Mind the Gap: Feminized fear

On the first day of sixth grade, a popular girl had a crush on me. (I know because she later confessed this to me at a birthday party.) She had thought I was a boy, with my awkward bowl-cut/bob hybrid and lime green cargo capris. Perhaps this was because I was in the habit of wearing an oversized Gumby sweatshirt and had a sturdy figure. Perhaps this was because I was at the edge of an angsty phase in elementary school and my frown looked masculine.

As I traversed middle school, I found myself deliberately dressing in wild clothing. I had an obsession with rainbows; I owned a belt, suspenders, leg warmers and socks covered with them. This, in addition to my intent denial of male attention, caused me to be called a “lesbian” fairly often, which I also intently denied. It took me until high school to realized that it wasn’t having attraction to women that bothered me but being boxed into labels by strangers.

Now, as an adult, I carry a little bit of bitterness — bitterness toward the strangers that categorize me with a look but more toward the categories themselves. The last few years, I have intently analyzed what gender means to me (this changes) and contextualized the events of my childhood in regards to my socialization and presentation. I first pushed against femininity because I resented being read as a woman, and then I resented dominant queer culture for pressuring me to conform to a restricting standard of white/thin androgyny. At the end of high school, I had tried out some form of ‘womanhood’ while always feeling an air of ‘otherness.’ I often tended to appear just a little outlandish, wearing things like a pink fishnet shirt under a lime green dress. At the same time, I enjoyed putting emotional labor into projects. ‘Femininity’ was a standard that I tried to put on in layers over my both inherent and socialized softness.

Sometimes, thinking about societal influence ties you in knots. I trap myself still in thoughts like, “Would I be doing this organizing or cooking for friends if I hadn’t been socialized into thinking that was my role?,” “Where does my socialization end?,” “Where does the real me begin?” I can only say that the process of parsing out oppressive socialization (the kind that boxes you into always taking on a care-taking role or tells you you always deserve a leading one) is constant.

The pressures of feminine socialization have always made me feel like I have to be great at something before someone can see me do it. Even something as casual as playing video games in front of people leads me to worry that my skill level will prove my total value. I find it hard to let someone see me try new things. My tip is to think of the twinges of discomfort or anxiety that you get when you’re worried you’ll embarrass yourself. Try to note when you can afford that bit of fear and when you can push yourself to try.