By Katherine Arrington
Art by Penelope Spurr
When I was five years old, my parents told me not to walk on the rails of a bridge. I obeyed… for a few hours. But the next day, I went back to the bridge and walked along its railing, until I got to the end and fell off. I injured my foot and ended up in the hospital getting stitches. I suppose this example shows that I have always hated being labeled by anyone other than myself, being limited in who I can be and what I can do.
For the most part, as I have grown up, I have shed my rebellious outlook on rules and instructions. Instead, I have found myself gravitating towards bending the boundaries of what society dictates I must say, do, and be. Yet it is this attitude that has culminated in a struggle between myself and my femininity as I have tried to walk the line between rejecting the misogynistic expectations of our society for how a woman should act and celebrating my identity as a woman.
As a child, I dreamed of being a princess, I played with Barbie dolls, and my favorite color was pink. I loved dresses and skirts; I insisted upon having long hair, and I was passionate about my love for both roses and flowers (separate entities in my mind). Yet as I grew older and witnessed the portrayal of women in the media, in books, and even in my own life, I realized that I did not want to play second fiddle to a man, to be a secretary to a lawyer, a nurse to a doctor, a teacher to a principal, a first lady to a president, or worst of all (in my mind), a housewife to a husband.
I wanted to be strong, to be bold, to be a leader, to be listened to, to be in control instead of controlled… and I started to associate being all of these things with not being overly feminine. I thought that I had to show no vulnerability, no emotion, no passion, no femininity, or I would be labeled weak. I thought that to prove that I could do anything that a man could do meant that I needed to relinquish my womanhood.
But at a certain point, I found myself so adamantly trying to disavow everything that society said that I should be as a woman that I was devaluing my own identity. I felt as though if I wore lipstick it was because I wanted men to admire me. As though if I cooked it was because I was practicing to be a good wife to a future husband. As though if I liked flowers then all I cared about was beauty and not purpose.
Over time, I turned my own femininity into a prison, one I built myself in the process of trying to escape society’s definition of me. The base of the prison was the societal stereotypes cast upon women. But the bars, I built myself. I sought so much to fight those stereotypes that I stopped doing so in order to have the ability to be fully myself, and began to do so only to be different from what I thought was expected of me. Finally, lost in an endless quest of proving my womanhood did not limit me, I found myself trapped behind steel columns, my femininity taken from me by none other than myself.
Essentially, in attempting to be an untraditional woman, I found myself allowing society to dictate what I did anyway. I became prescribed to the male-dominated value system of society, attempting to be a less womanly woman all for the sake of some unattainable and untenable ideal.
But being at odds with my femininity came at a cost: I lost my appreciation of the unique value that comes with being a woman and of being feminine, a value that simply does not exist in the world of men. In trying to prove that I could do what a man could do, I lost the consideration of what I can do as a woman. I allowed the virile axiology of our society to dictate and control my expression of my own femininity.
Men have had positions of power all throughout history. They have been the ones who were kings and emperors and presidents. They have been the ones who have gone to the moon and explored Antarctica. They have been the ones who have fought wars and created peace. But men are not the only ones who have done great things; becoming like man is not the only way to do great things.
Women bring life into this world and raise children into capable adults. Women appreciate beauty and create aesthetics. Women write books and poetry that are heartbreaking and mind-altering. Women keep secrets and risk their lives. Women fight for their rights and overcome oppression. Women like Josephine Baker, Patrisse Cullors, Mabel Stark, Gladys Bentley, Karen Sparck Jones, Sappho, Elizabeth Peratrovich, Patsy Mink, Kalpana Chawla, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Janene Yazzie, Ada Lovelace, Mary Edwards Walker, Ellen Ochoa, Ana Mendieta, Rigoberta Menchú, and countless others.
I think that I have finally come to the realization that succeeding in a male-dominated world does not require me to fight my own femininity. It requires me instead to embrace it. Women can do anything that men can do, but they do not need to be like men to succeed. I can be a lawyer, a doctor, or a principal, but I can also be a secretary, a nurse, a teacher, or even a housewife, and none of those has more value than another. Put quite simply, femininity is powerful, and it deserves to be treated so.