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If femininity is a performance, it’s akin to walking a tightrope

As we sit around now, deep in conversation about female empowerment and equality, accounts of wrestling with our femininity seem glaringly missing

The expectations of how you must act, look and think as a woman are plentiful and exhausting. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

In a deluge, of sorts, Facebook mistakenly sent me about 20 notifications, on the same day, about photo memories. In them, a very different self emerged: heavily coated in eyeliner and rocking some ugly vans; and in one photo, viciously hacking an inflatable chair.

It all seems a bit more understandable when you take the chair’s crimes into account, and while its rap sheet is considerable, two offences are standouts. First, this chair— of the Britney era (might even have said Britney on it)— became a signifier of being “with it”. It became part of the mainstream for any ‘cool kid’ growing up in the 1990s. It was an abandoned relic of a childhood that I was desperate to distance myself from as an ‘edgy’ fifteen-year-old. Secondly, and more importantly, the chair was pink. As I used my mother’s best scissors to stab into the squishy flesh of the chair, I renounced femininity, and embraced being ‘cool’.

In conversations with women acquaintances, particularly of the Chuck Taylor and My Chemical Romance persuasion, it seems that I was following a rite of passage, one that many have traversed, but seemingly, surprisingly few talk about. As we sit around now, deep in conversation about female empowerment and equality, accounts of wrestling with our femininity seem glaringly missing.

I was, by most accounts, an incredibly precocious child, wrestling with questions of identity, privilege and discrimination from an early age. And yet, I fell into a trap that I see a lot of young women and girls fall into: hating femininity through some measure of internalised misogyny.

Growing up, the stigmatisation of femininity was, at least in my circle, inescapable. I was cocooned in the pseudo-intellectual belief that I was better than other girls, because I rejected skirts, because I didn’t care about clothes, and because I was, as I very astutely wrote in a diary entry at fourteen, “not a lipstick wearing, rom-com watching, shopping obsessed, brainless robot”. I had at this point, progressed from stabbing defenceless chairs to attacking my fellow women and their choices.

If femininity is a performance, it’s akin to walking a tightrope atop an elephant, complete with sharp spikes underneath. The expectations of how you must act, look and think as a woman are plentiful and exhausting. In performing femininity—the tweezing, the smiling, the politeness, the non-functionality of the clothing—we expend hours of our precious time and energy.

I was aware of this facet of femininity at an early age, and my response was to rebel. I would not be, as I said, a brainless robot, slave to the whims of men. I would not wear skirts, I would not wear pink, I would not smile and be nice. I was better and smarter than all the other girls.

In rejecting femininity, I believed I was rebelling against ‘the man’, or the patriarchy/the status quo/the gendered expectations/all of the above. I was under the impression that my rejection of femininity was a rejection of my weakness and complicity, and that idea endured for longer than I care to admit.

It’s hard to pin-point what brought about the change in my thinking, but two instances stand out. First, ‘The Bimbette Chart’, a (sadly thought out) decision by a teacher to have all the girls in the class listed on a chart (drawn up by a boy) with squares, which would be home to a big black cross if you asked what was deemed a stupid question. And no, there was no equivalent for the male students. This, in a class where all the top students were female, in one of the few schools in Chandigarh where the sexes were treated (somewhat) equally. This, by a seemingly progressive teacher. The chart irked me, but the word, ‘bimbo’ was what stuck in my mind. It drums up a quite a mental image, doesn’t it?

The Bimbette chart, and then, watching Elle Woods in Legally Blonde that night as my best friend worked on the chart, felt revolutionary. It birthed an introspection into my relationship with femininity, and opened the doors for me to reconsider my thoughts.

I had spent years believing that in rejecting femininity, and (I’m horribly sorry to admit) mocking women who did not, I was embracing feminism. It was a continuation of the idea that as a ‘smart’ woman, I was above femininity. I was attempting to prove my worth by distancing myself from ideas of how women were—because I wanted to be taken seriously, because I wanted to be valued. And femininity is not valued. In my desperation to prove that I did not belong on life’s bimbette chart, I bypassed the most important element—questioning the chart itself.

I had played into the hands of the patriarchy, dismissing what was ‘feminine’ as garbage, and embracing masculine ideals as superior. Instead of stepping back to consider who I was, and viewing the spectrum of ideas that lay before me, I had run from the side that society told me was the loser.

I have given up the ritualistic hacking of pink objects now, and moved on to a much more satisfying hobby: deveining my ideas of who society expects me to be from who I am and want to be, and valuing femininity, no matter who displays it. If there’s one thing I know now, it’s that the Bimbette chart only seems to exist for women. We are asked to walk a tightrope of expectations, damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Our best course of action is to rip that chart and settle into ourselves—our self-realisation and self-confidence is scary to proponents of the status quo.

It isn’t a particularly straightforward practice. The performance of gender is a debilitating and deeply entrenched one. Small innocuous tasks routinely become moral hot-points for me: punished for not shaving my legs by society, aghast at shaving my legs because it perpetuates the ridiculous social expectation on women to be hairless, smooth creatures. Wrestling with whether I’m actually shaving my legs ‘for me’ and because I’d like to, or whether what I like is dictated by patriarchal ideas of an attractive female body that I can’t shake off.

I wish I could say I have answers, that I have cracked what multiple waves of feminists have not, but alas, I think this is a lifelong battle we must each wage in our own minds, and to find our own truth.

The writer is a student, bookseller and mother of two dogs and a cat in Bournemouth.

    16.02.2021 | 10:41 AM IST

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