Gender Play

This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

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Gender Play

Elle Endre-Stacy

--If I am a child then gender is my playground. The play structure is brightly colored, with different levels; sandy tunnels lead to ladders; harder-to-climb stiff nets act as barriers as well as lattices that reach higher lookout points. The structure is courted off by a high fence to keep me inside. Even though it escape seems unlikely, inside those walls I am free to run.--

Gender is a constricting set of social rules that we are socialized to believe are valid. While the categories of "boy" and "girl" or "man" and "woman" are becoming more fluid, I would argue that study into gender oppression is not complete without looking at the ways in which we currently socialize children with the use of clothing. The following essay is about a personal inquiry into my own gender oppression in the area of physical appearance. While I acknowledge that my experiences with gender are not nessesarily the same as others, I do feel that something about the concept of gender was learned by inquiry, at least in respect to my own understanding of the ways In which I have been effected by gender socialization.

Prior to acquiring breasts I was a wild-looking topless child. Many of the photos of me as a child are of me at least somewhat naked. Naked wearing a rain coat. Naked wearing boys swim trunks. Naked wearing galoshes. Quite a few in galoshes. I had cropped wavy blond hair, loved Thomas the Tank Engine, couldn't understand the attraction to Barbie, and frequently told fellow class mates that I was a boy. I didn't "play rough", so to speak, but was quite an active, rambunctious child. Loud, independent and a presence among my peers. With a subtlety feminist influence up until the age of nine, I cared very little about clothing or my appearance as either "girl" or "boy". Growing up in Brisbane, Australia– where fashion sense is not a widely held value– allowed me a lot of physical freedom to dress in whatever my wardrobe consisted of (mostly oversized conference t-shirts and far from flattering spandex shorts). I donned a skirt for the first time by my own choosing at 13. "You're a beautiful young lady" I was told by parental figures. I put on makeup. "She's growing into such a beautiful girl" friends of the family quipped. My goodness, I had become a gender. While I will note that I'm sure there were aspects of gender socialization in my youth that I was unaware of, I did not actively start to resist and play with gender until age 17. This was when I became an activist in the queer community of San Francisco. There, somewhat re-conceived notions of gender play out in many women's relationships in the form of "butch" and "femme" (Footnote: "Femme" in queer relationships often contains an almost idolization of the feminine figure on the part of the "butch" woman, and contains many elements of gender play. However, queer notions of gender will not be the main focus of this essay).

By 17 I had come into my own curves, and played quite the high-femme. However, by 19 I was sick of playing for the home team. I put my poodle skirts, fishnets and halter tops into storage, and went shopping. I bought an entirely new wardrobe that consisted of mens clothing: un-tapered button-downs, baggier jeans, larger shoes, and I took off the make-up. It became almost a challenge, an experiment in gender play: could I cross that far across the gender spectrum? I cut my hair shorter, spiked it up and sat with my legs open. From August 2004- May 2005 I learnt a lot more about gender than I ever could have studied in a book.

While I recognized that more modern gender socialization is mostly mental, I wanted to work out just how much was physical. Also, as a person that enjoys playing with makeup and getting very dressed up as a "woman" I wanted to see if the assumption that "it is not oppression unless one feels oppressed" was true. Was I being playing a part in my own oppression, or in the oppression of women without realizing it? There were two different areas that my gender experiment can be broken up into: the treatment I received from others based on their perceptions of my gender identity, and the perception I had of myself within my gendered environment.
Kids in the playground

Initial responses to my play were shock. I had made quite the transition after all- from the poised "feminine woman" to the clean cut "masculine" figure. One of the first things I noticed was that it was presumed that If I dressed like one of the boys I would, or could, act in more "masculine" ways. In all of the environments I passed though, from casual to professional, it was acceptable to slouch, not cross my legs– in fact, sit with them wide open. I was not berated for speaking out of turn, and it was expected that I look my own age. I had no good or bad side, and very little effort was needed to dress up. Dressing up did not mean hours of getting ready, trying on outfits, make-up, hair, nails; costuming to perfection. Most men's clothing is incredibly similar. The difference was all in a shower, some hair gel and a nicer button down shirt than the one I was wearing earlier in the day.

Interestingly, more gender-mixed clothing ensembles that once had been acceptable for me to wear when coming from the "feminine" side of the spectrum were labeled "weird" coming from the other, more "masculine" side. After wearing "men's clothing" for such a long period of time I had grown accustomed to moving in ways that were more masculine without even realizing. When I donned tighter pants and a t-shirt with "girl cut" sleeves, I sat which ever way my body felt comfortable in simply out of habit; a typically masculine privilege. One friend who had known me both as highly "feminine" and more gender bending mentioned that the physically "masculine" traits with more "feminine" clothing "look[ed] weird" because I "look[ed] like a man dressing as a woman"(November, 2004).
My Child's Eye View

My perception of self increased greatly. I realized just how strict a social barrier existed between "maleness" and "femaleness". Dressing as a woman had allowed me to dress in mens clothes so long as it was perceived that I was not deviating from my gender role. For instance, it is no longer deemed cross-dressing for a woman to wear a man's business shirt, but if that woman is not at all "feminine" while doing so that is considered gender-deviant. I quickly recognized that I was not just playing on the other side of the fence; I had jumped it and run to the far end of the field. As I learned first-hand, clothing is merely the beginning of gender. There is, or I should say isn't, an expected "masculine" way of holding one's self in that clothing: walking, sitting, or eating. There are, however, different expected ways of approaching or being approached by potential partners, and different ways of speaking. These socially based rules are the bases for what has been named by some feminists as male privilege.

The few times I crossed back over to the girly side of my wardrobe well into the experimental year was where I learned about the different ways I had physically been socialized as a "woman". I dressed up in one of my once-usual three-quarter length skirts, tight fitting tank top and matching heels. I slicked down my hair and put on makeup. Aside from the fact that you have to walk differently in heels anyway, what I slipped back into was far more revealing. The way I walked, held my bag, used my hands when talking to people, sat, and the way I held my body while doing all of these things suddenly felt taxing. I realized the amount of time I spent pulling down my clothes, re-arranging, paying constant attention to how I carried myself, and the extra time I spent in the bathroom "fixing" myself up. Now, I accept the fact that women and men can swap clothing and be exactly the same people that they were before. However, I do believe that girls and boys are socialized to act and look physically different. I also believe that most girls, at least in American culture, are socialized to believe that there are certain minimum standards of "femininity" that go into looking presentable. Take a look at Barbie. If, as human beings we start tabula rasa, Barbie is a classic example of the extra pressure it takes to be perceived as "feminine". Apparently, Barbie was born with a full set of makeup, permed hair, and her feet on tip-toe so that she can wear only things with high heels. This kind of appearance play can, of course, not be seen as pressure. Many women, including myself, see make-up as something fun and creative. However, I found that what it takes to be physically at a base level of "feminine", not just biologically female, is a much more specific set of criteria than what it takes to achieve a base level of "masculinity". I would direct any questioner of this statement to take a trip to a public bathroom to compare the length of the men and women waiting in line. Women are socialized to see their appearance as a priority, and thus spend much greater amounts of time looking in mirrors and thinking about how they look.

It seems strange to make the post-modern feminist that I am sound like a trapped housewife from the 1950's. After, all, I really enjoy wearing women's clothing. However, in setting out to discover if there were any privileges that came with the physical appearance of the "masculine gender", I came to see that part of the oppression of women has become embodied in the costumes we perform gender in. Most women may not be getting about in girdles, however mental energy spent thinking about one's "feminine" appearance can easily make up for the lack of physical constriction. Since learning and respecting what it takes to be create the appearance of a "woman" and how little effort it takes to maintain the appearance of a "man" I chose to live an appearance that is much more gender fluid. I fluctuate from androgynous to glamorously feminine, all the while very aware of the game I am playing, and the power structures that I make my choices inside of. While I would never argue against another persons' individual choice of appearance, which ever place in the gender spectrum he or she, or sie or hir might choose, I do want to argue that there is social weight attached to gendered forms of clothing that must be taken into consideration when looking at gender oppression.

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