My relationship with my femininity is a thorny area of my life.** It is fraught with anxiety and self doubt. Since my body was sexually exploited and disrespected by perpetrators as well as by a sexist and racist society; I grew up with conflict about my femaleness on multiple levels. I grew up believing my main gift to men is my sexual allure; second to that, it is motherhood. And that it is men’s opinions of me that give me value in the world. Further compounding my disempowerment was the fact that the standards of desirability are white, not brown, like me. I also internalized profound alienation with my physical needs and realities. The result of these types of brainwashing is that I have not been a good steward of my body nor my womanhood.
Recently , I’ve come to realize that I grew into a woman who took over for my abusers and carried on their disrespect, objectification and exploitation of my body long after they were gone. Their invalidating messages were absorbed at a deep level and I identified so much with my perpetrators that I internalized many of their values. Healing from my trauma involves breaking the loyalties to the lies that I exist for another’s pleasure and that I am shameful and inadequate. Healing from the host of “isms” in our culture involves breaking the loyalties to the lies that keep women in our society focused on their percieved imperfections. Recovery is teaching me a different way of living in my female body and caring for it. I am inexperienced in this new ownership, and I am shy and hesitant.
My new relationship with my own femininity requires I re-examine long held assumptions about beauty and sexiness. It’s incredibly liberating to know I have a choice in how I see myself and how I value and present myself to others. I try now not to hold myself to any standard of beauty and acceptability other than my own, appropriately informed by others I respect. It is a goal I need to be vigilant about, for negative messages are continuously blasted at women of color in this society (and others, but this is a personal essay, so I speak form my vantage).
I’ve come to appreciate the softness of my skin, hips, breasts, voice while valuing my muscular frame and love of sports. My woman spirit is courageous and trailblazing as well as nurturing and service oriented. My femininity is authentic and true as opposed to artificial and illusory. I enjoy sensual pleasures and dramatic interchanges with my lovers and exude a personal style that is colorful and adorned. These are the ways I view my femininity.
I am excited to unfold into my feminine, yet there is a mourning that is accompanying my blossoming. This grieving takes notice of the pain of my unwanted self, the me I abandoned and that society did not want. It is a necessary witnessing. Today, I’m looking unflinchingly at the adolescent me, pregnant at 14 and then told she was “ruined” because her breasts bore the marks of lacatation. I remember the mean jokes about how dark and puffy Black and Latina women’s pussies were and the deep shame I felt when I saw how I was so different looking than who I saw in my boyfriend’s porn. I comfort my younger self that remembers having my body pulled down and manhandled for another’s lust, despite my fear and scrambling. And I am acknowledging the rage I feel when I think of the years of sore feet, joints and back caused by long work days in high heels and in an uncomfortable high maintenance ensemble just to pass the bosses mandate of being feminine and pretty. How ironic that all these violations were committed against my female body in the name of an artificial female construct but in reality they were violations of my feminine self.
So, I am making it up to myself now. I am no longer at the mercy of the opinions of others. I know I was not ruined then and never will be, even when I am old and walk with a cane. My femininity exists because I exist and we are one; and if it gives another pleasure, it is at my discretion. My sensuality and sex are vibrant and healing, yet only one part of my femaleness.
I am now gifting myself soft and delightful things to caress my curves and offer up what I love most about myself to my lovers. I am adorning what I love most about my femaleness, which is sometimes fierce, and other times sweet. I am letting my hair return to it’s wild mane, leaving behind chemical relaxers. And I am playing with playful ways to let my grey grow out as silver threads. The biggest change has been that I am raising the bar for who can enjoy my sexuality with me; they need to know I am in charge of it and appreciate it as a gift.
Making such big changes in my self perception requires that I give myself a break at times. I give myself permission to be inconsistent. Sometimes my insecurities undermine what I know intellectually and I succumb to societal pressure to be a certain type of feminine woman. Usually this happens when I am triggered with feelings of being undesirable. Taking others people’s likes and dislikes is a natural response to living a social life, but when I do so at the expense of my own sense of wholesome femaleness, then it becomes retriggering of past nonconsensual sacrifices.
It is a zig zag journey and I am imperfectly creating my new reality. I do not police myself. I used to bully myself with an iron hand type of self control when it came to diets, dress or sexual roles. Now, I rather live compassionately with myself. And take it easy. I don’t have all things figured out in this area of my life, but I am happily in charge and choosing to create it with excitement.
* Self portrait: Bustier, pastel, ink
** For this discussion on femininity I want to stress that I do not assume that all biologically born women have, nor need to have, this relationship with their gender. I am a queer (“bi” in simplistic terms) femme, meaning I enjoy and move in the world with a strong sense of femaleness and desire to create a gender identity reflecting a womanly/feminine energy. These words are so subjective, but let that suffice for now; I think you get my drift, please see the writings of gender/queer activists for more eloquent discourse on this important topic.