How do girls learn that they are women?

“When did you first feel like a grown woman and not a girl?” We wrote down our answers and shared them, first in pairs, then in larger groups. The group of women was racially and economically diverse, but the answers had a very similar theme. Almost everyone first realized they were becoming a grown woman when some dude did something nasty to them. “I was walking home from ballet and a guy in a car yelled, ‘Lick me!’” “I was babysitting my younger cousins when a guy drove by and yelled, ‘Nice ass.’” There were pretty much zero examples like “I first knew I was a woman when my mother and father took me out to dinner to celebrate my success on the debate team.” It was mostly men yelling shit from cars. Are they a patrol sent out to let girls know they’ve crossed into puberty? If so, it’s working.”

I came across this Tina Fey quote on Tumblr.

Bra update

So today I braved the bra shop. Thank goodness I took my girlfriend because the bra-shop women jumped on me as soon as I walked through the door and insisted I need a new fitting in case my boobs have changed in size (which I was told me they do on a regular basis?!).  I don’t blame the shop assistants, since they’ve obviously been trained to offer fittings because it massively increases the chances of making a sale.  Being in a cubicle half-naked with a complete stranger puts you in a vulnerable position and, quite frankly, I’ll buy a bra just to get out of the situation!

My girlfriend could tell that I was about to bolt at the prospect of such torture, so she got me to refuse the fitting and assert my right just to try on some bras. I think I’ve figured out how to survive the experience:  get my girlfriend to dress as dykey as possible and take her along because the bra shop women (who are trained to deal with feminine, heterosexual women) just could not cope with her and backed off fast once she took over the proceedings.  In the end we did quite well and I got some bras I’m fairly happy with, even if I don’t even want to think about the price tags attached to them.  It was good for me to have my girlfriend see the experience of bra shopping for herself (she doesn’t wear a bra very often) and confirm that I’m not overreacting.

She was struck by how overwhelmingly heteronormative the shop is – everything’s pink and you’re surrounded by “testimonies” from customers going on and on and on about their “assets” (I so hate that term). She also saw how subtly coercive it all is.  There’s less privacy than in most clothes shops; you’re herded around and subjected to the suggestion that you don’t know what’s best for you. They claim to be looking after you personally, but they’re not really. They never have all the sizes in the shop, so you still end up feeling like a freak. They imply that you should have one bra size, but this is crap because the brands are all slightly different so you need different sizes depending on the brand.  The marketing makes huge assumptions about the women who come into the store and basically, the entire presentation seems designed to make anyone other than a white, heterosexual, feminine, non-disabled woman feel incredibly uncomfortable.

A barely coherent rant about bras

Every now and then, I wake up in the morning extremely uncomfortable in my own body.  This always leads to BRA ANGST. I try on every bra in my collection (which is only about 5 because bras in my size are fucking expensive), find each of them wanting, and threaten to cry.  Most of the time, I somehow manage to ignore the bra problem, but when it forces itself on my consciousness I become infuriated about the fact that I do not own a single bra that makes me happy.  The most comfortable one I own gives me a uni-boob and makes me look like I’ve experienced some kind of cosmetic surgery disaster (at least this one was cheap).  My two sports bras give good support, but dig into my rib cage in a way that becomes painful by evening.  The nicest bra I own gives good shape, but not fantastic support.

I have been professionally fitted and the bras I’ve been sold are still NOT COMFORTABLE.  At my size, almost all bras and under-wired and I don’t care what anyone says, these things are NOT COMFORTABLE.  Having wires around your boobs and incredibly tight elastic around your ribcage is NOT COMFORTABLE. The best I can say is I’ve got used to it.  And I’m sorry, braless feminists, for me, going braless is not comfortable either; I’m very top heavy and engaging in any vigorous physical activity without a bra is positively painful.

Of course, one of the problems with bras is the way they try and mould our bodies to conventions that have nothing to do with nature – pert, firm, lifted and separated. My bra shop informs me that their bras will “lift my breasts up to where they’re supposed to be”. Um “supposed to be”? by whose standards?  Since this is not how breasts are naturally supposed to look, it obviously takes strenuous effort on the part of the bra to get them into this position, hence discomfort.

There is only one shop where I can find bras to fit me and every time I enter it, I do so in an embattled state of mind. It’s not just the frustration of the difficulty in finding a bra that fits, it’s the heteronormativity – the insistence on femininity, the assumption that all I want to do with my breasts is “make the most of my curves” (read: attract men), the general implication that comes in all the advertising that, “Well, you may be fat, but at least you’ve got big boobs and men like big boobs so you’re probably not a complete failure as a woman!”.  The one “soft cup” bra in the entire collection (rarely in the actual shop) is accompanied in the catalogue by the suggestion that you might be a bit weird for wanting “everyday comfort”.

The fact that it’s such a damn struggle to find a bra with even a moderately good fit (standing in a changing cubicle with bras piling up beside you and an increasingly flustered sales woman is a very disheartening experience), you start to feel as if it’s your body that’s somehow wrong.  But it’s not, what’s wrong is the idea that women’s bodies can be standardised. Women are always being told that most of us are wearing the “wrong size bras”, as if it’s women that are stupid rather than the bras.  Surely there’s something wrong with the bra production system if so few women are able to find bras that fit them!

The real problem is of course that women are highly individual in this area and in a sensible world, all women who want to wear them would be able to have good quality, affordable bespoke bras made for them individually.

Thoughts on Transphobia, Gender & Personhood

Every now and then someone says something like this to me.

“I never would have thought you were a lesbian.”

I am hurt and angry. I recognise the statement, usually made with a coy smile, as an act of violence against me as a person. I am forced to remember that I am always subject to what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls the heterosexual ‘privilege of unknowing.’ I am made aware of the unequal power relationship that exists between myself and heterosexual people, and which empowers them to ignore and question my hard won identity when it suits them.

Identity categories are tricky things. They pre-exist us and some we are slotted into from birth.  As soon as the doctor says, “It’s a girl” or “It’s a boy”, much of our future life experience is decided entirely without our consent and in the service of a naturalized heterosexual order.  As transgender activist Susan Stryker observes, ‘A gendering violence is the founding condition of human subjectivity’ (‘My Words to Victor Frankenstein,’ 250).

Other identity categories are not handed to us on a plate, or upon us; some we have to fight to occupy.  The identity category ‘lesbian’ was not made easily available to me. It was withheld.  When I was 9 and my parents told me about sex, they did not say, “Of course you might be a lesbian, so here’s a book about lesbianism in case you need it.” They gave me a book which presented a very limited kind of heterosexuality as natural and inevitable.  I had to find out about lesbianism on my own and in secret.  Coming out and occupying a lesbian identity as an adult comes with a price which I’ll be paying for the rest of my life, but which I’m prepared to pay because my life would not be worth living otherwise.

I read writing by transfolk about their experiences of being slotted, non-consensually, into gender categories that don’t fit their sense of themselves as they really are, and about their battles to be who they feel themselves to be, despite enormous personal cost which sometimes includes death itself.  I don’t know what it feels like transgender but as a lesbian, I can imagine that if you’ve spent years fighting to be who you feel you are in terms of your gender, being denied that gender is likely to be experienced as a kind of violence to you as a person.

There is very good reason for challenging the naturalized heterosexual order in the hope of loosening up the binary constructed gender system into which are slotted, but as Stryker implies in her comment above, we also have to deal with the fact that under current conditions gender identity is still a founding condition of human subjectivity, socially constructed or not, whether we like it or not.

The social constructionist anti-trans feminist argument proposes that transfolk reify oppressive socially constructed gender norms by actively choosing to buy into the binary gender system and taking on fictional gender categories as if they are essential or inevitable.  If the feminist aim is to get rid of ‘class woman’ altogether, transitioning is by implication a counter-feminist activity. Of course the argument is more complex than this, but I just want to look at with this strand here and use it as a starting point for some thoughts on gender and personhood.*

In the first instance, it seems to me that the majority of transfolk do not see themselves as actively choosing gender categories, or even as choosing their gender identity at all.  As far as I can tell, transitioning is about getting one’s body and external self-presentation to match up with the way one has always felt inside.  It is not about choosing; it is about being and about living as authentically as possible.  There are choices to be made in terms of how a person acts on their feelings, but when I have had discussions about the feminist anti-trans position with transfolk, they find this argument particularly difficult to grasp because it just doesn’t resonate with the ways in which they experience their bodies and genders.

Then there is the argument that since gender is socially constructed, it is not real, so how can you choose to occupy a fictional category? What, indeed, is the point of going to all this effort to occupy a fictional category? I happen to agree that gender is socially constructed, by which I mean it has a history and it always mediated through language and discourse, but I do not think that makes it imaginary or “unreal”.  Gender shapes our lived experience in very real ways.  Just because something is socially constructed does not make it any less profound, deeply felt, or easy to change, than something that is viewed as “natural.”  I consider “lesbian” to be a modern socially constructed category, but it is extremely important and real to me because it gives my life shape and meaning and enables me to find a community.

I am not arguing that we shouldn’t try and change the current binary heterosexualized gender order. It is incredibly oppressive and I believe that it can change, should change and is in the process of changing.  I think we should be working towards a world in which gender attributes are no longer bound to biological sex, in which there are more than two options in terms of gender categories and in which no gender categories are ever policed with threats of violence and death.

‘The task of all these movements seems to me to be about distinguishing among the norms and conventions that permit people to breathe, to desire, to love, and to live, and those norms and conventions that restrict or eviscerate the conditions of life itself’ (Butler, Undoing Gender 8).**

Trouble is, that might be a little different for different people, depending on where they’re standing.

We have a problem with a clash between theory and lived reality here, because at the moment gender is powerfully linked to concepts of personhood. This goes for all of us – trans and non-trans.  As the gender theorist Judith Butler notes, ‘Gender … figures as a precondition for the production and maintenance of legible humanity’ (Undoing 11). Occupying a coherent, relatively stable, recognisable gender identity can be a matter of life and death, because being intelligible in terms of your gender is tied to your worth as a human being.  This is one reason why transfolk are killed simply for being identified as trans.  If you slip into the category of the subhuman, your life is no longer considered valuable, or worth loving, or worth grieving when someone beats you to death in an alleyway.  Off the radar, in terms of gender, is a very dangerous place to be when ‘the viability of our individual personhood is fundamentally dependent on these social norms’ (Butler, Undoing 2). It must be painful for transfolk to hear that their embodiments reify the gender binary when it seems that the rest of society would disagree with that proposition, and when working to make your gender presentation intelligible in terms of norms is not done from some nefarious desire to support gender oppression, but to gain as viable and as bearable a life as possible.  Being loved, being recognised as human, being able to be part of a community, these things are vital to our sense of self worth as well as our personal safety

It is sometimes suggested that while transfolk should not be abused or denied the ability to transition, neither should they expect to be accepted into the recognisable gender categories because they are, in effect, a kind of third gender.  Aside from the fact that most transpeople do not appear to feel that they occupy a third gender, no such category is currently available to people in western culture. In general, telling people they are not allowed to be the gender they feel themselves to be, and that they should live in some kind of liminal state is a terrible thing to say because no such option for a viable, loveable life is currently recognised in our society.

‘To find that you are fundamentally unintelligible (indeed, that the laws of culture and of language find you to be an impossibility) is to find that you have not yet achieved access to the human, to find yourself speaking only and always as if you were human, but with the sense that you are not, to find that your language is hollow, that no recognition is forthcoming because the norms by which recognition takes place are not in your favor’ (Butler, Undoing 30).  

It is also suggested that transfolk should not go through with gender reassignment surgeries because doing so mutilates the body in the aim of supporting the binary gender system. Again, there is conflict here between life and theory. Living in an in-between state is incredibly difficult for all sorts of reasons. In my last job, I went to an older LGBT peoples’ network where the case of an older transwoman who needed full-time care was discussed. She had not had genital surgery but had lived as a woman for over 30 years and now she lay blocking a hospital bed.  Every care home in the area had refused to take her in because they “couldn’t cope with it.”  “It” the problem? Or “it” the individual?

There is certainly a critique to be levelled at the medical and psychiatric pressures put on transfolk in terms of gender performance (being bullied to be more masculine or feminine than they feel in order to get treatment) and in their being pushed to go through with surgeries when that might not be the best option for them, but transfolk have already been making these critiques themselves and should be supported in doing so. And, at the end of the day, we come back to what counts as a viable existence for a person in the here and now, which is ultimately all we have.

*This post has not been conceived as a contribution to internet “trans wars,” by the way, although it is obviously informed by them. Some of the arguments I’ve seen lately have just made me think a lot about gender and personhood, particularly two posts by feminist Avatar here and here.

**My thinking in this post has been influenced by Judith Butler in her chapter ‘Beside Oneself: On the Limits of Sexual Autonomy’ in her book Undoing Gender (New York and London: Routledge, 2004). I have kept quoting to a minimum because I didn’t think many people would thank me for huge chunks of Butler, but for anyone who does like that sort of thing, you can go and read it yourselves.