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We Need to Talk About the Intersection of Femininity and Trauma

Editor's Note

If you have experienced emotional abuse or an eating disorder, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw an article pop up on Facebook titled “How to be more feminine.” My immediate reaction was like that of a cat being startled — hair standing on end and tail poufed up in anticipation of an attack. I guess you could say that I got triggered and my nervous system went into fight mode. You see, this was a common refrain I heard in my household growing up, and it has left deep scars that I carry with me to this day.

I think most of us have some degree of disdain for tropes like this because society’s fixation on what is or is not masculine or feminine is constantly being shoved down our throats. What is considered to be “normal” or “attractive” has become a kind of formulaic image akin to Barbie and Ken, and it limits the opportunity for individuality while simultaneously objectifying those who fit heteronormative gender roles.

For me, this goes a layer deeper. There was always a subtext beneath the messaging I received from my mother and grandmother (actually all of the women in my family) that a woman’s most important role in life was to find a man and that in order to achieve this she needed to embody a certain look to be desirable. As I got older, the messages became less subtle and more aggressive because, presumably, my clock had begun ticking, and at some point, my desirability as a female would have an expiration date. Lord knows I didn’t want to be the spoiled milk of womandom. That would bring shame upon my family and myself.

My rules for femininity were clear:

1. All body odors are unacceptable at all times.

Always wear perfume, and a lot of it, so that you don’t smell, even if you were working out. And actually, if you work out, don’t sweat. It’s unbecoming. Never have bad breath. There was a Hungarian saying that my mom would use to subtly inform me that my breath smelled that loosely translates to “Your mouth smells like dirty boots.” Make sure you don’t smell “down there” especially during your period, even if it means extreme douches or other means of deodorizing your lady parts, which is super unhealthy and can be dangerous (the link between excessive use of talcum powder and cancer has been well-documented).

2. Aging is unacceptable, so we must lie about our age once we hit 40.

My grandmother insisted that we tell people that my mother and I were sisters so that nobody would know her age. I refused. Wrinkles and bags under your eyes are bad, so you should use any cream or cover-up necessary to hide them. Skin should be soft and caress-able. If you have dry skin, lotion the heck out of it, exfoliate, scrub, and otherwise treat until your skin is practically raw. Never appear in public without makeup on or at least lipstick applied.

3. Dress like a lady.

Wear short skirts to “show off your pretty legs.” Wear low-cut blouses to “show off your big breasts.” Wear high heels even if they hurt your feet. Wear jewelry to adorn yourself — lots of it.

4. Being overweight is disgusting.

Use any kind of spandex or shapewear necessary to smooth out any unseemly rolls of fat, even if you can’t breathe. Speaking of fat, don’t gain weight. The litany of insane diets, diet pills, enemas and other methodologies used in our house to try to lose weight were enough to make your head spin.

5. Have long hair. Short hair is for boys and lesbians.

When I cut my hair short my mother said “You look like a dyke,” which is offensive on so many levels I don’t even know where to begin. Oh, and make sure it’s dyed to cover up any grey hairs. Because…refer back to rule #2.

6. Do everything necessary to have white teeth.

I would regularly get “gifts” from my mother of tooth whitening strips for birthdays and other events because nothing says “I love you” like a reminder that your teeth are yellow and ugly. That’s not traumatizing at all (note sarcasm).

All of these rules made me feel like there was no way I would ever be a good enough woman. The standards were unattainable, let alone cost-effective. I came to resent my femininity and rejecting these standards became my rebellious way of asserting my autonomy, which my overly enmeshed mother viewed as a rejection of her and everything the women in our family stood for.

I want to be clear, I don’t care what anyone chooses to wear. If you like make-up, jewels, fancy clothes, and perfume, awesome. If you don’t, fine. The choice should be up to you, not something foisted upon you to adhere to a code of preconceived determinations of gender norms, and especially not by the individuals who are supposed to love you unconditionally.

The trauma of constantly feeling inferior as a woman and having that inferiority literally rubbed in my face by the women in my family has made me hyper-aware of all of the ways I buck the system and am maybe a bit quick to chafe at comments or messages that in any way suggest that my shaving my head or wearing only pants is somehow not feminine.

Honestly, I’d prefer to be viewed as human, not having my identity quantified by anyone or anything. What matters most about who I am lies between my ears and in my heart. In the end, what I want people to remember about me is not how white my teeth were or how great my legs looked in a short skirt. I want them to say I was smart, kind, caring, and someone who they valued for being a fully authentic human being.

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