How I feel when you ask me to perform femininity

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

I’m not the kind of woman you’d describe as ‘petite.’ Or ‘dainty’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘feminine.’ In fact, I’m a little bit sensitive to the idea of being ‘feminine’, and any suggestion from helpful friends and family if they recommend I get my hair cut more often or try on a pretty dress: it’s not just that I don’t want to be feminine, it’s that I truly don’t think that I can. What came first: my refusal to perform femininity, or the knowledge that I’ll never be able to?

The other day I listened to a Jo Caulfield stand-up set on Radio 4 in which she talks about how as a taller woman, in a group of ‘girly girls’ she often gets pushed into masculine roles, like carrying heavy bags or what have you. And I’m going to apologise in advance for the language and attitudes in this post: equating certain traits with certain genders, and weighing the value of things like ‘femininity’ as if a person’s worth can be reduced to such simplistic concepts. It’s not a matter of life and death for me, though I know it is for many whose relationship with this stuff is much more difficult. You might not want to read on if this sort of thing distresses you, or even if you just find the idea of dissecting these concepts tedious and frustrating.

Femininity and masculinity are both complex topics, and I don’t like the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘real man‘ or a ‘real woman‘, as measured by stereotypes, body shapes and the cut and colour of our clothes. Nor do I want to perpetrate the idea that there’s intrinsic value, for women, in being feminine – it’s reductive and shitty and harmful. But as with a lot of this gendered, damaging bullshit, sometimes you’ve got to state it to slate it. I’ve grown up in a world that’s told me my value lies in beauty, beauty lies in femininity, and for women like me, neither of these things are achievable.

And honestly? It has sort of fucked me up.

What does femininity mean?

I’m a bit like Jo Caulfield: often seen as the ‘boy’ of the group when I’m in a group of girls. In the past I’ve noticed myself doing odd things at hen nights or during women’s-only nights out, like performing notions of chivalry: holding doors for more feminine women, or offering them my seat.

When I heard Jo’s set, I was reminded of an incident which happened when I was about fifteen. A friend of mine – Amy – asked me to walk her home from a house party to keep her safe. I used to worship Amy, and also feel a little frightened of her at the same time. She was the girliest of girly girls, but like me she was also tall. Broad-shouldered and big and brash and all that powerful stuff. But she was also far better at doing ‘feminine’ things than I was – she loved make-up and perfume and dresses and skirts, and she’d often try to give me makeovers to get me involved too.

I desperately wanted them to work. I hoped that a touch of eyeshadow and a nice top and a spritz of hairspray would transform me – you know, the way they always did in teen movies. I always looked shite, of course, but Amy did her best, and I hid my disappointment behind jokes about how long it had taken and how I couldn’t possibly be bothered to attempt this every day. We’d laugh about the results together over a bottle of Lambrini and some gleeful gossip about boys. The boys who would end up snogging Amy instead of me, because the makeover I’d hoped would be magic turned out not to be.

Anyway. One night she asked me to walk her home from a house party. This was in the days before mobile phones, so even a short journey of 15 minutes could be scary for a teenage girl in the dark.

“Can you walk me home,” she asked “so I don’t get raped? I have to go through the alley.”

I said yes and started to get my coat. Fifteen minutes would be just enough to catch up on all our gossip before I made my way back to the party. It was only as we were leaving that it occurred to me to ask:

“What about me? Once I’ve dropped you off I’ll have to walk back through the alley on my own.”

She looked me up and down and told me: “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”

Fine like not rapeable. Fine like not beautiful. Fine like not feminine.

Being feminine, then, was both desirable and also something that might mark me as a target. Did I really want to be feminine anyway? My thirty-five-year-old self could write a thesis-length rant about everything that’s wrong with that incident: from Amy’s assumption that only certain kinds of women get raped to my own sickening need to be ‘desirable’ enough that she’d never have said it. And all the subsequent times when I made similar statements to others – wrapping my humiliation in a spiky, ignorant pride: “I’ll walk alone, thanks. I’ll be fine. I can take care of myself – just look at me haha!”

Wanting to be feminine

I haven’t always been the least feminine woman in the group. Long before Amy, when I was really young, I was a proper (hate this phrase but I don’t really know of a better one) ‘girly girl.’ As a really little kid I liked dolls and My Little Ponies. Sparkly, twirly pink dresses and dainty shoes and those fake make-up kits which were just made of plastic so you could pretend to paint your face without actually making a mess. My sister was the one who couldn’t be arsed with that stuff, and to this day she still takes the piss out of me by sarcastically singing a sickly song with which I used to serenade my doll.

I wanted to be a ballerina, too. I was pretty good at ballet – I even passed my grade 4 exam. Or was it grade 3? One of the ones which is easy enough for smallish kids to do without having to put much work in. I used to adore everything about the classes: the delicate poses, the pointing of feet, and don’t get me started on the clothing! I was seven or eight years old, and tights and tutus were The Dream.

I had to quit ballet in the end. Not because I fell out of love with it, but because my ballet teacher at the time pointed out that I probably wasn’t on track for a be-tutued curtain call, because I was built like a brick shithouse. Not in so many words – she’ll have said something like ‘too tall’ or ‘big boned’ or ‘broad shoulders’ – but enough that I remember it as the first time I realised my body would never be dainty, like I wanted it to be.

When you ask me to perform femininity

It’s far from the end of the world, of course. Gender, appearance, whether you’re ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’: for some people these things are literally a matter of life and death. I’m one of the lucky ones for whom it’s just a source of occasional tears and a bi-annual moan in a blog post. After I finished doing ballet I started embracing my inner tomboy, and then my inner goth, and then eventually settling on the scruffy slag I inconsistently look like today.

But alongside trying to make peace with my physical appearance, I also work hard to cultivate the attitude that I don’t really care.

I don’t care about make-up: it takes too much time. I don’t care about haircuts: they’re far too expensive. I don’t care about high heels: trainers are far more practical. And if you think I’m going to waste money on a spa day when I could go to Alton Towers for half the price, you’ve got another think coming, my friend. I reject things I’m told are feminine, and focus instead on what’s comfortable and practical for me.

Do I do this because I prefer it? Because it’s easier? Both. But there’s another reason I do it too: defensively, instinctively, I reject femininity because I know that I will never achieve it, and the realisation that I can’t achieve it hurts far more than occasionally being told I’m ‘the man of the group’.

At every stage of my life, I’ve been reminded that I will never be properly feminine. Not just by Amy and my ballet teacher, but by boyfriends who’ve made gentle suggestions about what I might like to wear. By relatives who’ve heavily hinted that I might want to buy a new dress for so-and-so’s wedding, because I always look so drab in photos. The men I went on dates with who made uncomfortable jokes about my height. The one who asked me to wear flats when I saw him in future. The lover who told me that when I raced to meet him in the dance tent at a festival, his heart sank when I arrived because I looked so disappointing. I had my jeans rolled up and mud on my face and my hair was a mess. I thought my beaming smile and excitement to see him would be enough, but he’d been dancing with another girl, and by comparison I seemed so plain. So uncool. So embarrassing to be seen with in front of the cool kids in the dance tent.

I know in my heart that femininity does not equal beauty – I have known many beautiful masculine people, and many people who sit elsewhere on whatever this spectrum or graph or sphere actually is. But knowing that this is bullshit in my rational brain doesn’t make life easier for my emotions. I am still not feminine, and therefore I will never feel beautiful, and I will hate myself for not being beautiful almost as much as I hate myself for wanting to be.

When I’m nudged towards femininity, I cannot work out if I’m rejecting it so forcefully because I genuinely don’t want to perform it, or if my rejection is there to protect me from publicly admitting that I can’t.

If you don’t try, then you can’t fail.

And I tried, then I failed: so I stopped.


  • SingleinCanberra says:

    I can so relate! Now I’m officially old, I can just get away with being a cranky old woman, but you just described perfectly how I have felt for years. Except I’m a short arse…

  • fuzzy says:

    thank you for sharing this. it would have been quite hard for me to share similarly. I have no idea what you look like and don’t care, but speaking as a sapiosexual your humaninity shines like a lighthouse beacon. blessed be.

  • silverdom says:

    I feel moved to respond to this deeply honest post, but I don’t quite know what to say.

    I see you.

  • The One says:

    Once when I was a kid, we were playing some game involving us jumping on one another for piggy backs. I jumped on my friends back as was expected, and she shrieked “get off me, you big ape!” And so my reputation as the Big Strong Girl of the group was set, never to be lost.

  • Kayla Lords says:

    I was the tallest one until about 14 or 15, and I was the physically largest (and curviest) kid very early on in life. And that feeling of looming over people, being the one they hid behind (for real), and not at all capable of being pretty is still with me. I adore looking at dresses and the “girly” stuff — but feel like an imposter in most of it. I tried to get make-up “right” for years, and when I worked out in the “real world” (instead of hiding in my house, in a corner, behind my laptop) it was expected. But i always did the bare minimum. Mostly because I feel really bad at it, and when I have on full make-up, I don’t recognize myself. I also know I can’t be bothered to go through all the steps.

    And even now, as I actively stare longingly at dresses and cute frilly things (okay, not too many frilly things — my feminine tastes don’t go quite that far), I feel like an imposter. Much easier to wear stretchy yoga pants, an over-sized t-shirt, and little else. I know I’m beautiful to my partner, but only rarely do I get glimpses of it myself, and (weirdly, sadly? pick one) it’s when I get dressed up. On my wedding day, I felt beautiful — and loved my look. And even then, I still felt like an imposter. So on a lot of levels, I feel this so hard, but I also feel like I’m on the other side. It’s not that I can’t be bothered or I’ve convinced myself it’s not right for me (although it is and maybe I have convinced myself it isn’t). It’s that I desperately want it, but even when I try, I feel wrong somehow.

    It’s all a giant mind fuck.

  • I don’t mean to “well, actually…” you, but in the very first conversation I had with someone else after meeting you, you were described as pretty, by both J and myself.

    I’ve also always found your open and gleeful sexual expression incredibly feminine, for whatever reason…

  • Fabala says:

    I grew up with body dysmorphic disorder, and spent my schooldays afraid to walk around outside because of how monstrously hideous I perceived my face to be. Then, and even now, I wear make-up every day simply because When I walk outside without it I become that monstrously hideous teenage girl again. It’s armour, and confidence.

    You are undoubtedly physically attractive because, well, not to sound crass, but I doubt you’d have been laid so much if you were conventionally unattractive. This post seems to me to be more about harmful feminine constructs and the fact that we are socialised to believe that our value lies in our beauty. This belief is insidious and it never really goes away. I know that i’m so much more than my looks, but I still wear make-up. I still like to look nice. I still get depressed when I find a new line around my eyes. On the one hand it all seems so vapid and superficial, and on the other it seems like everything – like everything of value about me is tied to my youth and looks and my value in the eyes of men. I know one thing for sure: men do not go around feeling like this.

  • @19syllables says:

    Thank you for writing this. I think perhaps I’m someone that happened to have some of the trappings of ‘femininity’, but most of them go hand in hand with youth, and as that fades so it seems does all the girly privilege that I took for granted. It’s useful to read your account, and helps me celebrate the new (old), less feminine but perhaps more authentic me.

  • This is a really interesting post. I’ve sort of swung backwards and forwards over the years (I was another one who was quite a girly little girl, even down to the dolls and ballet classes and fascination with make up from quite a young age).And then in my late teens I was rather more a ripped-jeans-pints-and-heavy-metal type, though my young days happening in the 80s meant there were some interesting gender cross-over-ish things going on what with all that glam and hair metal. I’ve never been very *good* at grooming, or fashion, and i have a lasting fondness for men’s clothes because POCKETS (also I have big feet so men’s boots and trainers are comfortable.) I’ve also had jobs where I got told rather firmly to wear make up and ‘nicer’ clothes in the past, It’s all quite a mess and a mix up, really, isn’t it?

  • Lu says:

    Thank you for articulating so clearly things that I too have felt but was unable to pin down and uncover. Finally, in my mid-40’s, I am beginning to genuinely give less of a fuck and it is such a relief.

  • SpaceCaptainSmith says:

    Aww. It’s sad how much of our lives is determined by our bodies, and by all the bullshit society expects of them.

    To come at this one from the other side… I’m male but being pretty short and slight, have never felt particularly masculine. I guess you could say I’ve spent much of my life failing to convincingly perform masculinity. At school I was the odd one out for not being into football and instead liking unmanly things like reading and art, and wondered if I was meant to be a boy at all.

    On the other hand, being a man gets easier as you get older, while (it seems) being a woman doesn’t. I’ll never look uber-masculine, so don’t try to, and no one would mistake me a for a rugby player; but I eventually found suits that fitted, grew enough facial hair that I stopped getting asked for ID, and learned to like the taste of beer.

    I’m not trans, but do find myself more drawn to femininity, and have found my body is relatively well-suited to crossdressing; but I don’t have the time or the balls to learn how to do femininity really convincingly either. Being a slight, skinny man is much easier (and frankly, much safer).

    In a perfect world, we’d all be free to explore whatever gender expression we wished, and no one would feel forced into something different. As it is, we’ve all just got to find the way of feeling beautiful that fits with our bodies and the world we live in.

  • LowerTheBar says:

    It’s been a while since I read something i related to so much. I’m a straight, cis female with big tits and am only 5’ tall but have never once felt comfortable being a girly girl, although I still occasionally try the idea on for size at the request of society or my mother (it never fits, my boobs are too big).

    Thank you for this. I really mean it.

    A fellow scruffy slag x

  • Abigail says:

    “I had my jeans rolled up and mud on my face and my hair was a mess. I thought my beaming smile and excitement to see him would be enough”
    It breaks my heart that you were so cruelly rejected. I am also not the most feminine of people, I am nerdy, enjoy computers and video games over things such as clothing and looking pretty, and how I dress is centered around comfort above all else. I wear clothes that are too big, have hair that is never styled, and never wear make-up or jewellery.
    That being said, if someone ran towards me in excitement with a joyful smile on their muddy face and rolled up jeans, just showing an expression of pure delight at seeing me, I would be the happiest person in the world.

  • Phillip says:

    I don’t actually ‘dress for the day’, but I am quite picky about what I wear. I wear the same thing everyday.
    I do mean everyday unless someone gets married, dies or I have to dress or suffer for my preference. I am a little older than some and as a result I have lost two inches in height. This makes me short and I was short before. It is ALWAYS a grey tank top with nothing written on it. Levi’s pants that have being blue in common, but have had various ‘treatments’ like ‘stone washed, etc.’ I wear a long sleeved canvas shirt with two pockets with buttons (important) and I get the shirt large and the tall cut. I roll up the sleeves and leave the shirt unbuttoned. With the canvas shirts I like them COLORFUL unlike the tank tops or Levi’s. I also wear flip flops of top quality. I am currently wearing some with a rasta stripe all around the edge and black leather top side. What else? Almost forget, a mid width brown leather belt. Not a dressy one. I have been wearing this same combination for about fifteen years or even more. You will know me when you see me!

    Last week I was in the grocery store talking with a woman about the cornmeal. All of the cornmeal offered is of a fine grind. I pointed out that they, at one time, had ‘polenta’ which is coarse cornmeal and it added the touch of ‘tooth’ that fine grind could never produce. The woman was an authority on corn bread and was quick to agree. As we started to part she looked over her shoulder and said “You are a very handsome man”! I said “You just made my month!”. She really did.

    Maybe it is just Calif., but I suspect that getting older presents a person with the opportunity to dress like they want too. In the fifteen plus years of dressing almost identically every day, no one has EVER commented on it.

  • Alison says:

    Thank you for this (for pointing it out on twitter as it was written a while back.) It hurt to read, I’ve dealt with this my whole and still go through bouts of trying to be girly. I know I’m not the only one, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one.

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