I never starred in a movie when I was 12 or 13 (and I’ve never wanted that for myself…I’ve never been a performer). But I saw the same things Natalie Portman experienced by observing my peers and how they were treated. Twelve is when little girls aren’t allowed to be little girls anymore (even though they ARE still little girls), and when other people (particularly men, but not ONLY men) begin treating them like women (read: objects of desire; not beings of their own desires and dreams and expression…read: must conform to societal norms to be accepted and validated).
I was this same girl Natalie Portman describes herself as being.
I deliberately altered and stifled my expression.
I was ‘prudish, conservative, bookish, serious…’
Many people still see me that way, and I’m not ashamed of that, because I can be those things, and those traits are part of me. But those perceptions aren’t wholly true. They aren’t all of me. I’ve never felt comfortable showing other people all of me…all of what I want, all of what I need, all of what I desire, all of what brings me pleasure…because I understood very clearly that expressing myself freely meant I wouldn’t be *safe.* I knew that in 7th grade, just like Natalie Portman did. And it’s given me a reputation with some (many?) people for being closed off and cold and (yeah…I’ve heard this word used to describe me more than once) ‘heartless.’
A long time ago, I was a girl who never wore make-up (still rarely wear it) or wore skirts or dresses. I got a degree in a male dominated major and worked a male dominated job at a male dominated company and the vast majority of my friends (because of proximity and opportunity in male dominated programs/workplaces) were guys. Like…jock-sporty and/or construction worker type guys. GUY guys. Really.
I wasn’t putting on an act to fit in with those men. I like sports. I know what it takes to build a house, material and labor wise. I swear a lot. I am still not, in a lot of ways, traditionally ‘feminine.’ But it’s not because I didn’t have those desires to express femininity. It’s because I was afraid to show them. Here’s my experience with expressing femininity…
I never took much of an interest in traditional femininity (on the ‘exterior’ at least) when I was young, because I learned from observation of the life around me, including the Important Adults in my life, mass media, and my peer group, that expressing femininity outwardly wasn’t safe. I never felt secure showing people more traditional femininity because of (among other things) an upbringing full of touch starvation, competing objectives leading to constant criticism, and openly puritanical victim blaming.
Girls who looked like…dressed like…acted like THAT weren’t taken seriously…were asking to be patronized, treated poorly, talked down to, and disrespected… were ‘easy’…were weak (they were less physically and emotionally secure)…were dependent, helpless, and needed to be taken care of…were targets for being taken advantage of in every sense…were maybe even putting themselves in danger. Girls who wanted to nurture and serve people and beautify things (like being career wives and mothers…or teachers…or nurses…or administrative assistants…or in floral or fashion or hair design…or in childcare…who outwardly expressed their inner traits of traditional femininity in career choice) made less money, and/or were frivolous in their vocational pursuits (which meant they were less financially secure).
So, I expressed neutrality mostly, and sometimes even masculinity. I still possessed inherent femininity (everyone does), but I actively repressed it. That was safe. I could be safe around more people (people who were naturally more masculine) and more financially secure if I shared ‘masculine’ interests and didn’t express my femininity outwardly. I still made cookies for my big group of jock/construction worker friends every Christmas, and listened with real empathy to all of their troubles in romantic relationships with other girls (who clearly felt braver and more secure than me being outwardly feminine). I coached them on flower buying (I’d never been sent flowers) and date planning (I’d only been taken to movies at multi-plex cinemas). I was a great ‘wingman’. I was a great FRIEND. Boys and men who knew me or knew of me knew I didn’t express the traditional femininity I clearly understood, though, so when they were interested in dating me (rare, but it happened), they kind of treated me like they’d treat a guy; someone they were going out for a beer and to watch a ballgame with. And it never felt right to me (and probably didn’t to them either). But I didn’t want them to treat me like I’d seen/heard men treated dates (from elders, peers, mass media).
Looking back, I had this faulty link in my head that being treated like a guy meant guys respected me, but my femininity expressed would make them no longer treat me with that respect. (To be fair here, my assumption wasn’t totally incorrect. I know that was TRUE of some of the men I knew…some people DON’T respect femininity expressed from men OR women.)
J was different. We met online, and I developed some personal trust in him by speaking with him often and about broad topics before we ever met. Plus he didn’t ‘know’ me by reputation or through previous acquaintance, so when we did have our first date, even though I showed him that same ‘safe’ neutrality the other guys got (loose fitting turtleneck sweater and jeans; no make-up, not even lip balm), he began ‘ahead’ of other men with intimacy. Since we’d met on a dating site, he knew that’s what I wanted; he recognized my femininity and desire and I’d told him some of the things (beyond sports) that made me happy and that I was passionate about. But instead of treating that expression with the condescension and coarseness I’d learned to expect (like Natalie Portman said, that’s always what I expected), he actually showed me courtesy, and never demanded the immediate personal vulnerability I was told all men expected from femininity (which I still wasn’t really visually displaying), and never treated me with disrespect. *He made me feel safe*; like he’d protect and take care of me. J made it okay to show my femininity, by treating me with respect while simultaneously treating me like I was feminine. He demonstrated that he didn’t view respectability and openly expressed femininity as mutually exclusive, like I’d been so well conditioned to believe myself.
I own more skirts and dresses now than I did in my entire life combined before I met J, and I more openly nurture and serve. I write love stories…that’s traditionally a genre appealing to women, particularly their expressed desires for pleasure. Old friends view my happiness as a stay-at-home wife and parent with a sense of surprise. A couple of them would be shocked to swooning if they knew about some of the books I’ve written. I feel confident expressing myself in desire and pleasure, in ‘softer,’ more traditionally feminine ways, because J took away the insecurity I had by the way he treated me. I’m still not a dainty, delicate flower. I’m not a ‘girly’ girl, in the stereotyped sense of things. And that’s okay. But I’m still feminine. Femininity doesn’t have to be narrowly defined as a rigid set of outwardly observable traits, but it should be safe to be observably feminine, and for women to express themselves, including desire and pleasure, safely.
For those people who know more of me than ‘simple and plain style’ and ‘smart’ and ‘quiet’ and ‘maybe a little mean,’ thank you for making me feel safe around you. Like Ms. Portman, I hope for and work toward a day where all girls feel safe expressing themselves as naturally and completely as they wish to, and a day where no girl feels a need to cultivate an image to protect her own body and her sanity.