Don't let your schooling interfere with your education.
~ Pete Seeger

Monday, December 15, 2008

Feminine Ideals

Upon learning that I'm transgendered, someone recently asked me, "What are the feminine ideals that people aspire to, and where do they come from? And why is it so feminine to carry so much anxiety and self-loathing about these things?"

Great questions. And there is more than one way to answer them.

It's worth noting that this individual thought I was a genetic woman, and didn't realize I'm transgendered until she saw my photo. That made me feel happy – and proud! So there you are – some feminine ideals don't carry anxiety and self-loathing at all.

Others are not so benign. There is a set of ideals promoted in the media, particularly around selling stuff – the somewhat helpless skinny woman with regular features. I recently had a fashion consultation (next post???), and checked out a wide variety of women's magazines from the library to look over the styles and determine what I like and don't like. How disappointing, to see so many ugly clothes promoted as fashion! Yet these are the ideals. And shoes – what's more feminine than that famous ankle-twister, the stiletto heel? Not for me, thank you very much. Give me a nice, chunky heel anytime – one that will provide an adequate base on which to stand. Maybe my next book should be on Practical Femininity.

So there is the feminine ideal as seen in the media and by society (foot binding, corsets, etc.). Where does that come from? Women are not helpless – they're capable and intelligent and effective, unless they're socialized into decorative uselessness, and what is the societal benefit to that? And why should we feel guilt or anxiety or self-hate if we don't live up to that ideal?

Perhaps because we are taught that our worth is determined by others, and not by ourselves. Because acceptance is so important to us. And, I think, culturally (and perhaps biologically) we are wired to mold ourselves to attract a mate.

There is also the feminine ideal of the individual, as determined by the individual.

In fashion, I aspire to simple, elegant, and practical. And yes, feminine. Definitely feminine.

I aspire to feminine ideals of patient nurturing. Of useful work. Of practical, loving self-care. And of selfful care for others, tender interconnection. Women are the glue of society.

But perhaps the greatest feminine ideal I aspire to is the primal, powerful, earthiness of birthing. I can't experience that myself, but I have seen the miracle take place; the force of amazingly powerful muscles, the courage to face immense pain, the guttural cry, the patient (or not) labor of labor. What is more feminine than the act of birthing? And what human endeavor is more powerful than the act of birthing?

That is something to be proud of.

But that answer is by no means complete, and the questions still beg to be answered.

Your turn. Click on the comment link below, and let me know your thoughts.


Terri said...

The conflicting feminine ideal - Eve or Lilith - is a split that did not originate with women but one imposed on us for centuries. One of the father's of Western thought, Aristotle, believed that "the penis and its semen is the source of all souls and spirit, and that women, being “mutilated" and without a penis is soulless." His opinion is echoed throughout the literature of Western Civ - including the Bible. Man's fear of the feminine led to over five centuries of public torture, often sado-sexual", to force the feminine spirit into submission, wresting away from us even the most basic and "primal" experience, that of giving birth and caring for one another. It was after all the midwives and women close to earth and her healing remedies that were first to be burned on the pyres of their insecurity. When this dark period ended women clearly knew their place. The Victorian dress hid any sign of sexuality. The women kept their bodies weak and white. Their corsettes cut off even the precious air, causing fainting spells. They, or rather we, became the objects that Aristotle had envisioned, souless decor for the home.

Women still stuggle with this identity crisis. To be strong, active and bold still brings fear to some. The word "Feminist" has been denigrated by this fear. Young girls struggle as is apparent by the tabloid headlines. We are both Lilith and Eve. We can be the "bad girl next door" like the late Bettie Page AND we can also be the good, nurturing and loving woman epitomized by Eve.

Welcome to the fold. May we all be the women that we want to be. I have a magnet on my refridgerator that reminds me "I aspire to be an old woman with no regrets".

Seda said...

Thanks, Terri. Great points. What a loss for our whole society, that the midwife and herbalist traditions were so oppressed. Thank God women are starting to reclaim their own!Hurrah for feminism and feminine strength!

I like the magnet. That is an aspiration to follow!

Be well,

Anonymous said...

Oh my god.

Well, Seda, you know a little more of my personal wrestlings -- as well as the fact that I'm a genetic woman who has been socialized in my gender for the last 24 years. This post resonates. [Especially with my considerations of leaving this behind.]

I feel like there are 1,000 pages unwritten about this struggle of femininity. Maybe you should write them. Maybe someone will, someday.

Here's some of my questions and ponderings that seem to relate closely to yours:

Do more men like football because it's in their nature, or because they've been socialized to love sports?

Do more women like decorating because it's genetically there, or because they've been socialized to enjoy this?

I started to go with socialization as my answer because it wasn't adding up. But then, I wondered, why do we socialize boys to like sports? Why do we socialize girls to value communication? etc. etc.

I came to the conclusion that somewhere along the line, by nature, your gender, apart from socialization, does dictate some of your likes and dislikes. This was important for me to realize. Socialization does play a large part in deciding our roles in society, but it does not dictate them all.

Socialization doesn't explain my natural tendency to gravitate to the men's section for clothing [since I was five years old.] It doesn't explain why some boys love painting their nails.

We like to draw the lines so black and white, and promote so much separateness between the genders [as if there are only two] and really, the human race is comprised of so much more gray.

I don't know.. I seem to be rambling about things, which seems appropriate since it's in the title of your blog. There is much I am unsure of at this point, with many questions and discoveries ahead. It is nice to read of your discoveries and questions on your journey Seda. Thanks for sharing..

anne said...

Hey Seda Jane!

The problem with "feminine" ideals is that the variations among people are much more obvious along personality lines. Although I am a very independent spirit, I am also passive and responsive, both of which are said to have been feminine ideals and are now scorned as such. But it has nothing to do with my being feminine since my mother was neither passive nor responsive, but very active and demanding as well as independent.

The only thing that can be gender based I think is not along sexual lines but along maternal/paternal lines. I believe that women have evolved to be extremely sensitive to non-verbal communication in that if they were, they tended to be better at responding to babies. Women also tend to be more sympathetic and eager to nurture the small and helpless, especially if it's a mammal.

Men tend to be more protective of a family. I think that men who who protected children up until the time they were ready to procreate better insured that their genes would survive.

Both of these traits are found in both genders, but men tend to respond to children by wanting to protect (their own) and women by wanting to nurture and communicate with them.

Everything else is personality and socialization and etc., etc. In many cultures, women were seen as a way to get heirs, thus they had to be controlled. In the cultures where women had much wider freedoms, usually there was not a strong patronage of heirs, meaning it was not a social necessity to make sure that your female's children were "yours."

Most of gender stuff is actually family stuff, and goes down to economics, not sex. Foot binding and corsets were a way to mark high level women who were distinguished by the fact that they did not have to work. To further make this obvious, they adopted constraints that emphasized that and set them above the common peasant. A family wanting to "keep it's blood blue" would be attracted to other families with blue blood in order to keep the control of goods and lands among a small number of "nobles."

Everything about women is sexual to men and vice versa, so there is no way to say "oh, high heels are sexy." Duh. But if only men wore them (which they have done) then they would not be sexy to men (unless to gay men!) Among the Kikiyu, shaved heads are considered to be a feminine ideal. Among the Japanese, the back of the neck will drive a man insane with desire.

But, Seda, Seda--where did you ever get birth as an ideal???? Birth is for the child, never for the mom. Up until recently, most women DIED in childbirth. I almost did. Pain is not an ideal. Maybe birth in general is a miracle, but the way humans do it is not ideal, by far.

But a woman nursing a child is generally considered to be the paragon of femininity as it can only be defined by maternity. Anais Nin said that the only time a woman is a woman is when a man is inside of her, and she included being pregnant in this. While this sounds totally whacky, if you think about it, we are not defined so much by our gender. Most animals are, but humans have a much wider range of experience.

However, I disagree with Nin. For among primates, a female has status only when that baby is in her arms. Not when she's pregnant or in heat which are high status, but not the HIGH status positions in the group.

Many women find that they like the attention while pregnant, but are dismayed when they give birth and suddenly it's all about the baby.

I think, actually, that in our species, as in most mammals, the ideal is the child. Our entire society is not geared toward men or women, but toward the young. Men may play games of hierarchy; women may play games of sexual attraction or sympathy, but we are all focused on the young, and you only realize this as you get old.

But humans got out of this a bit, too, thank god, or we'd all be cast aside as soon as we couldn't reproduce.

I think in speaking of ideals, you must turn from gender and go into social roles and personality. Humans are that far evolved. To look for ideals in gender is begging for conflict in that one woman's ideal is another woman's despicable trait.

It is not women who struggle with identity, but HUMANS, all of us. It is our nature to form our identities and thus to ask, "what shall I be?"

Today, PART of your identity is in the presentation of a female body which "feels" right to you, more right than the male body. I think ideals are part of our quest, not something to be, well, held as ideal!

But to be, to experience, to go there is what we do, is the dance. Ideals are a shorthand to attract us to a path.

Which ideals attract you?


Seda said...

Thanks for weighing in, AJ. Great questions! I agree that biology and socialization are intertwined in ways that aren't well understood, and perhaps can't be completely unraveled. As transgendered, you've probably explored gender roles more deeply than most folks have - especially men. I know it forced me to look deeply at what was inherent, biological, socialized, individual, universal, etc. And you're right - you come up with a lot more grey than black and white - perhaps, even, you come up with a rainbow, and the ones at the end of the spectrum end up without any color. :-)

You've given this some thought, too, haven't you, Anne! I enjoy your thoughts. One point, though - I didn't mean to say that birth was the ideal I sought - but the character or quality women express in doing it; the courage, the endurance - something I can't even put my finger on because it's felt so viscerally that perhaps there are not words to describe it.

we are not defined so much by our gender. Most animals are, but humans have a much wider range of experience.

You're right about that, Anne! However, I think as a transperson, I feel defined by gender much more than most, and much more than I would like. Gender is always in my face, like a lover's bad breath. It shows up in the most awkward places. And yet, again, there is so much more than gender, so much that defines me that is ungendered.

And often even the ungendered aspects engender gender dysphoria...

But that's off the subject.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
~Helen Keller

Reading List for Information about Transpeople

  • Becoming a Visible Man, by Jamison Green
  • Conundrum, by Jan Morris
  • Gender Outlaw, by Kate Bornstein
  • My Husband Betty, by Helen Boyd
  • Right Side Out, by Annah Moore
  • She's Not There, by Jennifer Boylan
  • The Riddle of Gender, by Deborah Rudacille
  • Trans Liberation, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transgender Emergence, by Arlene Istar Lev
  • Transgender Warriors, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transition and Beyond, by Reid Vanderburgh
  • True Selves, by Mildred Brown
  • What Becomes You, by Aaron Link Raz and Hilda Raz
  • Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano
I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men's hands even at the height
of their arc of anger
because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His - the Christ's, our