Part 3. Feminism, Femininity and Butch
The question of how we each feel most comfortable is readily answered, I’ve found. But why so? That question seems to bring about defensiveness, a deep discomfort, and accusations along all of the old, unsatisfactory lines: we already decided this, we moved past this whole Butch/Femme thing when Lesbianism found feminism, no one has the right to question what another woman chooses to wear (it’s not political, it’s personal), and this is just more policing for non-conformity by those who don’t admit they’re conformists!
Is it decided? I don’t think we’ve begun to explore it! Yes, butch and femme, as olden-days roles, are not something we need to return to, but that doesn’t address the tremendous courage to be found in Butch — or the lack of scrutiny for anything less, which seems to be forgotten. Feminism taught us all that the personal really is political, and while it’s often uncomfortable to root around in the foundational beliefs of our own minds, it’s still not necessarily a bad thing to consider doing — there is no change, no growth, without discomfort. And so yes, framed one way, the whole discussion becomes a matter of conformity or not — but there are other ways to view it all, I think.
What I’m searching for is a better, further truth, where challenges are essential but done in a way to ensure dialog and discussion. This ‘femininity’ topic seems an area especially sensitive to identity, and thus deep and sometimes contradictory feelings. I doubt we need to solve it in a single session, nor could it be done that quickly. But we can do certain things, on purpose. We can walk through it slowly enough, if it’s interesting to us, so that we don’t drop others behind us. We can start out with honoring those who really are more oppressed in all this — honoring Butches, for example. And we can begin to unwind the complexities of our own complicities, for they are not simple.
I have also noticed a trend lately of sticking to victim politics, rather than being willing to look at how one’s life is a complicated mix of oppressions and privileges, or disprivilege ameliorated by the ability to feel oneself as being normal — by the ability to oppress. In order to step back from this tendency, maybe we could first consider what femininity means to us, about ourselves. Possibly we can begin to de-layer it, de-laminate it from our senses of self and of identity, to look at it anew. And separately. Only later on do we need to move to how femininity relates to women in general, and to feminism specifically.
I can look at myself with at least two sets of eyes, two oppositional standards. I can see the woman of my culture, where I have been known to wear the ceremonial trappings of womanhood, especially long dresses and skirts, and slightly less practical shoes in female-only styles. Sometimes when I see photos of myself, I find I look like a female impersonator, like I am trying to be something I am not. I don’t know if this has to do with my build and my facial features, my age, the growth patterns and texture of my hair, or if those are irrelevant. I am thick — fat and muscled, broad-hipped, bulky through the upper arms and thighs. My facial features are also thick: nose, cheeks, chin, though my lips are narrow and my eyes made small behind thick, concave lenses. These characteristics do not lend themselves to traditional womanliness — swathed in delicate fabrics, tottering on heels, shining metal and stones adorning my exposed (and wrinkling) skin, I feel vaguely mis-dressed, cross-dressed, almost undressed!
And I can see the way I look most normal, most myself, and definitely the most comfortable. Clad in khakis, or in other sturdy clothes that drape my bulk with a firmer grasp, I feel balanced, more myself. I have wide feet; I wear men’s shoes primarily because they tend to be stocked in a width that fits me. I might wear fisherman’s sandals or sturdy Birkenstocks, but I am equally at home in work boots, tennis shoes, dressier men’s oxfords or heavier Doc Marten’s — at least when the weather isn’t horribly hot. My problem arises in dress-up situations in the summertime, when only women’s more-feminine clothing allows for skin baring and breathability. I wonder if this isn’t how they keep us cooperative: they sometimes allow us greater freedoms compared with men’s greater rigidity — in emotion and dress. I have an old pair of thin-strapped (women’s) Birkenstocks that I wear in hot, humid weather because they allow maximum skin exposure and minimal contact. I tend to buy men’s pants and jeans because they are designed more for comfort than to show off sex-specific body parts. Women’s pants are curve-hugging, but they look absurd on my old fat woman’s body; their inherent uncomfortableness is, I suppose, ameliorated somewhat by adding spandex to the fabric. I much prefer natural fibers, which I can find easily in men’s pants, but rarely in women’s. Men’s pants are almost always made sturdier — and far more uniform, dependably sized. I own women’s looser-fitting tailored shirts, and men’s, and it always astounds me how the buttons are on the opposite side for the “wrong” sex’s attire, just to be sure you know when you’ve transgressed.