Sunday, 4 March 2012

Performance of Femininity: A Personal Journey

Here’s a concept I like: Performance of Femininity. See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_performativity

Its basically the idea that gender is something we do rather than something we are. It’s the reason why I love that Caitlin Moran called her book “How to Be a Woman” because I’ve always felt that being a woman is something to be done, to be mastered, to be performed and I suspect that others feel the same way too. It’s nice for someone to say so; directly and in the title of a book.

A well named book
My performance of femininity is shit. I am not polished, I am not convincing. I stumble over my lines. If you followed the wikipeadia link, you will know that performance of femininity takes in the way we act as well as the way we dress and present our appearance but I’m going to focus on appearance here because that’s the part I’ve historically had most trouble with.

Growing up, we were skint; permanently. I can only remember feeling actively frustrated by this for a short time; the period between noticing we were different and reconciling myself to that. I would have been about six or seven when this happened. We were at a seaside funfair and I’d just been told that I could choose two rides only  because that’s all there was money for.

Two fun fair rides is not enough. I thought so then and I still feel that way now. When I take my own child to funfairs I sincerely hope to provide more than two rides.  But I realised I had a choice. I could spoil the experience for myself by being annoyed at the limitations or I could just enjoy the rides I had. I chose the second option and have gone on choosing it, in all its different forms, ever since.

Sounds like a positive attitude? Not if you think really hard about what accepting the limitations actually means. It means walls around your experience. It means boundaries. There are things that are “not for me;” things that I knew (and know!), not to ask for or aspire towards or expect.

I used to walk down a high street and half the shops wouldn’t exist for me. They were like blank spaces. I could walk through a supermarket and know without looking at the prices which 10 to 20 items I could reasonably expect to eat.

To demonstrate how ingrained this sort of thinking can become, let me tell you that my honeymoon last summer was the first package holiday abroad I have ever been on; And that  the weekend after we returned, I read ther travel section of my usual sunday newspaper for the first time.  Up until then the travel section had simply been “not for me.” This was despite earning a solid £25,000 for the previous 7 years.

Here are some other things that were “not for me:” Being cool, Fitting in, Having a “personal style (whatever that is), having a boyfriend other than the hopeless adult alcoholics who I knew were inappropriate but who I genuinely believed were the best I would ever get.

All those things would have cost money. Money for Clothes and CD’s and hair cuts and entry to under 18’s night at the Hippodrome and razors for leg shaving and make up.

And, Oh god! make up, where to even begin with that? You need foundation and blush and eye liner and eye shadow and lip stick and lip liner and god knows what else. I could hope to afford maybe one of these items every two weeks or so. And if I did buy one, how would I know that it would suit me or learn how to put it on properly? Mistakes were so likely and so expensive.

So no performance of femininity for me, because femininity was for normal people and normal was “not for me.”

I still feel that way a little bit. I look at other women on the train and I can see they have it right. Their performance is polished. They look like “proper women.” I find myself wondering how they do it? How often does she go shopping? And what does that it cost her and how much time does it take in an average month?

Clothes shopping is a particular problem for me. Clothes shops fall into those blank spaces in the high street. Those places that are “not for me” and I feel unbearable anxiety going into them. I feel like in order to go in, I should already look like I belong, which means wearing newish “normal people” clothes. And I have those now, I really do, but my head doesn’t know that and I need to leave before people start noticing that that I shouldn't really be there.  
A ladies clothes shop: The single most intimidating environment there is.

Supermarket clothes are the solution. The supermarket is for everyone. If I have food shopping to do, I already have a legitimate reason to be there. I can grab clothes from the shelves and chuck them in the trolly before my anxious mind even notices what I’m doing.  

My husband helps. I bring him along so that he can calm me down if necessary and make constructive comments about what suits me or what I might wear things with. I generally need a lot of reassurance about my choices.

Another advantage is that supermarket clothes are deliberately middle of the road so they automatically look like what everyone else is wearing and minimise the potential for mistakes. I have a full set of “normal people” clothes now. Enough for every day of the working week plus a floaty little dress I can go clubbing in at the weekend.

I can finally perform femininity whenever I need to. But oddly, now those barriers are down, I’ve noticed something.

I don’t wear my normal people clothes at the weekend. I change out of them the minute I get home. Whenever I dress to please myself, I stick to my usual uniform of jeans and hoodies. As it turns out, I was probably slightly butch all along.

I still do perform femininity in my dress, particularly at work. I spent far too long not able to fit in, not to value that ability now. But my performance is unashamedly shit. I wear dresses over sports bras; I wear men’s underwear with women’s trousers. I wear thick woolly tights so I don’t have to bother shaving my legs. I never, ever wear make up or heels.

I make my accommodations like everyone else. We all need to work out what is expected of us and how far we are willing to put ourselves out to meet expectations. And for me, the answer seems to be as little as possible.

So the biggest difference is not in my appearance, in my actual performance of femininity, but in my understanding of it. I know now that I really can pull femininity out of the bag when I need to.

And I know that underneath all the anxiety and shame and blank spaces in the high street, now that I finally have the ability to hold a clear sighted preference of my own, I genuinely don't feel like doing it.