Genderbending is fun for everyone!

Ladies.....

I hate it whenever someone puts me in a box.

It’s usually pretty dark in there and my claustrophobia starts to kick in right quick.  If I am lucky, someone poked some air holes in there pre-melissa-insertion.

So when I say “puts me in a box,” I usually mean “makes assumptions about me” or “has rigid expectations of me.”  When this happens, The Melissa gets quite angry and ranty, and few topics get my goat worse than when it comes to gender issues and the like.

To be clear, let’s define the word “gender.”  Here I will be using the feminist theory definition of gender as a social construction apart from biological sex.  Even though it is pretty commonly accepted, the terms sex and gender are not synonymous.  Sex refers to a person’s anatomy, chromosomes, etc.  Gender refers to the social roles and behaviors we perform.  Sex is a physical state while gender is a mental one.  An easy and fun way to remember this is that ‘sex is between your legs and gender is between your ears.’  Teehee!

While gender often matches a person’s sex (a biological man often plays the social roles of a male), it does not have to, and is so much more complicated and dynamic than the rigid binary boxes society has created for sex and gender.  In actuality, both sex and gender (as well as sexual orientation, but that’s a whole other post) exist on more of a spectrum with there being lots of shades of gray in between.  For the time being I wanna focus on gender and all the awesome variations and shades of gray.

Gender is something that we do.  Gender is performed, gender is behavior and a way we express ourselves in the world.  The most obvious way that we do gender is by how we visually present our bodies with clothing, hair (or lack of hair), nails, makeup (or lack of), accessories, etc.  This past week I wore a tie to work.  I have worn ties a few times before, but last week I wore my own tie – pretty purple paisleys.  I got a variety of reactions, from non-reactions to giggling to compliments to asking me what the tie was for.  I think it’s fair to say that most of those reactions imply that me -a lady- wearing a tie -male clothing- does not match the binary categories.  To be fair, if I had walked into work wearing a prom dress (a matching sex/gender combo), I might still have gotten the same reactions just because of the variable (in a long list of possible variables) of the office dress code.

I am dapper

I was also invited to a mustache party (nothing kinky, I swear), where mustaches were mandatory, regardless of gender.  What a hoot!  Both my partner and I were sans mustaches, so I drew one on each of us using my black and brown eyeliners.  How’s THAT for genderbending – I used a traditionally-marketed-to-female-gendered product to paint a bio-male thingy on my bio-female face.  Woot.

I find it interesting to see how I feel when I test the boundaries of traditional gender categories, depending on what I am doing and how public it is.  One of my clinical supervisors encourages us to identify what ways we defy gender norms without even thinking about it – by being ourselves – since who fits into the categories 100% of the time?  Answer: no one.

As a lady-person, I get to have lots more safe space in which to play with genderbending than men do, and I think that sucks.  We live in a world where I can wear a tie to work and just get some giggles, but if my partner wore a dress to work, he would have much bigger, more serious consequences.  That’s called a double standard and I hate it, hate it.  What are people doing to defy these stupid, stupid rules??!  I want to hear them!

No wonder we genderize things – our use of language demands it so!  We have three singular pronouns we use: he, she, and it. We lack any mainstream way of referring to a person whose gender is unknown or outside the binary without dehumanizing that person by saying “it.”  How horrible is that?  It may not sound like much of a crisis, but I definitely think it informs, fuels, and traps us in these harmful, restricting binaries.  On a sidenote – did you know that we have actually do have gender-neutral pronouns?  That’s pretty effing awesome!  No more using “they” as an awkward singular in term papers.

People get sooooo uncomfortable when they can’t put people/things/COLORS into gender categories.  Why is this?  Animals and human babies are a good example for this, since they don’t have gender.  They simply don’t got it.  Animals act instinctively based on their biological sex and that’s it, while humans develop gender gradually as their brain and social skills/world develops.  But when we get them as pets and baby humans, we assign them a gender using names and colored collars (you know, baby collars.  all the cool moms are doing it).  Without these names and collars, we don’t know what pronoun to use and people. go. nuts.  If a person doesn’t know a baby/animal’s gender, they usually either ask or refer to it as masculine.  Have you or anyone you know been scared that someone would mistake your baby/cat/lizard for the wrong gender?  Has anyone mistaken the gender?  Did you correct phe? (<—-gender neutral pronoun! How useful!)  Why or why not?  Why is it important to us that we project gender onto our things?  I find the discomfort around this subject absolutely fascinating, and I draw attention to it so that maybe others might get curious about why going against the traditional grain gets us so uncomfortable.

That reminds me, I was wrapping xmas presents yesterday, and my frugal self has two kinds of wrapping paper: a light blue one that says “Happy Holidays” so it can be used for xmas and Hanukkah, and one with assorted yellow and pink stripes to use for all occasions.  As I was making decisions about what to wrap in what, I realized I was choosing to wrap presents intended for males in the blue-based paper and females with the pink paper.  This will not do.  Buuut, my gut reaction to thinking about wrapping against gender norms made me uncomfortable.  My actual thought was more about me not wanting to offend any of my male family members (take note that I had no worries about offending the females with this arrangement).  Oh dear me.  The solution?  I said ‘fuck it’ and did it opposite.  Now, don’t give me a Nobel Peace Prize.  All I am saying is that the simplest damned things like this crop up all the time, and collectively, they mean something.  Stop and think about what they might mean.

Ways I defy gender norms by crawling out of my box:

  • I hate cooking, I am not good at it, and I don’t wanna cook for you or anyone else.  So there.
  • I wear ties.  With gusto.
  • I wrapped xmas presents in paper with pink stripes that are intended for men.

How do you crawl out of your box? (the assumption I am making here is that everyone defies gender norms. booyah.)

For additional reading, check out this awesome blog post about one teacher working to abolish gender binaries by educating her students!!  Makes me so excited about life!

Contributing to the Revolution

I took a class on counseling women at Boston College, and during one class session, the professor jokingly and rhetorically asked if any of us (as I recall, this particular class didn’t have any menfolk in it) hadn’t ever been on a diet.  Even though the professor kept talking at that point and didn’t wait for any answers, I quietly raised my hand.  A very short conversation followed, and the vibe that I gathered was that no one believed me, including the professor.

That brings me to the following question: what is a diet?

di·et
1.  food and drink considered in terms of its qualities, composition, and its effects on health: Milk is a wholesome article of diet.
2.  a particular selection of food, especially as designed or prescribed to improve a person’s physical condition or to prevent or treat a disease: a diet low in sugar.
3.  such a selection or a limitation on the amount a person eats for reducing weight: No pie for me, I’m on a diet.
4.  the foods eaten, as by a particular person or group: The native diet consists of fish and fruit.
5.  food or feed habitually eaten or provided: The rabbits were fed a diet of carrots and lettuce.
(taken from dictionary.com)

So, in some senses of the word, diet is simply what we eat or don’t eat. In that sense, everyone is on a diet because everyone must eat something in order to live.  Of course, my professor was not using the word in this sense, nor do most people use the word in that sense.  The word has come to signify more about what isn’t being eaten rather than what is.

In class, I found that I began to defend myself and the claim I had just made.  I asked my classmates what they considered a diet (in the restrictive sense) was and got no answer.  I said that I make choices everyday about what I will eat and thus what I won’t, just the same as everyone else.
Does that mean I am on a diet?

Sometimes I eat lots of dessert several days in a row and then I choose to not have dessert for a day because of what I ate the previous days.
Is that a diet?

After my grandma died of colon cancer, my mom made a rule that we couldn’t have cereal with less than 1 gram of fiber per serving.
Is that a diet?

I govern my eating habits by guidelines that my parents instilled in me and ones I have adopted on my own.  Examples are having three meals a day, not snacking too close to a mealtime, having a glass of milk with dinner, I could go on.

I often turn down foods that sound good or I choose not to eat something that I might have a craving for, the intention having to do with weight and the way I look.
Does any of this mean that I have been “on a diet?”

Maybe it’s just the way I think about all of this, or the way I don’t think about it.  Not once while growing up did I ever hear about my mom being on a diet, and there was never talk of me being on one.  I don’t have any memories of hearing either of my parents speak derogatorily about their bodies and body images.  And that’s what this post is really about, I suppose.  Body image.  That is what diet: definition 3 is all about anyway.

The goal of a definition 3 diet is about an end result: weight, how you look, but most importantly, how you feel about how you look.  I mean, how you will look and feel (or hope to look and feel) by the time the diet is over.  Everyone’s heard and knows on some level that these kinds of diets don’t work.  And even if they do “work” in terms of weight and how you look, that’s still not a guarantee that you’ll end up feeling the way you want to feel! So why do people keep going on them?  And why did no one in my class believe I had never been on one?  I think the answer is the same for both questions: everyone, especially women, have been taught how to hate our bodies so profoundly that we keep searching, working, covering up, restricting in order to reach an unreachable-by-definition ideal end goal.

One of my clinical supervisors says that the majority of unhappiness comes from people wishing that they were different from what they are, here and now.  I try very hard to remind myself this as often as I can, and I use this concept frequently with my clients.  It is so simple that it sounds ridiculous.  What if you were enough just the way you are?  What if you could feel happy without going on a diet?……without doing ANYTHING except changing the way you think about yourself?

“What I see is that even the most Botoxed, lipo’d, lifted woman cannot conceal herself. If you hate yourself, it shows through every cream and cure there is. Until we stop trying to exorcise our own imperfect selves, driving out normal physical traits as if they were signs of pathology, there will always be some misery in the eyes that nothing can hide.”

In the past few years, my collection of pants and shorts have been growing tight on me, or rather, my body has been growing outward and my pants have stubbornly stayed the same.  I feel horrible every single time I put on those pants.  This past summer, I finally bought a pair of bigger shorts that actually fit me for the me I happened to be at that time.  And you know what?  I felt GREAT!  I felt sexy and cute and GOOD about myself. And nothing had changed about my body. That was the key to this particular issue with myself.  I realized that I was somehow honestly expecting my body to stay the same shape and size it was around…2003.  One day, I just realized how ridiculous this (therapy jargon alert!) distorted belief was.  Of course my body is going to change as I age.  I get to solve the problem by- wait for it- buying clothes that fit instead of trying to get my body back to when I was 20, which will never happen.  And I am actually cool with that.  Does anyone really, truly want to look 20 years old their whole life?  I sure as hell don’t. When I grow up, I wanna be an old woman.

I still have to remind myself about this revelation of mine on a regular basis.  And I still have to buy more pants.  I hope we all get to a place where we’ll actually believe someone when she raises her hand and says she’s never been on a diet (the definition 3 kind).

I’ll end this rather meandering post with one of my favorite body positive quotes:

“My body is fucking beautiful, and every time I look in the mirror and acknowledge that, I am contributing to the revolution.” –nomi lamm