Gender dysphoria, gender resentment, socialized misogyny…
I’ve been mulling these topics over for ages and have been jotting notes for a post on the topic for a while now, too. Last Thursday’s (9/20/18) Dear Prudence advice column (second letter at the link) prompted me to flesh out my thoughts… or at least take them out for a test drive.
The letter was submitted by someone who signs off as “Gender Dysphoria, or Just Hating My Gender?” The gist is that she’s trying to figure out if she’s truly experiencing gender dysphoria or if her discomfort is because she was taught to hate her gender assigned at birth (female).
Full text of the letter:
I’m a queer woman in her mid-30s married to a guy, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve been, to varying degrees, gender dysphoric. I’ve gone from being a kid who refused to be called a girl to an adult who has learned to role-play femininity but still very rarely feels it. I grew up with a mother who believed that displays of femininity (and emotions in general) were signs of weakness and should be crushed—crying over emotional things was met with derision; crushes were dismissed as “stupid hormones”; acting “like a girl” was an insult. However, I now work in a male-dominated industry and am often the only woman in a room, meaning I spend a lot of time being a feminist voice raised against a sea of middle-aged men. My issue is that I often don’t know how much of what feels like gender dysphoria—being uncomfortable in my female skin, compulsively wearing painfully tight sports bras to flatten my breasts, weightlifting to give myself a more powerful physique, etc.—is actually dysphoria, and how much is just internalized misogyny. Am I uncomfortable feeling like a woman because that’s how I’m wired? Or am I uncomfortable because society has done such a good job from day one of convincing me that female is the worst thing a human can be? How do you even sort that out?
—Gender Dysphoria, or Just Hating My Gender?
The letter opens with, “I’m a queer woman in her mid-30s married to a guy…” We don’t know why the writer identities as queer, maybe we can assume she’s bisexual? But let’s set that aside for this post, since sexual orientation and gender are different and it’s really a whole ‘nother ball of wax (about which I will wax poetic about in the future). So much wax!
Prudence (aka Daniel Mallory Ortberg) boils down what the writer seems to be getting at by paraphrasing, “Don’t most women experience profound gender dysphoria because of sexism? Shouldn’t I dismiss my own (powerful, persistent) feelings about my gender because of said sexism? Wouldn’t I be letting down women as a group if I call this dysphoria?” Ortberg ultimately recommends that the writer talk things through with a therapist (one who has experience with gender issues), which is an excellent idea. His full answer is considered, factual, and based on experience, and steers away from drawing conclusions – or even speculating – about the letter writer’s gender identity. Also an excellent idea. This is sensitive, personal stuff and folks need to sort it out for themselves.
However, I want to sift through some of Ortberg’s advice and commentary, because I think it’s darn interesting and good food for thought.
“Being a feminist in a male-dominated industry does not mean you must cling to a cis identity in order to support “the team;” all women experience sexism and misogyny in some form, whether individual or institutional, at some point in their lives, and yet most women do not transition.” And “Being a cis woman and being a feminist are not the same thing.”
Feminism can, and should, be embraced by anyone, regardless of their gender identity! You certainly don’t have to be female (assigned or identified) to be the feminist voice of reason in a room full of “middle-aged men.” In fact, some would argue that speaking out against sexist behavior is all the more powerful coming from someone who does not identify or present as female. Use your privilege for good!
“Dysphoria is not simply internalized misogyny turned up to 11.”
Misogyny, as it exists in our western society today, is more about women being silenced, excluded, and valued only for their sexuality. And, although the definition of gender dysphoria is not limited to how you feel about your physical traits (i.e. breasts, penis, etc.), this is the way dysphoria is often discussed, and it’s primarily what the letter writer references in relation to their discomfort, “… being uncomfortable in my female skin, compulsively wearing painfully tight sports bras to flatten my breasts, weightlifting to give myself a more powerful physique, etc.” I think all this points strongly to the letter writer experiencing genuine dysphoria rather than internalized misogyny.
“If transition is not in the cards for you and you simply arrive at a different understanding of your own relationship to the word woman, that’s a good and worthy outcome, too…” And “… remember that there are an incredible number of options available to you …” And “… there are a number of different ways to be a woman, and femininity is not a prerequisite.”
I think it’s interesting that Ortberg doesn’t specify what exactly “transition” means and states that there are “an incredible number of options available to you.” And by “interesting,” I mean I think it’s a huge “miss” not to specifically say that there are an incredible number of gender identity options available. It’s an unfortunate thing to leave out because both the letter writer and the column’s readers may not be familiar with non-binary identities, which could be just the thing they’re looking for. And, many of those non-binary identity options could be that the letter writer’s “different understanding of your own relationship to the word woman.”
Ortberg’s point about the myriad ways to be a woman is much more obvious to most readers. That the letter writer’s views on “female traits” were severely warped by her mother’s attitudes is clear and, no doubt, those views were reinforced by society, which does such a good job of degrading emotions and actions that are deemed “girly.” Perhaps she would have been better able to easily embrace a female identity in the absence of her mom’s influence. Female identities are expansive (infinitely expansive!) and they do fall into some pretty well known categories. We only need to look to those mavens archetypal womanhood, the Spice Girls, to understand this. Just kidding. Well, kind of not.
But seriously, back to the core theme of the letter as summarized by the writer’s nom de plume “Gender Dysphoria, or Just Hating My Gender?” I’ve thought a lot about this topic in relation to my own gender identity, but after reading this advice-seeking letter, I remain sure that my distaste for giggly/girly girls early on in life and my adult feeling of disconnection when interacting with women discussing very gendered topics is most assuredly about how I’m “wired” rather than any socially-infused misogyny. Plus, unlike the letter writer, I had fantastic role models in my life – from my mother to my sisters (who are 9 and 11 years older than I am) to various aunts and family friends – that celebrated and modeled the wonderful variety of womanhood.
Next time… why, in spite of all those great models of the ways to be a woman I feel most comfortable calling myself genderqueer/non-binary.