First, a couple of definitions so we’re all on the same page here:
Sex: Male, female or intersex, typically assigned at birth based on genitals
Gender: The performance of a certain set of cultural expectations of behavior, typically based on one’s sex
Gender Identity: How one feels and expresses those feelings in relation to one’s gender
For a more information about these definitions, please visit this resource from Planned Parenthood’s website.
“It’s not a secret that gender is a social construct. However, as often as we remember that, keep in mind that we inherit the blueprint for our gender performances. We can choose to use all or none of that blueprint.”
As a 22-year-old woman who stands at a staggering 5 feet and 1 inch tall, I’m no stranger to hearing “oh, it must be so nice to be so short!”, “you’re so lucky you’re so tiny!”.
I used to take comments like these at face-value, assuming them just to be something people say to be nice. The thing is, when I dated and then married a man who stands at a whopping 5’6, I began to notice a shift in comments about my height:
“Thank goodness you’re so short! You can still wear heels on your wedding day!”
“He must be happy to have found someone as little as you! It’s like you were made for each other.”
Just like, Brenda. Just like.
I realized that the comments that connected my attractiveness and my height were never really about me, but about how I (unintentionally) was performing the feminine virtue of petiteness. Intentional or not, my shortness makes my husband (and everyone who stands next to me, for that matter) look taller.
When we break it down to its most basic elements, what is femininity? It’s as much about being petite, as it is being smaller than him; it’s as much about the petite, delicate, and soft contrasting with the rugged, tough, and strong. It’s a performance of comparison often used to stroke the male ego. This is where we get height “requirements” on dating apps, and it goes both ways.
In her book, Gender Trouble : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, Dr. Judith Butler puts it like this: “Hence, one is one’ s gender to the extent that one is not the other gender, a formulation that presupposes and enforces the restriction of gender within that binary pair” (Butler, 30). When performing a gender within a binary system, that performance is as much about playing your role as it is NOT playing the other role. In a society that centers men, that performance becomes a tool to keep men in power. With unchecked external and internalized misogyny, we make ourselves smaller, dumber, and appear more delicate for the sake of his masculinity.
Let’s be clear though, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being feminine. I’m not one to tell anyone to wipe off their make up and burn all their dresses. I’m probably the last person to do that. It is, however, important that we take a critical look at our behavior every once in a while as it pertains to our gender performance and evaluate why we do what we do. It’s also important we never shrink ourselves in any way to make someone else feel better about themselves; and we can often do that unintentionally.
Questioning the gender binary isn’t new. In fact, the gender binary that much of our society clings to so tightly is an unfortunate inheritance from European colonizers, but that’s a blog for another time. The fact is, most of us have been socialized to perform one of two genders, and so our divergence from that performance will reflect that.
In her book, Butler also mentions,
“On the other hand, Simone de Beauvoir suggests in The Second Sex that ‘one is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one. ” For Beauvoir, gender is “ constructed,’ but implied in her formulation is an agent, a cogito, who somehow takes on or appropriates that gender and could, in principle, take on some other gender. Is gender as variable and volitional as Beauvoir’s account seems to suggest? Can ‘construction’ in such a case be reduced to a form of choice? Beauvoir is clear that one “ becomes ” a woman, but always under a cultural compulsion to become one” (Butler, 11).
It’s not a secret that gender is a social construct. However, as often as we remember that, keep in mind that we inherit the blueprint for our gender performances. We can choose to use all or none of that blueprint.
In the spring of 2020, there was a viral trend of young women (Gen Z to young millennial) shaving their heads. It was all over TikTok– women looking into the camera and saying, “I’ve been wanting to do this for years,” or “why the hell not?” and dragging some clippers right down the middle of their heads. It was fascinating to watch. And, to be honest, a little cathartic.
Over the months, we also saw a rise in women coming out, and changing their preferred pronouns to she/they, and sharing that they are non-binary. We have seen a significant shift in how many women express their gender and sexuality, and it’s important that we consider why this might be.
Lock-down, quarantine, pandemic life, whatever you want to call it, has created a unique social environment. Most people are forced to spend a significant portion of their time alone at home. No one looking at us; which means that we don’t have to do the usual things to keep up our gender performances. For once, getting dressed or not is solely dependent on if you feel like it, because it’s likely no one will see you anyways. The pressure to look good (which is subjective as it gets) for anyone other than yourself is suddenly gone. The long and short of it is that we’ve all lost our audience. And for many women, that means we’ve lost the external pressure of the male gaze.
Now we’re left with the reckoning of our own internalized male gaze.
For some, that simply meant wearing sweatpants all day and skipping the make-up routine. For many though, it seems that their reckoning went a bit farther than that. Given a space to explore and question what femininity meant to them, how that looked, and if they wanted to even perform it at all has lead to a re-invention of appearance, expression, and even identity.
Not all of the women who shaved their heads are necessarily questioning their gender or gender identity. But, all of them have chosen to deviate from the social expectation that women are supposed to have long hair and men are supposed to have short hair. They all felt comfortable enough to do this because they felt free of this prescribed expectation. Womanhood doesn’t have to mean you have long hair. And while that may move away from our culture’s definition of what “feminine” looks like, they’re not catering to that.
Being a woman is so much more than how you make men feel. Wear the high heels. Wear that tight, backless dress. Shave that head. Hell, grow your body hair out if it makes you feel more like yourself. At the end of the day, it should be about how you feel in your own body and you can decorate it however you want to.
How has quarantine impacted you? Have you experienced a shift in your own gender expression or identity? Let us know in the comments!
Image: Screenshots from the TikTok of Queen Halsey herself from dailymail.com*
*We know Halsey has rocked a shaved her head before quarantine, she’s iconic! If you want to seem more shaved heads, check out this compilation or check out #shavingmyhead on TikTok!
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble : Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 2007. EBSCOhost.
Parenthood, Planned. “Sex and Gender Identity.” Planned Parenthood, http://www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/gender-identity/sex-gender-identity.