My First Lesson on Gender Roles
For as long as I could remember, I loved dressing up. I’d wear frilly jumpers, tights with lace, fancy hats with ribbons. If it was girly, I adored it. When my family started attending church regularly, no one had to force me to dress up on Sunday mornings.
Growing up in the Evangelical church was a confusing, often painful experience for me as a young woman. Any woman who’s spent a good deal of time in the church knows that there are certain expectations for girls.
A woman’s place in the Evangelical church is subservient to men. Her role of authority is in the home where she looks after her children and household duties. But even in the home she doesn’t have complete authority. She still must look to her husband as her leader – as he has the final say in all aspects of their life.
Even as a child these rigid gender roles didn’t sit well with me. We weren’t the typical church family, after all.
My parents were divorced. Dad didn’t go to church anymore. Mom worked hard to provide for us and keep a roof over our heads. In my mind, there wasn’t anything Mom couldn’t do. She was handy with a toolset, played Beatles covers on her guitar, and drove a Mustang.
The other women at church were different from my mom. They had big families with lots of children. Their husbands worked while they were homemakers. They all drove minivans and wore long dresses and turtlenecks.
All I knew, was that I did not want to be one of those women.
I rebelled in subtle ways at first. I wanted to be a “career woman”, like my aunt. They told me a woman couldn’t have kids and a career. So I decided I’d choose a career over having kids. Which was not a popular opinion for a young girl to have in the church.
Even at age nine, I could see that the boys at church had more freedom of expression, more allowance to speak their minds, more opportunities to be loud and have fun. I hung up my fancy pink dresses and traded them in for baggy jeans and oversized t-shirts in an attempt at some kind of equality.
If I dressed like a boy, maybe they would treat me more like a boy? After all, boys seemed to have been given a better deal in life. And I wanted a slice of that pie for myself.
Misconceptions About Feminism
By the time I was in high school, I had fully embraced the concept of feminism. I was secretive about it at first but slowly became more vocal about my opinions.
“What is it about feminism you agree with?” My mom wasn’t impressed by my declaration.
“Women should be allowed to do anything men are allowed to do.” I wasn’t going to back down from this. Everything in me screamed that this was right, that this was fair.
I’d watched my mom transform over the years into an ideal church woman. She’d remarried and fully embraced the role of submissive wife. But it made me realize more than ever – that wasn’t the life for me.
My mom, as well as other women in the church, tried to emphasize what the scriptures had to say about gender. They tried to show me that it was God’s plan for men and women to have “separate but equal” duties and goals.
Their explanations seemed more to convince themselves than me, though. And they acted like my rejection of their God-ordained role was a direct attack on their chosen lifestyle.
I began loathing everything about women. I rejected femininity because it made me feel trapped. Once I graduated high school and began attending a secular college, my feelings were cemented.
My rebellion against all things feminine was misguided, however. I thought that by rejecting all things that were typically associated with women, I was making the ultimate statement in feminism. I took pride in not knowing how to cook. Instead of listening to the same pop music all my girlfriends listened to, I opted for classic and industrial rock. I even went so far as cutting off my long hair into a cropped boy-cut that my father dubbed, “butch”.
The female friendships I had kept since childhood became painful. My friends said they couldn’t relate to me any longer. Some of them outright rejected our friendship altogether. I stopped associating with women, instead deciding I would only be friends with guys.
Lost in the Confusion
Because of the rigid gender roles that the church instilled in me, even as a feminist I still subconsciously thought: masculine = more important/better.
As I was finding more acceptance within communities of men than I was with women, I headed down a dangerous path of thinking.
I felt flattered when men would tell me I wasn’t “like other girls.” And I became proud of this label.
I learned to love beer and hate wine. I spoke crassly and used foul language. I pigged out on junk food and ate as much as my male counterparts in one sitting. I’d choose Quentin Tarantino films over sappy rom-coms. I ditched makeup because, after all, it was just “false advertising”.
The more acceptance I gained with men, the more it reinforced this behavior.
It wasn’t the behavior itself that was the problem. I still drink beer, cuss like a sailor, and love a good Tarantino movie. The problem was, instead of this behavior being a rebellion against gender norms, it became something else entirely – it became a way to impress men.
This means of impressing men had advantages that I quickly learned. In my young twenties, I was managing a small staff of people that included men – some of which were older than me. In order to gain respect from my staff, I acted in a way that I believed demonstrated power. And to me, nothing was more powerful than men.
Looking back on this period of my life, I wish I would have instead embraced the role of strong female leader. But in my still-narrow viewpoint, women couldn’t hold positions of power without being seen as “bossy” or “bitchy”. I didn’t think that the men or women that worked for me would respect a feminine boss.
And this wasn’t exclusive to the workplace. Throughout my late teens and early twenties, I was in a longterm relationship with a guy that “loved” and “respected” me because I didn’t act like most women. During the course of our 7-year relationship, the facade began to crumble, however.
Because he viewed me as a rejection of all things feminine (and I viewed myself this way to a certain extent) he tried taking certain liberties. If I became justifiably upset over his behavior and tried to have a rational conversation with him about it, he would tell me how “I wasn’t being cool” or “I was acting like a girl”. And he meant these as insults. “What happened to the cool girl I fell in love with?” he’d ask.
Years after that relationship ended, I came across a quote from Gillian Flynn’s novel Gone Girl that perfectly described the type of mentality I had fallen prey to:
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all, hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want.”
Our relationship had been built on a faulty foundation and as it fell apart before my eyes I realized that I didn’t want to be the kind of person he wanted. In all my attempts to shun femininity, I had alternately impressed all the wrong kinds of men. It took me years to understand that by not accepting myself as a woman and failing to embrace my authentic self, I wasn’t really being a feminist at all.
Rediscovering my Femininity
In many ways, I’m unrecognizable from the woman I was in my early to mid-twenties. I love makeup and doing my nails. I love getting dressed up – wearing skirts, heels, and pearls. I’ve given wine a fair shot, although craft beer won my heart. The point is, my personality and interests aren’t dictated by a desire to be masculine or feminine.
This didn’t happen overnight, either. It was a slow process that took years. Piece-by-piece, my misunderstandings about gender and feminism were disassembled.
I mostly have other women to thank. My friend’s wife who pointed out that I didn’t have a single female artist in my music library. Or my co-worker that had a vulgar sense of humor and dressed like a lumberjack but still sported a full face of makeup. It was women like these that showed me there was nothing wrong with liking feminine things – or not liking them.
There were men that helped in the process too. Guy friends I had that fully embraced traditionally-feminine things – like eating healthfully, singing along to their favorite female musicians, and talking about how they were feeling without being ashamed of having feelings.
I slowly became not only aware of, but okay with, indulging myself in things that were traditionally feminine. I found that having a group of female friends didn’t have to be catty – it could be rewarding and enriching. #communityovercompetition
My understanding of feminism evolved as well. I transitioned from a “feminist” that shunned all things girly, to an unapologetic feminist that acknowledges that feminism means allowing women to be whatever they want to be. Whether that means staying home and raising a family or forging her way in the professional world.
Once I was able to accept that concept, I was able to start accepting myself. I became comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life. And it feels limitless.