's Bees lip balm. Every kind of foundation I have ever tried has made my sensitive skin break out like a lock picker in prison. Please don't try to talk to me about ombre hair (you make your hair...Mexican?) or green eyeshadow or why lace is in or booties are out or why I should be freezing my eggs. I know enough to know that Prada and Coach and Swarovski make things that I'm supposed to care about and desire...but I don't. I visit the Anthropologie website sometimes, but mainly in order to marvel over the prices people with too much money will pay for hand-crocheted pillows ($128? Are you effing kidding me?) and peplum dresses ($500? REALLY? Completely leaving aside the fact that peplum is ugly).

When it comes to femininity, it all seems frustratingly pretty (oops--Freudian slip--I meant petty) and requires too much damn effort. Femmeness, on the other hand--femmeness is about acknowledging that gender is PERFORMED. This makes sense to me, since I frequently feel like I'm getting into drag when I slip into a dress and heels. This isn't really me. I'm getting ready to do a show--this is just the costume. This isn't part of the trying-all-the-time-to-fit-into-an-Iron-Maiden, oh-shit-am-I-doing-this-right-or-will-I-be-unmasked BS that I associate with trying (and failing) to live up to the stringent requirements of femininity. This is playful. This is fun. This is interrogated femininity, dress-up, a carnival. I can do it tonight and not have to do it tomorrow. I can go all Courtney Love and wear red lipstick with my old, narsty boots. I can wear fishnets and not shave my legs. I can occupy my femmeness whenever I want, putting it on and taking it off as it suits me. It is interrogated, curated femininity. I'm not doing these things--putting on Amy-Winehouse-worthy eyeliner, painting my nails, putting on a dress that shows off what little cleavage I have--because I have to.

Femininity, all too often, is about saying "I must." I must pluck my eyebrows, I must lose twenty pounds, I must wear stilettos all day even though they hurt like sweet baby Jesus, I must wear Spanx even though they have a stupid name and take twenty minutes to wrestle onto my body. Femmeness is about saying "I can, and I've thought about it, and I wanna."

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