Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Moving Beyond the Destiny of Biology

"Real women have curves."

"Meat is for the man, bones are for the dog."

Oddly enough, these are supposed to make me feel better about myself.  They're supposed to reassure me that my callipygian form is inherently superior despite the constant media pressure to slim down, that the hips that defy decency with every miniskirt I've ever attempted make me a more natural woman.

And man, did they used to.

I have failed, most of my life, at being a Normal Female.  I mean, I could have aced that test, if I'd known (and then cared) to try.  But until I was old enough to be set on my path, no one told me there were expectations.  By the time I figured out I was a Weird Girl I was faced with a situation where fitting into the mold required giving up things I really wanted, so I took my Outsider status as if I somehow deserved it.

That was, of course, at about the time I discovered boys, and boys discovered me, and...well, that didn't really go as intended.  I am bound by the genetics that gave me a solid frame and a certain ample build to go with it.  It was, when combined with my tendency to be 'too smart', the kiss of death to any sort of Normal Womanhood.  When I discovered sexuality, we added too passionate and too assertive to the list.  Later, I found out I am also too strong, and too self-assured.  I am even, occasionally, too competent.  Ultimately, it all just becomes 'too much'.

It was like I'd been given a cup, much much too small, and when I overflowed it everyone looked at me in disgust, because couldn't I just increase the pressure on myself to keep it all at an acceptable volume?  Couldn't I just let go of the parts that didn't fit, if the pressure wasn't sustainable, and confine myself to what the cup could hold?

Along came the 'real women have curves' notion.  I won't lie, it probably saved my life, because it was the first time I'd ever heard anyone suggest that the cup was inadequate.  It was like a door opening, and I admit (with a certain sadness) that I leaped to the conclusion that anyone that cup DID fit was obviously less of a woman.  It wasn't that I failed at fitting into societal gender norms or body image norms.  It wasn't that the norms themselves were the problem.

The problem was skinny bitches, obviously.  They were clearly in charge of the cups.

I'll leave for another day all the ways that women are conditioned to hate one another based on who does or doesn't fit into the body mold.  There's actually a much deeper problem there: the idea that anyone gets to decide what a real woman is, or who gets to call herself one.

Every woman is handed the same size cup at birth, and only the barest fraction of women fit it perfectly.  Smart enough to be witty and charming, not smart enough to be threatening.  Appropriately curvy, but not one inch more so.  Helplessly self-sufficient.  Just outgoing enough not to be a slut.  At some point, almost every one of us is an Outsider, and that can be terrifying.  When those doors slam shut in your face for the first time, the echoes can last for years.

There are two choices if you don't want to be an Outsider forever.  You either refine your definition of 'woman' to fit the women who are like you, moving the target so that you never have to feel the sting of noncompliance, or you broaden your definition of 'woman' until no one has to.  We're encouraged in a thousand ways to do the first.  Fat shaming, body policing, defiant anthems in praise of curves, magazine articles (with photoshopped size 0 models on the cover) telling us that men are evolutionarily conditioned to prefer women with curves.

The second is scarier, I'll admit it.  Because if I expand the definition, broadening the range of whom I'm willing to consider a fellow woman, where does it stop?  Fat girls?  Skinny girls?  Old women?  Preteens?  Those are all easy enough, because don't we all share biology?  I mean, hey, ladies, periods suck, amirite? <insert bra shopping joke here>

In the pagan community, there almost always comes this moment when that fails.  We have women's circles, women's gatherings, women's retreats, all manner of things to connect you to your inner Goddess, and they're all about solidarity of womanhood, and then all of a sudden, someone wants to come into your woman space who hasn't always been a physical woman, and maybe isn't one now.  And...what do you do?

Michigan Womyn's Fest and Pantheacon have failed, in spectacularly public ways, over the years.  Instead of seeking solidarity, instead of seeking to expand the definition of woman to embrace personal identity and self-awareness, they reduce the notion of womanhood to biology.  If you're not born and raised a woman, here's another cup you can never fit into.  Womyn's Fest is particularly insulting, because they say that you cannot be one of them unless you were raised experiencing the discrimination and prejudice most women in this country face, but that if you weren't, you can attend as long as you lie about it and don't get caught.  In other words, discrimination is a necessary part of our gender identity, but if you didn't share that *particular* suffering, it's acceptable to lie your way into sisterhood.

I was lucky enough, by the time I started thinking about the question, to have trans* friends.  That's lucky because on a purely academic level, it seems perfectly fine to draw that line at genetics.  When you don't really have a face to put to it, haven't really heard someone talk about struggling with gender identity, you can just figure on putting the line where it's most convenient.  But when the people on the outside of the door have faces you know, you really can't do that.  So you say, "Come on in, honey, you can stand by me, it'll be cool."

At that point, for me, something amazing happened.  When I expanded my definition of who gets to be a woman to identity, my own identity as a woman expanded.  Suddenly it's not about my boobs or my hips or my lunar annoyances.  It's a matter of who I really am, down to my core.  When I drop that limit, I drop things that limit me as well.  The more diversity we apply to the possible origins of a woman, the more diversity we have in her outcome.

When I see that game being played out, that target of 'real womanhood' being painted on yet another moving reference point, I try to step back and remember that limitless moment, that door opening.  Instead of embracing another divide to make myself more acceptable, more palatable, more secure in my place as a woman by excluding some not-quite demographic, I repeat, "Anyone who wants to be a woman is a woman," because that means the converse is also true:

A woman can be anyone she wants to be.

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