The quote above is from an interview with Paris Hilton, a perhaps surprising source – but the point of the article is that the woman is a surprise, who has played us all with a crafted persona. And I have never been one to care too much who said something I considered profound or insightful, as if only “the right sort” of person ought to be quoted or as if the surrounding text must always also be profound and insightful for the single line to truly be so.
That comment resonated with me. It felt true to my own experience, and it helped me articulate some of what I am working through psychologically in the wake of the end of a 13-year relationship.
I have never really felt comfortable as a woman.
I am female. There is no gender-swap longing within me. Just the opposite, in fact – I have always wanted to be more feminine than I am physically and in my personality. Psychologically I seem to gravitate to many “girly” things, such as romances and sparkles and unicorns, and have since I was a little girl. I just also happen to like math and logic and guns. I feel like to this day there is sometimes a disconnect between my aesthetic tastes and what suits my physical shell. My eyes seem drawn to dainty, ethereal things that would look silly on me or around me, because I am simply too robust in both stature and in my personality, which on the public side is brash and loud and a little inappropriate and often on the verge of strident, and in private is intense: determined, focused, and opinionated, and also risible and almost endlessly optimistic. As an adult of 32 I can look at myself and say “steel magnolia,” and it suits, but I could not always name a style of womanhood that actually fit me (by which I mean, both described me as I actually am and as I wanted to be).
Throughout childhood I felt graceless and unfeminine, too tall and too large-framed in my bone structure and muscle tone to ever be pretty and dainty (what all the girls who got it and seemed to be actual girls to me were like) or perhaps even desirable. I could starve myself into a skeleton and would still be 4 sizes above the cultural “ideal”; I was taller than all the boys I grew up with, and they were also skinny runty things, so my general Amazon/Valkyrie shape felt even more gawky and uncomfortable. I am not out-and-out clumsy, but I essentially spend my life directing my body from a driver’s seat in my head, rather like an Imperial Walker. I don’t possess the natural athleticism and connection to my body that some people have, which might have mitigated my sense of dissonance with my own form. Or perhaps it wouldn’t have made any difference at all.
I also as a kid had terrible clothes, because my mother literally does not give a rat’s ass (her words) about fashion, or clothing, or conforming her appearance to what other people think (which sounds brave and wonderful but is also sometimes embarrassing, especially to a kid; “why is your mom dressed like a homeless bag lady who is also colorblind?” Moreover it feels hurtful that she will not bend on this for her family, when we do care, and don’t ask much of her – just that she not look, well, not homeless – as if she is unwilling to perform that task simply because it is important to us. I suppose we are assholes for asking, and for not appreciating her for the strange and wondrous creature that she is, but, really, why couldn’t she be strange and wondrous like Professor Trelawney and not Hagrid?) and extended her dislike of paying attention to such mundane things to choosing clothes for my brother and I and caring for the clothes we had or were given by other people. I also had an aversion to most of the skirts and dresses that were attempted to be put on me. Thing was, it was not the dresses per se that I was objecting to – those articles of clothing were out-and-out uncomfortable to me. Scratchy, almost painfully so, bunching or rubbing at my waist in a way that i just couldn’t stand but also couldn’t articulate better than “it doesn’t feel right.” I can look back on now and recognize this as part of my general HSP (highly sensitive person) sensitivity to touch and material type. If I had known the issue was polyester and a lack of undershirts, maybe I could have successfully been put in a dress more often. But I fought that battle so hard and so well that I got to stop wearing them and was able to live in jeans (cotton) and t-shirts (cotton) and awesome neon-patterned late 198os short called jams (cotton – see the theme?). My hair went unbrushed because it has just enough wave to tangle and knot like curly hair, and my mom’s was straight and she just didn’t know how to deal with mine. So we skipped that mostly. I was an utter hoyden. Can’t even say tomboy because none of this was a conscious rejection of girlishness, more just a rejection of civilization in general.
Mentally I was painfully shy, almost incapable of speech in a group when I started school. Once I became more comfortable with the environment I became very proud of being the smartest person in the class and, I am certain, cruel about it to my classmates. As I grew older (more like junior high) I realized that my personality would have served me well if I were a boy, because the boys who were outspoken and independent-minded were admired and generally well-liked, whereas those qualities made me, as a girl, strange and awkward and intimidating. By high school I had an arrogant confidence in my own weirdness, because I can’t pretend to be something I’m not (I spent like…a week trying once. Literally I could not do it) and decided to simply embrace it. At least I attained that much self-acceptance.
But in all of this I felt like I was missing a vital component that would transmogrify my biological femaleness into actual femininity. It was something that seemed like the other girls I knew had been born with, some understanding or way of looking at such things that I simply did not have. When I put on make-up or really girly clothes I felt like an impostor, almost like I was dressing in drag even though I am female.
Being biologically female has always felt to me a separate experience from being feminine.
What I didn’t realize as a kid, of course, is that beauty is a language, and most girls begin to learn it beside their mother almost from the time they learn to talk. My mother did not have any of that language to impart to me, and so when I looked at other girls, girlier girls, even at 6 or 7 years old, I was seeing the result of using a language I didn’t even know was a language. Colors that harmonized and complemented. Shapes that flattered and fooled. Individual pieces that created a gestalt. All I saw was an end result I had no idea whatsoever how to achieve.
So Paris’s words really struck me: “One is not born, but becomes a woman.”
I was in the process of finding the right aspect of femininity for me when I met my ex. College is usually a time of experimentation and of slipping out of one’s old skin to try on a new one. My freshman year I took a lot of inspiration from Elle Woods (Legally Blonde) and took notes in class with a fuzzy pink pen and determinedly wore lipstick every day (which, outside sorority row, was actually a rarity on my campus). When I was a sophomore with an office job I took to wearing heels and pencil skirts – again garnering plenty of WTF looks from the people on campus and sometimes in class. In this case the strangeness was that I was more feminine than the other young women around me, a heady and empowering feeling. I moved from being obviously a smart girl to being the one least likely to be considered such because of my appearance, and holy hell how I reveled in correcting that mistake (some things never change, eh?).
But as amusing and empowering as pink and fuzzy and sparkly are, they were also a bit too far in the girly direction for me to make a lifestyle out of. Unfortunately for me, I still didn’t know where the overlap was on the Venn diagram of what I liked and what actually worked for me. I had by then grasped that beauty products were a language and had mastered a few phrases. I had a very basic make-up routine (subtle, subtle, subtle) and stopped experimenting with make-up because I had something that at least kind of worked and didn’t make me feel like a clown or an idiot for wearing. With clothing I kept exploring, with some hits and some misses, but no cohesive style.
That’s where I was when we met…and that’s where I stayed. There were a lot of ins and outs to why, none of which I am proud of as I look back (graduating and not having much spending money nor a job that required a particular look which would have forced me to keep up my wardrobe; his (professed) disdain for fashion and trendiness and traditionally feminine things like make-up and styled hair that made me feel like my interest in them was silly; not really having anywhere to go where I was expected to look nice since he didn’t like parties or social events; as time went on, the weight I had put on senior year came to feel permanent, and feeling unattractive took a toll on my interest in my appearance, along with a paranoia on his part that I was going to cheat on him which caused me to prefer to be in understated (if not out and out unattractive) clothing when I was not with him). There’s a point where you just feel lost in the stream. Your entire wardrobe is either outdated or tired and sad from overuse or just bland basic pieces that you acquired piecemeal in moments of immediate necessity, and the prospect of replacing it is overwhelming and unaffordable. Somewhat amusingly, given his role in my choice to abandon my interest in fashion, my ex hit a point where he was so tired of “not having a wife I’m proud of” that he started taking me shopping. My interest started to revive. (Also, that was when we should have split. Oh, hindsight.) Then I got pregnant, and frivolous thoughts (all thoughts, really) got put on hold until after my son was born.
Through the last few years of this fashion depression, I had started sewing for cosplay purposes. Cosplay saved what little self-esteem (regarding my physical appearance) I managed to hold onto, because it is a way to care about fashion and make-up and appearance without the bullshit of the real world intruding. If I made a costume it was beautiful if it was made well or if it captured the look of the character, and I felt beautiful because my costume was beautiful. I could feel like a girly girl, dressed up in some ridiculous skirt, but also like a badass because I made that thing, and it was hard, and it took a lot of time and effort and passion to create, and it was something that was completely mine. I also started learning about my figure and its divergences from the “average” figure used for most off-the-rack garment construction (and commercial patterns). I learned about what shapes worked well on me. I realized how goddamned awesome dresses are. And I realized just how much math and puzzle-solving and logic go into designing garments and executing the designs.
That was the epiphany, right there: that I could observe system dynamics even in something like the world of beauty, use it to identify the questions I needed to answer, and then work within the system to find those answers. In other words, if I applied logic to things like fashion and make-up, I might actually be able to crack the codes on what had once seemed impenetrable languages I simply could not learn.
Since my son’s birth I have been quite interested in reclaiming the aspect of myself that likes being pretty and doing the things that socially signify an attempt to amplify one’s attractions. At first, not for my ex, but in spite of him; if he was going to be angry that I was attractive to other men but also angry that I was not, then he deserved no consideration in my choice at all, and choosing strictly for myself I would choose to embrace myself as femme. Now, obviously, his opinion doesn’t even have to be consciously ignored, because it is entirely irrelevant to me.
And I am faced with the task of actualizing myself as a woman without the leisure of experimenting.
The way I see it is, I am 32 and a mother. I have walked through hell and made it out the other side. I am an adult, and I know who I am and what I want. Finding a way to present myself that offers in one glance a genuine insight into my psyche should be second-nature to me by this point in my life. The fact that I stalled out that process during the experimental phase is not grounds on which to resume experimenting. Experimenting is no longer where I am. I need to find it – whatever exactly IT is – and become it. I am tired of wasting time on dead ends and poor choices. It is time to be what I am.
It is time to become.
I have embraced the idea of becoming the woman I wish to be via the use of logic and scientific principles. Color theory, applied to lipsticks and fabric choices, raised the rate of return on clothing tried on, make-up shades purchased, from about 1 in 5 to one in two. I have made a swandive off the cliff of perfumery and am compiling a mental database of perfumes and notes and accords and what should work on me/what does work on me.
The perfume hunt has been especially enjoyable, perhaps because I never even tried to experiment with it before so I have no sense of past failures holding me back or making me afraid. Finding scents that I feel psychically represent me along with smelling good on my skin has been fascinating, because it is forcing me to think through the qualities I wish to project. I am most interested in projecting a truth about myself, therefore I have to think about what a scent choice says and whether that is something true about me. And since I have set myself the task of acquiring a scent wardrobe, I get to consider several different things to say about myself. As an exercise in self-reflection I thought through what my psychic “scent” might be, and that imagery has in a weird way been helpful for me in reframing my view of myself, away from feelings of being too tall, too heavy-boned, too statuesque to feeling more grounded in my body, and viewing my shape as strong and powerful and, well, still statuesque but with a positive sense of that vs. an uncomfortable one. If my psychic scent is an alpine meadow on a sunny day – a little earthy with hints of flowers and a chilly breeze – then essentially I should smell like a Valkyrie. (And tell me that isn’t a fun perfume quest to undertake! “I wish to smell like a Valkyrie.”) Or maybe it’s a campfire in a pine forest with a fifth of whiskey. Or a summer day so blazingly hot it feels cold again. All of the images are strong (i.e., vivid) images (mine is not a subtle personality), but they are also all images that combine beauty with…something else. Strength, or serenity, or drama, or danger; never weakness or delicacy or frothy frivolity.
It’s helping me untangle the associations I made as a child between the feminine and the dainty. Sure, that is one aspect of femininity, but it’s not the only one, and it’s not mine. Which I have recognized for years without being able to define what mine is. That harmonizing is what I am doing now – using wardrobe, make-up, perfume, etc., to build a bridge between the raw form of my flesh and the sense of femaleness that has always lurked beneath my skin but never quite surfaced.
I am not quite there yet; actualizing takes at least a little time, even when you finally have a reasonably clear picture of what you are trying to do. But it’s an overhaul that is long overdue, and one I am taking great satisfaction in making. I can feel parts of my psyche that had been dented and collapsed filling and plumping back into place. I can feel the pieces of me that had never quite fit together being sorted, evaluated, and matched. I still have a ways to go; parts of me still feel broken, and despite all my logic and observation, sometimes the answer I thought I had turns out not to be the answer at all. But I am determined. I am no kind of quitter. I am a Valkyrie, a steel magnolia, a princess who has slain her own dragon, and I have unlocked the code even if I have not yet unraveled all its secrets.
I am, at long last, becoming a woman.