Being Girl: A Sociological Memoir My first memory of kindergarten was this: dozens of tiny, petrified 5-year-olds being dropped off at their first day of school, and dozens of exhausted, overworked mothers consoling their weeping sons and daughters. I remember it vividly because, despite the terror and chaos, a single thought pervaded my mind, the thought that “these moms are not as pretty as my mom. ” I wasn’t entirely biased, either. By North American standards of beauty, I was correct. Here was my mother, a rail-thin, blonde-haired, blue-eyed statuesque stunner, among a sea of frumpy women with visible wrinkles and tangles of black hair.
And here I was, the daughter of this perfect specimen, the proud owner of a mother who was more “feminine”, more “womanly”, and therefore, I naively deduced, “a better mother”. In fact, although my vocabulary was fairly limited at the time, I believed her to be the epitome of all mothers. She looked, I told her that morning, “like a mom was supposed to look. ” In interviewing my mother, she said that this was my “first brush with what it meant to be a girl. ” Throughout kindergarten, I was labeled “weird”. I dug for worms, collected Pokemon cards (which was deemed a “boyish” activity), and none of my friends were girls.
My teacher, a young woman who had just recently graduated from university, was often concerned for me, and thought that my lack of female friends would be detrimental to my developing of social skills, so she would often encourage the popular girls in the class to include me in their recess activities. They did as they were told, and despite my hesitation, I jumped rope with them at recess, while still managing to play with the boys for short periods of time. Finally, one day, the girls gave me an ultimatum: “us” or “them”.
If I wanted to be an “official” member of their “club” (This was serious business; they had membership cards made out of construction paper), I had to give up the toy trucks and the rambunctious boys. With the encouragement of my teacher, I severed ties with the boys. Although I missed them, I quickly learned that being a girl was “better” anyways. Apparently, girls were allowed to wear makeup and dresses and boys had cooties and never took baths and didn’t I like being clean? I suppose I liked being clean, but what I really liked was being accepted by this particular group of popular girls.
I suppressed my love of all things “dirty”, all things that were labeled “boy”, and developed a superficial affinity for all things typically “girly”, in an attempt to fit comfortably into this group. I skipped rope at recess, I choreographed dances, and I received a ballerina outfit from my parents at Christmas that I absolutely adored. Being a girl was not very hard. It came with a list of instructions. Do this, talk like this, wear this, and you are a girl. It was less of an innate instinct than it was a learned act. I wasn’t born with an eyelash curler in hand, rather, it was handed down to me by a girl older than myself.
The torch of femininity was passed down from generation to generation until it finally landed in my dirt-stained lap. In 9th grade, in a fit of rebellion against my mother, who I fought with often around this time, I cut my hair short. Not just “short”, I cut my hair boy short, a look my mother wasn’t too fond of, which, naturally, made me covet and admire it more, because nothing is as satisfying as a mother’s disapproval when you are a rebellious teenager. When I returned to school the Monday following my haircut, however, I didn’t get the positive reaction I had anticipated.
No, the minute I walked into my first period class, the official “bully” of the grade, a tall, unattractive fellow, asked me if I had become a “dyke”, and insisted on calling me “dykey” for the remainder of the day. The strange behavior of my classmates didn’t stop there. Girls I only casually talked to began avoiding me, which I learned while interviewing a friend from that time was because they were “convinced I was trying to hit on them”. Boys treated me differently as well. According to this same friend, it was because they believed I was gay.
Not “lesbian”, because, for them, the word “lesbian” conjured up images of attractive girls drunkenly kissing at a house party, but gay. Gay as in homosexual, gay as in “fag”. I didn’t understand why a simple haircut had drastically changed my classmate’s opinions of me. Sure, I dressed a bit “boyish”, as I wasn’t fond of dresses and found skirts to be uncomfortable, but that was all a matter of taste, not sexuality. Wasn’t it? Besides, I wasn’t gay. I had a boyfriend at the time. I quickly learned that being “gay” had little to do with who you liked, and more to do with what you did.
The “last straw”, the event that acted as a catalyst, the one that prompted me to conform to what it meant to be a “girl”, occurred the day I accompanied my sister to our high school’s uniform shop to buy her a blazer. My hair was still cropped short at the time. I wore long, baggy jeans, no makeup, and an oversized band t-shirt. Upon walking up to the cash register, the lady behind the counter turned to my sister and blurted out, innocently, “Oh, is this your brother? ” I was too embarrassed to correct her, and instead gazed at her awkwardly until she realized her mistake.
After a moment of tense silence, it dawned on her. “Oh! haha, silly me, I meant sister,” she swallowed nervously, embarrassed. I honestly didn’t really mind being confused for a boy, but this lady was intent on defending my womanly honor. “I’m really, really sorry. You know, when I was young, I had short hair for while, and tons of people thought I was a boy. It was so embarrassing. ” Surprisingly, her short anecdote did not make me feel better. According to her, being confused for a boy was this terribly embarrassing ordeal that she carried with her all her life.
She apologized profusely for the mixup, and continued to do so throughout the school year, whenever I happened to stop by the uniform shop. Through her, I learned that not adhering to strict gender rules on how one should dress caused embarrassment and humiliation, and I therefore should’ve been profoundly humiliated when the mixup occurred. When future incidents similar to this one occurred (I was confused for a boy a second time in a restaurant a few months later), I knew that I should be ashamed of myself. I had utterly failed at being feminine, so much so that I might as well have been a boy.
Oh the horror. The fear of “not being girly enough” grew more intense with every snide remark and homophobic slur, and I soon found myself staying home on weekends, retreating to my room, my fortress, playing video games while my peers downed copious amounts of alcohol and partied, for the few months it took my hair, the symbol of my femininity, the only thing that differentiated me from a boy, to grow back. Once it did, I was quickly re-accepted into my group of peers. I was a girl, I looked like a girl, and I acted like a girl, and this seemed to please them. I “knew my place”, so to speak.
Gender Roles and Sexuality While gender has both biological and neurological components, my personal experiences with gender have allowed me to see gender as more of a social construct. In terms of gender, I’m a believer in behaviorism, the psychology that emphasizes socialization over biology in creating gender identity. In my experiences, for the most part, gender was not a naturally occurring phenomenon, it was taught. My experiences mostly relate to feminist postmodernism, which, out of all the categories of feminism in relation to gender, emphasizes the influence of social constructs the most.
Queer Theory, a methodology within postmodernism that was introduced by Professor Judith Butler in her book Gender Trouble, also relates to my experiences. The theory states that gender identity is not created by biology, but by “gender performance. ” She argues that individuals are not distinctly “male” or “female”. Male and female were opposites on a spectrum, and most people fell somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but “acted” more male or female depending on the situation. Growing up, I displayed different characteristics that were specific to both males and females.
I was quiet, a characteristic usually attributed to girls, and I was “tough”: I occasionally picked fights, a characteristic usually attributed to boys. Butler’s theory that people act exclusively male or female to conform to gender expectation is completely relatable. In order to be a “girl”, I had to give up my “other half”. In my above narrative, I mentioned that, to be part of the popular girl’s posse, I had to sever ties with the boys. In this situation, I was either a “girl” or a “boy”, and I had to choose which one I wanted to be.
I ultimately chose girl, although I would have much preferred if I could maintain both my male and female characteristics and qualities. Queer Theory also states that gender “performances” are restricted by sanctions (Steckley, Letts 360). We avoid acting out (or performing) in ways that conflict with gender norms because we want to avoid negative sanctions. In my experiences, negative sanctions imposed by my peers (including overt forms of bullying, being labelled a “dyke”, and being rejected) fostered in me a deep-seated fear of ostracism, and I learned to conform to gender norms and roles in order to gain acceptance among my lassmates. I believe the “ideology of fag” perfectly sums up my aforementioned experiences. The ideology of fag is a set of beliefs which dictates that “if you violate a gender role, you must be gay” (Stekley, Letts 360). Prior to my ostracism, the word “gay”, to me, was a neutral word. It simply referred to homosexuality. However, in high school, “gay” became an accusation, a threat. Being a “lesbo” or a “dyke” was something immoral. It was an insult hurled at me with the utmost contempt.
It became the most powerful sanction, the one that I believe played the biggest role in my gender socialization. My classmates made it clear that a “dyke” was something that I didn’t want to be, and therefore, to eliminate any traces of lesbian-ness, I had to “become” a girl. If I was gay because I violated gender roles, because I dressed like boys and enjoyed activities that boys typically enjoyed, then all I needed to do to not be gay was to stop violating these gender roles.
Gayness, in essence, was in no way related to who you were sexually attracted to; it referred to the violation of gender norms. Acting aggressive, initiating fights and being obnoxious “meant” that a girl was a lesbian. A passive, nurturing, sensitive boy was gay. This relates to Ann Oakley’s concept of gender and gender roles. Gender roles are “sets of expectations concerning behavior and attitudes that relate to being male or female” (Steckley, Letts 354). Gender roles, their enforcement, and the severity of the consequences doled out to those who reject them differ across cultures and societies.
In my classroom, in my pseudo-society, there was no room for androgyny. Gender roles were rigidly enforced, and anyone who strayed from them was ridiculed and marginalized. Boys who did not assert themselves, or boys who ventured into the category of subordinate masculinity, as opposed to complicit or hegemonic, were routinely beaten, demeaned and humiliated until they “manned up”, hid their homosexuality (in most cases, however, they were not gay, simply “too sensitive”) and participated in complicit masculine practices.
Girls who did not act typically feminine, sensitive and unabashedly “girlish” were marginalized as well, and although they did not suffer to the same extent that the marginalized boys did, and were not subjected to beatings, they nevertheless were severely pressured into assuming a “traditional” female gender role. Today, my hair is longer. It is blonde at times, brown at times, it is often black, but it is never short. My uniform consists of tights, shorts and skirts.
I have worn pants approximately 3 times this semester, and on each occasion it was because I was running late. I never leave the house without at least some form of makeup. I justify my sudden change in taste by reassuring myself that I have simply “grown up”. I’ve navigated away from my boyish nature in the same way that I navigated away from cartoons and cheeseburgers: It followed the natural order of things. However, despite my reassurances, the real reason behind my change is not becoming “more mature”.
The truth is, I’m scared. I’ve been socialized into this gender role and I know that scrutiny is awaiting me if I ever choose to leave it. I fear breaking gender norms and being subjected to negative sanctions in the same way I fear dark alleys at night. It is a rational fear, in that it protects me from being ostracized and it satisfies a very basic human need: the need to be accepted. Work Cited Steckley, J. , and Kirby Letts, G. (2010). Elements of Sociology. Oxford University Press Canada.
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