I’m A Girl and I’m Okay

This morning I tweeted about lusting after Pottery Barn monogrammed towels and then felt the need to defend the fact that I have a yen for interior decoration. But why? It was a throwaway comment I made after Pottery Barn sent me an email blast about what was on sale. I don’t think any one cared or judged me for being unabashedly “girly”, yet I felt the need to qualify myself. That’s silly, so I am going to out myself, the way I came to terms with being Korean.

I’m a girl and that’s okay.

A Girly Girl

I admit it: I like playing dressup, makeup, and interior decorating.

This train of thought was brought on by Natalie Whipple’s post on “strong female characters”, but more than that, I find myself mulling about “feminism” and “femininity” and “femaleness” more and more these days. I’ve had a weird relationship to being “a girl” almost my entire life and it’s only recently have I been able to articulate my issues and then try and come to terms with them.

These are the facts about me.

  1. I am female.
  2. I am feminine. Ish.
  3. I am a feminist.

I have no troubles with the first and third, but I think I’ve pinpointed the second as being the thorn in my side. Society has a set of ideas, expectations, standards, etc. to describe and attribute to people born female, which for my purposes, I have collectively aggregated into the nebulous notion of “femininity”. Through books, through media, through acculturation, I had somehow internalized the idea that being “feminine” was weaker than being “masculine” by the time I was six years old.

Not that being female was lesser than being male. God, I would never want to be a boy! Ew! Being a girl was awesome!

Possibly because I had difficulty fitting into certain standards of “femininity”, particularly when it came to interests. I liked “boy” things: toy cars, model airplanes and rocketry, comic books, shit that blows up, fighting, etc. When I played make-believe, I never played house, tea party, Barbies or…whatever other stereotypical things little girls play? (I once went over to a girl’s house who liked to play with Barbies and I distinctly remember being utterly at a loss for what to do.) I tended to have girl playmates who were more or less likeminded when it came to these things: we played things like Conquer the Fort and Exploring the Jungle and Blow Shit Up and Subdue the Everloving Snot Out of The Neighborhood Boys–SUBMIT TO MY GIRLY AUTHORITY! (I, uh, liked playing war. A lot.)

The Spectrum of Femininity

So I was female, but not feminine. Others told me that made me a tomboy. Sure, that works.

Because I more or less fell on the “boyish” side of the cultural gender binary spectrum, I was conditioned to cherish my masculine traits and consider them “better” than my feminine ones (of which I had many!). To the point where I began to abjure all things “girly”. For a long period of time, I refused to wear dresses or skirts, refused to go within ten feet of anything pink, and if there was a whiff of unicorns or bubbles or some shit like that, I was running as far as I could in the opposite direction. I had a fierce, independent, and strong-willed mother and a lovingly indulgent father who looked on my antics with affection.

This didn’t last, of course. I began to have an identity crisis around the time I was 12, when hormones began kicking in and I suddenly started noticing, really noticing, that there was a difference between boys and girls. All of a sudden I was expected to act “girly”. Boys went from being brothers I could pal around with to strange creatures whose teasing took on a different tenor in ways I couldn’t fathom.

(I was, uh, slow on the uptake when it came to kissy stuff, okay?)

I hard a hard time fitting into this (seemingly new) spectrum of femininity. Suddenly I was pressured to “look pretty” and “act girly”. I took to “looking pretty” like a duck to water: I liked fashion and art and this was pretty freaking awesome. But “act girly” was no longer about dolls or playing tea party; it was this weird, undefinable thing to me at the time.

And I failed at it.

I was your standard overachiever and I got perfect grades in everything, so you can imagine how I took to failing girlyness. NOT WELL. Being a tomboy was all well and good when I was a child, but being a tomboy at 12 suddenly meant I had to forego my newfound love of clothes. Why? Couldn’t I wear pretty, pretty dresses and go blow shit up at the same time?

Girl Or Boy? Pick One, But Not Both

And so we come back to the beginning. For a lot of my life, I’d been placed into the Boy Category, so when any instance of Girl-ness crops up, I feel the bizarre need to apologize. But I shouldn’t. Masculine vs. Feminine is not necessarily a black and white thing. If I take great joy in interior decorating and making a house look beautiful, does that mean I should also enjoy cooking, cleaning, and being a mother? If I like paint-balling (if I weren’t ethically opposed to it, I would probably really enjoy hunting) and poker, does that mean I should also like watching professional sports? (I hate pro sports; it bores me stiff.)

We all have aspects of the “traditionally” masculine and feminine in us and I would like to see that reflected in characters too. I don’t mean physically; I’m sick of the girl who can kick your ass eight ways from Sunday. I would like to see a girl whose pretty comfortable being a girl, but doesn’t adhere to every notion of femininity down to the last detail. This is my idea of a strong female character.

(On the flip side, I’d like to see a boy whose just a freaking boy, instead of a strange cross between stalker and knight in shining armor.)

“Strong” doesn’t mean “strong in a masculine way”. Strong ought to be gender neutral. A piece of steel is strong. And the last time I checked, steel didn’t have a gender.

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17 Responses to I’m A Girl and I’m Okay

  1. Melissa Dawn Harte 21 Oct 2010 at 3:17 pm #

    Feminism has gotten misconstrued over the years and has lost its original meaning. Which is sad. Feminism as it was meant to be is the right to choose. You should be able to choose whether you want to join the military and fight for your country, or choose to be a stay at home mother to your children. It’s not about the choices but about the right to make those choices.

    I’m a survivor who had a baby at the age of sixteen, who worked three jobs in order to feed my child, who now chooses to stay at home to teach the rest of my children good values and morals. Does it make me less of a feminist because I left the workforce to stay home? No, it was my choice and not the choice of someone who influenced my decision whether that is someone in my life or the government. Thanks to women like Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and Carrie Chapman Catt I have a voice and the right to choose to do with my life anything I see fit. It’s okay if I’m a tomboy and it’s okay if I’m girly.

    • JJ 21 Oct 2010 at 3:47 pm #

      Feminism aside, I want to deconstruct the notion of femininity. I fully believe in a woman’s right to choose the course of her life. My problem isn’t the political aspect of feminism so much as the social stickiness of “femininity”.

      Many of my friends who don’t know how to apply makeup tell me that they “fail at being a girl”. They don’t fail at being female; they believe themselves to be failing at living up to society’s standards of femininity. I think you can be feminine and not wear makeup, just as you can be tomboyish and wear pretty, pretty clothes at the same time.

  2. Melissa Dawn Harte 21 Oct 2010 at 4:04 pm #

    And I wholeheartedly agree. =)

  3. Fawn 21 Oct 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    I’m glad I’m not the only one looking at this, even though I admit I’m more of a humanist than a feminist. In my last book, my female MC was girly enough to appreciate a pretty nightgown and tough enough to beat up the bad guy and drag her hero through the burning sands of time. She didn’t make a big deal out of either. And sometimes she was just a person with a puzzle to solve. Her hero was definitely a guy, but I let him enjoy buying new clothes for special occasions and have his ‘girly’ moments, as well. I think girliness is fun, and I think everyone should be able to enjoy it once in a while without guilt.

    But I used to place softball in a dress in high school, so what do I know? (Not soccer though, because you really just can’t play soccer in a dress.)

    • :) 25 Oct 2010 at 10:25 am #

      Check out the definition of “feminism” here. It tends to get a bad rap, but really, if you’re humanist, you’re feminist.


      Also, if you are up for more reading, google third wave feminism.

      • JJ 25 Oct 2010 at 1:15 pm #

        My definition of feminism is just that: that men and women are equal.

        Plain and simple, really. I don’t believe men and women are THE SAME, which unfortunately, is what feminism has come to mean for a lot of people.

  4. Natasha Fondren 21 Oct 2010 at 9:53 pm #

    Unless you’re speaking German, in which case it’s masculine. :-P

    I felt like a boy for a good portion of my childhood. I wasn’t girly, but I wasn’t not girly. I think it was reading so many books with boy protagonists or something. I’m really not sure.

    I agree with Melissa on the right to choose. Great comment!

  5. Marie Lu 22 Oct 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    Really love this post! I empathize–when I was little, I loved playing with Barbies as much as I loved my K’nex and Lego build-a-working-machine sets, and loved My Little Pony/Disney’s princesses as well as SWAT Kats/Ninja Turtles and fighter jet documentaries. (Not commenting on the blatant-ness of Disney’s girl-pandering products, because I always liked their girl products and found nothing wrong with creating products that please a certain demographic of girls. ;) )

    But you’re right. I tend to not mention loving those girly aspects as much as I mention loving those boy-ish aspects. I’m afraid that others will view me differently otherwise, that I’m somehow less intelligent or more vulnerable if I give in to those things which society labels “feminine”. I’m not sure if I’m over this yet. (And it shows in my fiction.) In fact, I was a little embarrassed typing those likes even in this comment! I try to tell myself occasionally that it’s ok to obsess over afternoon high tea as much as video games. :) Anyway, thanks for this post. It was very therapeutic!

    • JJ 22 Oct 2010 at 2:17 pm #

      I, uh, have a crippling fear of dolls. ;-) I was never a Barbie person, nor was I someone who played tea party, but man did I love dressup. (I still love playing dressup!) I could play dressup all the livelong day, providing I could go out and roll around in the mud in it as well.

      Playing dressup for me was like playing a character. So one day I’m Anne of Green Gables, another I’m a pirate, etc. I really enjoyed playing Dickensian urchin, for some reason. (I was a highly literate child, I guess?) I rarely, if ever, did the princess thing. Even though my name (Sarah) means princess, I sort of 1) hated my name and 2) resented how pink princess things are.

      But you shouldn’t be ashamed of your girlyness! Embrace your girlyness! It’s awesome! I am going to and publicly declare my love of monogrammed towels.

      • Marie Lu 22 Oct 2010 at 9:58 pm #

        Hehe. <3 Brings back fond memories of that episode of 'Friends' with the beloved Pottery Barn apothecary table. :)

  6. Natalie Whipple 22 Oct 2010 at 10:33 pm #

    Exactly. Oh, I feel you! I love blowing stuff up, and I also wanted to paint my nails! It felt like I couldn’t do both, and it was hard at times.

    I have come to terms with that now as well. I love me some Deadliest Warrior, but I also adore a cute pair of shoes (or seven).

    It is a spectrum, and I think we should be allowed to fit on there wherever we want without apology:)

  7. Lia Keyes 23 Oct 2010 at 3:39 am #

    There’s a world where I can wear pretty dresses while blowing shit up? That makes me so damn happy!

  8. Lia Keyes 23 Oct 2010 at 3:40 am #

    Actually, can I swop that round to “blowing stuff up while wearing pretty dresses”? Somehow that feels better to me. After all, a girl has to prioritize.

  9. Jen 25 Oct 2010 at 11:04 am #

    Thank you.

    You’ve pretty much described me growing up (but for the teen years – I didn’t start trying to fit into the girl side of life until college).

    I’m only now starting to understand how “strong” doesn’t mean masculine, and how to be feminine without seeing myself as weak.

    It’s always good to read about others trying to find their place on the same spectrum.

  10. Erin 31 Oct 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    I am you. Or you are me. Or something. Everything — everything — you just described above perfectly matches my experience growing up. And now. (The PB catalog makes me swoon in way I swore I never would when I was nine, and now I’m wondering why my nine-year-old self came to that determination in the first place.)

    (Though I will admit: I played with Barbies, but only those of the Disney variety because then I could rewrite and act out their adventures with more appealing plotlines — while in my fort, which I would later blow up because the pirates were attacking Princess Jasmine.)

    “Strong” doesn’t mean “strong in a masculine way”. Strong ought to be gender neutral. A piece of steel is strong. And the last time I checked, steel didn’t have a gender.

    And all I can say to that is… abso-freaking-loutely. :)

  11. Karl 7 Nov 2010 at 3:23 am #

    Now that you are at peace with those facts, go back to the kitchen and make Mr. Bear sum sandwich.

  12. carol 20 Sep 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    Love to be dressed in cute skirt, blouse, lacy half slip.

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