The Cost Of Femininity

I had an interesting experience at work the other day. I work in Tech Support, and a lot of call time is spent waiting for software to finish installing, starting up, that sort of thing, so I spend quite a bit of my time on small talk, with my mouth on autopilot and the rest of my brain typing up case notes, or knitting.


Customer: “So whereabouts are you based?”
Melle: “We’re up in Scotland.” (knit knit knit)
Customer: “Oh, what’s the weather like up there?”
Melle: “It’s been snowing the last couple of days, actually.” (knit, kni–crap, dropped a stitch)
Customer: “[laughs] I’m so sorry.”
Melle: “Yeah, I mean, I love snow, but when I have to trudge through it to get to work — not so much.” (dammit where’s the proper-sized crochet hook dig dig dig)
Customer: “And you in heels and all.”
Melle: “Oh, I wear boots, actually.” (dig di–wait, what?)

Yeah. Thankfully, by the time most of my brain had caught up with what he’d said, I’d already managed to move the conversation along. But it got me thinking, about all the assumptions that lie in the one sentence, and how they reflect the assumptions society has of women, and of femininity.

Because in that one sentence, we get the assumption that because I’m female, I must be wearing heels. All the time. Even when there’s ankle-deep snow on the ground and I’ve had trouble not slipping and falling on my ass even in Doc Martens. Because I am, after all, a woman, and therefore femininity, as perceived by society, must be my first priority..

(I think this whole thing baffled me all the more because of the field I work in — female geeks aren’t generally perceived as being very feminine, and I’m much closer to the stereotype of the (female) geek than I am to any “pretty woman” stereotype. Maybe it’s my voice or something that makes me sound young and girlish and “pretty”? I dunno.)

And femininity, according to society, means work and hardship, and no comfort at all. It means shaving your legs and armpits regularly, trimming your eyebrows, wearing heels no matter the weather or circumstances, wearing make-up, having hair that’s neither too short (i.e. above your earlobes, because then it’s mannish) nor too long (i.e. below the shoulder, because then it’s too “young”) and preferably straight and thus requiring a shitload of daily styling to at least not look like ass, and regular cuts, and nails which are at the very least trimmed, but not all the way, and even.

Oh, and you should be at least relatively slim, but that’s kind of assumed as the default, because if you’re fat, you can’t ever look feminine, so why even try? You should probably also be white, and at the very least have “good hair” or relax it, but again, “white” is kind of assumed as the default starting position, really. And that’s not even getting into the cost in actual money (razors, tweezers or waxing, haircuts, manicures, etc.), or clothes, whose cost lies mostly in money and comfort.

You know, considering how much the patriarchy wants us to believe that men and women are just inherently different, dammit, so we’d best accept that and not call anyone on their essentialist bullshit, it sure as hell seems to take a shitload of work (and money, and lack of comfort) to be a woman.

6 Responses to “The Cost Of Femininity”

  1. BetaCandy Says:

    Can I just give you a hell yeah on that? I fail on almost every count you mentioned (hair is currently straightened, but now that I’ve found someone who can make my natural curls not look like a giant frizzball, I’m going back). And I’m white. But the rest - it can’t be that gender stereotypes are a joke. There’s clearly something wrong with me. ;)

  2. Melle Says:

    Oh, totally! I mean, obviously, we’re just special cases, “broken” as woman, really.

    I mean that jokingly, but also kind of seriously — I’ve had a lot of gender issues in past (non-related to the genderqueerness) because I’d internalised so much of the “Women are X, Y, Z, men are A, B, C,” and I fell/fall on the male side of that so often.

  3. BetaCandy Says:

    Same here. I mean, people were telling me flat out there was something wrong with me that I didn’t like to shop, did like computers (this is early 90’s, back before girl geeks were chic), didn’t want a man to pay on a date (how rude of me! how offensive!) and why on earth would a woman not want to shave all the time? Next I’d be refusing to wash!

    I did think something was wrong with me, and I thought it came from my abusive father. But after I got away from him and had time to really sort myself out, I still didn’t like pink, and only then did I realize, “Oh, wait - everyone’s full of shit. Again.”

  4. Melle Says:

    “Oh, wait - everyone’s full of shit. Again.”

    That’s about the size of it, yeah. Now if only we could get that through to people, and make them understand that this isn’t just some High-Brow Feminist Theory™, that this actually really fucks up real people. And while I’m wishing, I’d like a pony. :/

  5. BetaCandy Says:

    No kidding! I had a comment on my site the other day where this person said she was 17 and would rather be a MAN than a stuck-up pseudo intellectual bitch like us. All I could think was, “Well, come back when you’re 34 and let me know how you feel.”

  6. Purtek Says:

    Betacandy–damn, that last story is hilarious. Painful, but hilarious.

    On the “rules for being female” front, the conversation I most hate (though this kind of contradicts thinking what Betacandy said was hilarious, but I know she was being tongue-in-cheek) is the one that says that it’s only okay for me to break those rules because I’m young and relatively attractive (I skip the hair straightening thing, because in my case it’s a lost cause, but I make it work). The dialogue goes that I’ll change my mind about make-up when I start to get all wrinkly and whatever. I hate the assumption that I’m okay (pseudo-intellectual bitch that I am) making a point about opting out of the time, energy, money and comfort required to sustain beauty standards only if it comes at no actual personal cost.

    Also, there’s something that seriously squicks me out about a customer making note of your heels. I’m sorry if this adds “ew” to your offense, but it’s like there’s a layer of it being not just presumptuous, but also reminding me that when you’re talking about geeky techy stuff, he’s getting a certain image of you in his head, and much of it has nothing to do with the content of your conversation. It seems like a slight, subtle version of “So…what are you wearing?”


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