2017: A Gender Revelation
I submitted this essay three years ago (5/29) for a writing course on the tech world of Silicon Valley that I took during my final quarter of college. Those four years were a lonely time in my life, especially regarding the absence of woman friends, and I can tell I was trying to sort out feelings of not belonging as I wrote this piece. I remember the moment of revision when I landed on the piece’s final words, a moment when I realized that I wasn’t a woman trying to figure out how I fit within gender norms. Rather, I was frustrated with gender because I wanted to inhabit an identity outside of (in addition to) that of ‘woman.’ It was much too late to change the entire essay to say this, but I did end up borrowing from the material here to shape my first essay for Medium.
The previous fall, I had first been introduced to gender theory (see “It’s Not for Women!!!), and I believe this piece is the result of those thoughts percolating in the back of my mind over the first half of 2017. Included after the end of the original essay are a note from my instructor and few excerpts from my journals in June and July of that same year.
“Hahaha don’t worry we’re going to wait a while before we think about kids!!” Nicole wrote this in reply to one of the dozens of comments on her Facebook wedding photo album. The original commenter had prodded about when the newlyweds would start a family. Nicole was the first of my same-aged acquaintances (at least of those whom I knew well enough to be Facebook friends) to get married. Although we had not been in the same friend group since high school started, I had once been close with her and most of her bridesmaids.
A few months after the wedding, Nicole proudly posted about the purchase of their first home. About six months after she posted the comment full of laughter, I was surprised to scroll upon her and her husband posing with an ultrasound picture and a onesie embroidered with the logo of a local sports team. “Baby coming June 2017 [heart emoji, baby emoji].” The post received 330 likes and has 54 congratulatory comments. In February, Nicole livestreamed video of the gender reveal — a girl. In May, I caught a glimpse of the pink-everything baby shower.
Although it felt way too soon for someone my age — actually, a few months younger — to be a wife, and especially a mother, I tried my best to withhold judgment. What bothered me most was seeing these events celebrated by her Facebook community, a group that overlaps greatly with my own. Growing up, I never felt strongly that I wanted to have kids or get married, and during my time away at college I have found others who embrace the possibility of alternatives to being the stay-at-home mom/wife. As far as marriage and motherhood are concerned, I still don’t know what I want, and most of the time I feel like that’s okay.
But, with graduation (and real life?) nearing, I sense that talk of these life decisions will be harder to ignore, especially because it is widely known that I have a boyfriend (thanks, Facebook). I fear that those around me will feel emboldened to, in subtle or overt ways, express their eagerness for me fill my womanly role as a wife and mother. I know this fear is not unfounded because the process has already begun. During a phone call last month, my grandma followed her question about how my boyfriend was doing with, “So, are you engaged yet?” My throat burst with nervous vibration that I hope passed as laughter.
I try to find solace in the thought that I can make my own choices. But, as my more of my peers undoubtedly follow suit in marriage and motherhood, I worry that the course of my life will be less of my decision, and more of a gradual subconscious acceptance of what is good and right.
As I confront these societal expectations, I can’t help but remember the other stage of my life in which I tried to hold out against gender norms. Like all teens, I sought to learn more about who I was and who I was becoming. But, as I attempted to explore my identity, I quickly learned how powerless my curiosity was against peer pressure and stereotypes. Because my time and ability to explore who I wanted to be was cut short, when I look back I can’t help but feel like I boarded the plane to adulthood with an important item missing from my suitcase.
In eighth grade, I dressed up for as a boy Halloween. In preparation for my big night, I tied my shoulder-length hair up high on my head and tucked it under a baseball cap. I wore my dad’s jeans, white t-shirt, and navy blue short-sleeve button-up, undone. I was about five inches shorter than my dad and the clothes hung loosely on my slender frame, just the look I was going for. The navy and orange Adidas running shoes were my own.
After dark, my friends and I met up to go trick-or-treating. They had coordinated amongst themselves to dress up as fairies of different colors. At one of the houses we visited, a woman took particular interest in the others’ costumes. “What a beautiful group of girls,” she beamed as she took in the glimmering fairies. “ — And guy,” she quickly added, her eyes finally resting on me.
As we walked away from the house, I failed to contain a goofy smile. Luckily, it was dark and everyone was busy taking stock of their candy stashes anyway. I had just been called a boy. Whether or not she was going along with my costume or thought I was a teenage boy trick-or-treating without a costume was irrelevant. I felt like I had achieved a long-standing goal despite never having discovered I held it within me.
Even when I wasn’t explicitly dressed up as a boy, I avoided almost all products made for girls. Up until sixth grade, wearing sweatpants with hoodie sweatshirts to school every day was common among my sports-playing friends. But, as my peers and I entered our teenage years, the others started abandoning their tomboy ways. My world fell into shambles when my closest friend, with whom I had made a pact to never use makeup, showed up to school wearing mascara.
I had no desire to experiment with makeup, dresses, or even the color pink. I daydreamed of cutting my hair to a boyish length, but knew I would never be able to take the chiding from my peers. How could I push the boundaries any further when it was already being made clear that my usual tomboy style was no longer acceptable?
At a birthday party in the summer before eighth grade, a group of friends insisted I try putting on mascara. When I refused and ran upstairs into the host’s bedroom, one of my ‘friends’ tracked me down and sat on top of me. With one arm she held my face in position while she forced mascara onto my eyelashes — and other parts of my eyes — with the other.
A few months into the eighth-grade school year, not long after my day as a boy, I went to watch a high school girls’ basketball game with some friends from my middle school team. As the older girls lined up to practice layups, one of the players, Melissa, ran in front of where we sat. Since Melissa was only a year older than me, I knew her from summer camps, past years’ scrimmages, and bus rides shared between the 7th and 8th grade teams. Melissa always stood out to me because she was the only other girl my age or older that held onto a tomboy style. For this reason — and because she was good at basketball — I saw her as role model.
One of my friends’ moms, who always enjoyed hanging out with us, leaned into the group and whispered about Melissa, “Look at her, she’s such a beast. Like, she’s just manly.” She deepened her voice to emphasize the last word. Over her daughter’s pleas to stop talking, the mom continued, “You know she’s a lesbian, right?” She nodded knowingly and left it there. No one else spoke. Who were we to challenge her?
I hadn’t consciously started exploring my sexuality — physically or mentally — but I knew I was supposed to like boys. And, despite not being cognizant of any gay women in my life, I supposed that the lesbians (or maybe just the singular ‘lesbian’ since I can only think of being aware of Ellen) I had seen on TV did appear somewhat boyish. If dressing/acting/looking like a boy meant others would assume that I was a lesbian, I had no choice but to make a change. I started wearing my hair down once in a while instead of constantly keeping it tied tightly in a ponytail. My shirts went from Nike sweat-wicking to Hollister scoop neck and my pants from Adidas sweats to American Eagle jeans. I shifted slowly, careful not to garner much attention, but by the end of my freshman year of high school I presented myself with enough similarity to my female peers to pass as acceptably girlish.
When I started exploring my gender for the first time, I was remarkably disconnected from technology, at least compared to today’s norms. My parents didn’t buy me my first cell phone until Christmas of eighth grade, and I only used it for texts and calls. Up until around the same time, my family shared one desktop computer. The Facebook phenomenon only reached me during the summer before my freshman year of high school, and Myspace was never popular among my friends.
Looking back at how absent these now-ubiquitous technologies were in my early teenage years, I’m left to wonder how my experience would have differed if I’d had access to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the like. Would I have found more acceptance and room to explore online? Not according to research that shows how social success online mirrors offline standards. For girls and young women, this success entails garnering attention in the form of likes and affirming comments, typically from heterosexual boys or young men.
Criminologist Valerie Steeves studied the experiences of girls and young women online through focus group interviews. Participants reported that peer validation and support was only received through “conform[ing] to gendered stereotypes.” If a user’s social media account did not display appropriate femininity, they received mean comments (which the participants called “getting crap”) from their peers.
A post was deemed worthy of disparagement if it was understood as oversharing, acting too sexual, or did not look pretty enough. And pressure didn’t come just from those in one’s age group. Parents, who did not think to go online in the earlier days of the internet, now often closely monitor social media in order to protect their kids’ image. Whereas Steeves initially theorized that girls and young women have the chance to try out different identities online, based on the interview data she concludes, “Rather than opening up space for new performances of femininity, social media came with a clear and vigorously enforced set of rules about acceptable ways of being a girl.”
Knowing their profiles will be policed by others, girls also begin to “judge themselves through the lens of peer acceptance,” carefully selecting appropriate levels and types of sharing. We must be careful, however, not to blame the victims. Ideas about how girls should present themselves come from normative media representations that Steeves and her legal-scholar coauthor, Jane Bailey, argue “increasingly colonize online spaces,” hindering the ability of girls and young women to create exploratory environments on the internet.
As it currently stands, cyberspace has become just another arena in which to present the same feminine identity as real life, thereby increasing the work that girls and young women must do in order to be accepted by their peers and parents. I now imagine how my mascara attack might have been streamed on Facebook Live, how pictures of my friends in their fairy outfits would gain hundreds of Instagram likes while my boyish selfie would receive only a few, how my friend’s mom could have bombarded a group chat with judgmental messages about other girls.
Using social media among the same peer group that I was already feeling negative pressure from likely would have made me feel even less comfortable exploring my gender identity, but what about the opportunities made possible by more anonymous online spaces? Before further exploring this possibility, it’s important to note that, in an age of linked accounts and complicated privacy settings, anonymity can be tricky to achieve. Girls who mean to post something for an audience of internet strangers may be discovered by someone at school and risk damaging their social record permanently.
Even if users do figure out how to maintain their privacy, more anonymous social media platforms are not necessarily full of support and acceptance. Well-known sites like Tumblr and Reddit have become fertile territory for cyberbullying since perpetrators are unlikely to ever suffer the consequences of their actions. On their blog, queenieofaces writes about harsh criticism within Tumblr’s asexual community. Just as girls on Facebook police each other for appropriate femininity, asexual Tumblr users hatefully correct each other instead of supportively offering educational commentary. Queenieofaces describes how the culture of rage (even sometimes reaching the level of death threats) is perpetuated based on the perception that “anger offers legitimacy.” This means angry comments are reblogged at a much higher rate than less emotive ones, spreading through the community and normalizing intimidation tactics. In contrast, writing in a calm tone is seen as a sign of apathy.
The norm of angrily calling people out for their errors, queenieofaces writes, shows an “insistence on perfection” that discourages constructive conversations, but even more importantly, “sets an impossibly high bar for newcomers” who are expected to know all the nuances of the language and history of the community immediately upon joining. I can see how seeking an online community for those exploring their gender identity could have been a disappointing and frustrating experience. Reading hateful language from people with who I was trying to connect could have easily led me to conclude that there was no accepting community out there for me. As it happened, I was simply left to wonder if such a group of people might exist.
Here I am, ten years later, again seeking a way to explore my gender role and identity. This time, I have the internet constantly at my fingertips, but both my personal experience and research have shown that there is little promise for liberation from societal norms on social media. As I began to contemplate if any other tech developments of the past decade could help me, I realized that I was already using technology to delve into pressing questions about being a woman.
A little over a year ago I discovered podcasts. I was introduced to the medium by a psychology professor who assigned our class to listen to two episodes of the science show, Radiolab. From this entry into the form, I have spent the past year following my curiosity to program my personalized supply of audio content. My subscription list is now dominated by feminist podcasts that provide much-needed models of what womanhood, in its messy complexity, can look like.
I have sought these voices through podcasts especially because they are rare in my offline life. Through my years in college, my closest confidants have been men. While they have been willing to listen to my gender-related problems, hearing is not the same as understanding. I could, and did, tell my boyfriend about what it was like to get an IUD inserted into my cervix. (Spoiler alert: not fun!) Although venting about my intensely cramp-ridden day provided some catharsis, I found more comfort in listening to the words of two women I have never met.
Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman host Call Your Girlfriend: “a podcast for long distance besties everywhere,” as the tagline goes. Ann and Aminatou sustain their bicoastal friendship through this podcast, which touches on healthcare, public policy, and pop culture. The hosts don’t hesitate to share intimate personal details with listeners. A long conversation about pelvic exams, and women’s health more generally, was initiated by Ann’s story about being body shamed by her gynecologist. The doctor said that she could refer Ann to a specialist to get rid of the varicose veins on her legs. Not only were her legs not the reason she was visiting the gynecologist, varicose veins (without other symptoms) present no need for medical concern, the host fumed. I immediately empathized with Ann’s fury, recalling how, as the nurse poked and prodded, I wanted nothing more than to hear the word “normal.”
Podcasts have come to hold a prominent place in my weekly routine; I look forward to certain days of the week based when particular podcasts release their episodes. My subscription list includes dozens of shows, and I’m often finding new ones to add. Based on its current prolific state, I assumed that the podcast form has long been an established and reputable source of information and entertainment. After little digging, however, I learned that podcasting has only pushed its way into the mainstream in the past three years. In 2014, a true crime series called Serial became podcasting’s breakout hit, averaging 1.5 million listens per episode.
While Serial was certainly compelling (it wasn’t my first podcast, but it was the show that got me hooked), it also emerged at an opportune technological moment. Smartphones were becoming the norm, allowing for on-demand streaming of audio content. The term podcast was created with the advent of the iPod, which introduced the possibility of taking curated audio programs on-the-go, but shows had to be downloaded ahead of time on one’s computer. Whereas 42% of podcast listeners consumed audio via a portable device in 2013, 69% listen on-the-go in 2017.
Like Netflix, and music services like Pandora and Spotify, podcasts have surged in popularity now that technology allows for reliable streaming. As David Carr writes in his 2014 New York Times article, showrunners in public radio initially worried about podcasts stealing their listener base. This fear was well-founded in the medium’s fast growth in popularity: from 2013 to 2017, the percent of Americans twelve and older that listened to at least one podcast monthly doubled from 12% to 24%. The public radio industry has reacted quickly, now offering their shows in podcast form, and even producing content specifically for smartphone streaming.
Podcast apps allow for just about anyone to share their audio content. Creating a podcast episode, while requiring a bit more time and effort, is not that different from posting to Facebook. Information sharing has been democratized to the point that almost anything can be called news depending on whom you surround yourself with online. Think of how Facebook’s newsfeed blends global news and your aunt’s puppy adoption into one scroll-inducing stream of information.
For me, the crucial difference between engaging with podcasts versus on Facebook is that the former has a limited degree of socialness. The medium is mostly a one-way street. When hosts respond to listener questions, they hold the authority to choose which issues to address and how. When mail from the audience is read, listeners receive advice without the public chance to agree with or refute what they’ve been told. I know when I start listening to one of my trusted podcasts, I won’t stumble upon asinine sexist comments as I might on Facebook, where friends’ opinions (as well as those of their friends) are allowed to run rampant. In this way, podcasts allow for a more selective degree of curation.
But, even as it lacks direct social connection, podcasts’ auditory form provides a level of intimacy greater than what visual social media can offer. Unlike viewing something on a screen, when listening there is a diminished sense of physical distance. I close my eyes and Ann and Aminatou are sitting in the room sharing an intimate conversation with me.
The day after I drafted the previous paragraph, I unexpectedly encountered Rebecca’s [course instructor’s] voice on Radiolab’s re-airing of its show on the invention of time as we know it. I instantly felt I had become a member of the conversation. The threshold I had just walked through did not lead into the gym, as I presumed, but rather into the Jones Room on the second floor of Margaret Jacks Hall [our classroom]. The podcast had just confirmed that its medium wielded connective power in the way I suspected.
I hope that I will meet, and befriend, more like-minded women in my post-college life. Even if I fail to achieve this goal, I can count on my long-distance podcast friends to remind me that I am not alone in grappling with the complexities of moving through the world as a woman. Podcasts provide a foil to my engagement-filled Facebook feed, which itself reflects an engagement-filled society. In curating a separate, more subversive, world, I have found a way to grab a semblance of control over social discourse and expectations that otherwise feel unwieldly. I can only wish that the younger me had found a source of kind and trustworthy affirmations. Just because you were born a girl doesn’t means you have to act like one; it’s okay.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider donating to Ingersoll Gender Center, a Seattle-based organization that is providing particularly vital services to the trans community during COVID-19.
Epilogue I: Instructor Feedback
Dear [my former name],
I really love this version. You’ve changed [the essay] a lot, brought together the personal story with the questions and investigations of what tech does, woven it all more tightly without losing what’s vulnerable, personal, and moving about it (but cutting it back to a good balance). It’s really evolved in its thinking and writing.
I still wonder whether your friend in the opening anecdote felt 100% delight or was somehow being riven to do what she’s doing by unseen forces, whether she’ll wake up, like women of earlier generations (and men) to wish she had chosen a path or felt more free to see and choose for herself. Though some people never ask those questions, feel those desires.
And it does have several places where you could go a bit further with interpretation and connection. But it has evolved nicely.
Of course I’m a tiny bit embarrassed to show up in it but happy if that helps connect your worlds! I guess the next step — and this is talking about you rather than your writing unless you do it through writing one way or another (and so much of what’s online is writing) — is for you to become a maker of spaces for yourself and others, one that allows for the kindness between others and freedom of self-definition you yearn for. I hope you find it or make it, or find the people to make it with.
Epilogue II: Summer 2017 Journal Quotes
One of the hardest parts about this is figuring out how I want to have my identity play out in my daily life. Well, it is also a fun thing to explore because I become the master of my own body, actions, etc.
It’s weird to think about if I had known this was an option when I was in 7th/8th grade and was just looking to explore how I could pursue my desires for dress and hair. I was extremely limited in what I could test out and now I finally have the ability to test out what I have waited for almost ten years to explore. I think that as kids we have a much better idea of who we are, in some ways. We have yet to fully internalize societal expectations for our gender, race, class, etc.
I am so curious about what will come about in the future months/years when I allow myself to explore what I had consciously or subconsciously suppressed out of a need to appear more acceptable and draw less attention to myself.
It’s challenging to think about what makes up who I am. I lean towards the idea that my gender identity is different now that it was when I was five because of all the socialization I have gone through to become a woman. I couldn’t help but absorb a ton of it and accept it as who I am/was.
Maybe it is like I’m reconnecting to my much younger self when I was free (or freer) to be who I was and express it no matter the connection to gender. I think I long for a time before I felt the full brunt of societal gender expectations and that’s what I am reaching back for, not necessarily who I was then but the conditions under which I was able to explore and express. This seems like a productive thought so I’ll end here for now.
Bailey, Jane. “A Perfect Storm: How the Online Environment, Social Norms, and Law Shape Girls’ Lives.” In: eGirls, eCitizens. Ed: Jane Bailey and Valerie Steeves. University of Ottawa Press. 2015. Print.
Bailey, Jane; Steeves, Valerie. “Introduction: Cyber-Utopia? Getting beyond the Binary Notion of Technology as Good or Bad for Girls.” In: eGirls, eCitizens. Ed: Jane Bailey and Valerie Steeves. University of Ottawa Press. 2015. Print.
Carr, David. “‘Serial,’ Podcasting’s First Breakout Hit, Sets Stage for More.” The New York Times. 23 Nov. 2014. NYTimes.com. Web. 21 May 2017.
Dewey, Caitlin, and Caitlin Dewey. “48 Hours inside the Internet’s ‘most Toxic’ Community.” The Washington Post. 26 Mar. 2015. washingtonpost.com. Web. 25 May 2017.
Friedman, Ann; Sou, Aminatou; Delvac, Gina. “Episode 89: The Indignities of Being a Woman.” Call Your Girlfriend. 21 April 2017. Web. 28 May 2017.
The Podcast Consumer 2017. Edison Research and Triton Digital. 2017. Web.
queenieofaces. “Justice, Anger, and the Demand for Perfection: Why Tumblr’s Blogging Culture Isn’t Making Safe Spaces.” The Asexual Agenda. 21 Mar. 2014. Web. 25 May 2017.
Steeves, Valerie. “‘Pretty and Just a Little Bit Sexy I guess’: Publicity, Privacy, and the Pressure to Perform ‘Appropriate’ Femininity on Social Media.” In: eGirls, eCitizens. Ed: Jane Bailey and Valerie Steeves. University of Ottawa Press. 2015. Print.
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