My story of embracing and celebrating my feminine side.
Back in the early 90s, my extended family on my mom’s side took a decent amount of road trips together. My grandparents had a large van, the type that had a back seat that could be folded down into a bed, that we would traditionally use.
One trip on the way back from Kansas visiting the feed yard that my grandparents sent their cattle to, my 4-year-old self was not having a great experience. I had been whining, fussing, and crying since my family had started the trip back for Texas and it was not a pleasant experience to be around. At one point, my mom had us stop so that she and my dad could buy me a toy in hopes of getting me to keep quiet for the remainder of the trip.
After spending some time in the store with my dad and making the purchase that would save everyone from my whining tantrums for the rest of the trip back home, we finally made the walk back to the big van. My mom said that they got a couple of “you really bought him that!” looks both when my dad and I got to the van, but she knew the right decision had been made. Rather than choosing a typical ‘boy toy’ like a car, tractor, or superhero, I had picked out a black doll that was an off-brand version of one of the Strawberry Shortcake dolls, and it kept me quite the entire rest of the ride.
While I have many memories in that van, this is a trip that took place before my memory had started recording my experiences yet. I don’t have any doubts that this was how I behaved though, because it is right in line with what I remember from growing up.
Right from the beginning, I always tended to choose toys that were “made for girls” over toys that were made for boys. From an early age, I was more than happy to play Barbies with one of my neighbor friends (basically the only neighbor friend since we lived out on a dirt road) while my older brother would play with her older brother.
I can remember having a little blue bin where we kept old garage sale clothes and items from my mom’s closet that I would use to play dress-up. I was a big fan of dresses, necklaces, hats, and scarfs. You know, the basics for any little boy, right? I also had an affinity for wearing either kitten heels or flats that would clack across the floor due to being way too big for my feet as I would walk into the kitchen to show my mom how beautiful I was.
In terms of toys, my first and longtime favorite toys of choice were My Little Ponies. They were perfect for a little country boy like me who liked animals but was more drawn to toys that were light pastel colors with scents and cute names with brushes that you could use to comb their manes (which I typically lost within a few days). Over the years, I accumulated quite a number of ponies that I’d dump out on the floor when I was ready to play. Each pony had a backstory that I had created for them, special powers of some kind, and a role in the little pony community I had dreamed up in my mind.
After I put the ponies up and moved on to action figures, I still tended to always select female action figures for whatever reason. I chose Catwoman over Batman, the Pink Ranger over the Red Ranger, Queen Amidala over Anakin Skywalker, Mystique over Wolverine, and so on until I had a healthy squad of femme fatales that we ready to take on any mission that came their way.
I’ve honestly never really been able to identify why the toys that were ‘for girls’ were more interesting to me than the other ones. Maybe it was because the female superheroes tended to be a little more creative than the male heroes in how they would win a fight with a villain due to not being as physically strong. They tended to have more interesting powers (which I sometimes enhanced in my imaginative play sessions), and I liked having them work together in interesting ways to accomplish whatever mission they had ahead of them.
Culture in small-town Texas, and many other places for that matter, would tell you that a boy playing with ‘girl toys’ was a problem. It would be the cause for concern, fitful prayers that God would help the child “man-up,” and most certainly discouraging the child from being so damn girlie. I have fuzzy memories of other adults raising some of these concerns over time, but that is about it. Luckily, my mom never seemed to worry about it too much in front of me at least, and my dad didn’t make too much of a fuss about it either (obviously since he was the one who bought the shortcake doll for me in the story I opened this essay with!).
Now that I am deconstructing the trauma I’ve experienced from growing up gay in small-town religious/conservative culture, I am becoming more and more thankful for them for allowing that space to express myself the way I wanted to at the time. There are some unfortunate voices and views that would say that my sexuality was directly brought on from that freedom as a child. That the sheer fact that I was able to play with “girl” toys somehow influenced my sexuality in a way that has no proof in science. Obviously I disagree with that worldview, but I will say that space to express myself authentically might have been the only reason I was able to maintain some semblance of self-worth in the years that followed when I learned that being seen as girlie was seen as not acceptable.
I spent many years trying to repress and mask my girlie side as much as possible, and it hasn’t been until the last couple of years that I have stopped trying to edit myself in that way. I’ve started to grow my hair out for a couple of reasons one of which is that long hair is typically associated with women in our culture. I left the corporate world to start my own practice as a massage therapist which requires me to be more in touch with my ability to be gentle and nurturing which are also stereotypical feminine qualities. In my personal work, I’ve been working on better understanding my tendencies as a highly sensitive person (HSP) or empath that I previously would have just tried to ignore, suppress or dull with substances.
As I have been working to flex more of my feminine characteristics a little more, I’ve also noticed that gender roles even pop up in my relationship with me sometimes taking on the more ‘wifely’ roles. I find these instances amusing for the most part with a hint of annoyance every so often, but overall it has been an interesting part of our journey together as we define what a relationship between two men look like beyond changing the naming of our upstairs bathrooms from “his and hers” to “his and his.” I can say that the process of navigating gender roles in our relationship definitely seems to strengthen that invisible tether that I have had to femininity in a way that I am very ok with.
I realize that all of these traits, characteristics, and behaviors are not INHERENTLY feminine, but I am identifying that our society labels them feminine for whatever reason. In reality, women can exemplify traits and characteristics that are considered more masculine as well, but for some reason, we are always viewed as going against our gender in these instances.
“He was really gentle and compassionate, especially for a man,”
“She definitely has a mind of her own!” As if it is still novel for a woman to express her thoughts and opinions like a man.
The process of reconstructing a worldview, a self-image, and a daily practice of celebrating my girlie side is definitely a gradual one. Like learning to walk in heels. That is without a doubt due because of the years that I tried to repress any aspects that would be viewed as feminine. For many years I would have told you that I was trying to hide my girlie side because I wanted to hide my sexuality, and that is a very big truth, but I am starting to think that another driver for repressing my feminine characteristics was that they were simply viewed as weaker or secondary to masculine ones. Basically that being seen as a woman wasn’t too much better than being seen as a homosexual in terms of rank and worth in this world.
With that thought in mind, I’d like to share a quick little commercial for coffee that I found while looking into how women have been treated over the decades:
I realize that folks have different reactions to watching something like this most likely based on your age, gender, political beliefs. Some might think we have come a long way, others think that we still have a long way to go, while some might not see anything wrong with this type of gender dynamic at all.
I’m in the camp that things are definitely changing, but that there is quite a long way to go. I also fully empathize with folks who get frustrated with women who don’t support the progress of women’s rights.
I once heard a woman say that in her mind any woman who says that they aren’t a feminist was basically the same as a cow that eats hamburgers, and while pretty harsh, I understand where she was coming from with that sentiment. I am also learning as I get older that it is better to treat people gently than with harsh disdain, especially when it comes to lived experiences. When you think of the women’s rights movement over the years, it has truly evolved so rapidly that women of multiple ages have vastly different experiences with the movement and current benefits it has afforded. All of these differences could lead folks to see the need for further progress in women’s rights differently.
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot more about women’s rights. Now that I am no longer suppressing my girlie side, shifting my career to one that utilizes typically “feminine” strengths, and navigating gender roles in a relationship with a man that I love, I feel more of a connection to them as well. I’m interested in becoming a better feminist, and I’m interested in finding information that would be compelling for feminists of multiple generations from Boomers to Zoomers (generation Z) alike.
I’d like to hear your stories as well. What ways have you felt the need to downplay certain characteristics because they do not follow traditional gender norms? How have you gone about celebrating those characteristics and traits, and what has that taught you about yourself or the world around you?
Also — do you have any reading or watching suggestions as I continue working to be a better feminist? I’m currently enjoying the hell out of watching Mrs. America and have The Feminine Mystic on my reading list. What else should I include on this ride to feminism?
I run an authenticity blog called BraveNewLove that is committed to creating space for people to live authentically. If any aspect of this post resonated with you, I’d be honored if you checked out some more of my writing or joined the newsletter to be part of the BraveNewLove Community.
Also — if you’d like to share a story of living authentically or creating space for others to do so, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear your story and figure out a way to share it with the BraveNewLove community.