Sunday Dive into the Sarlacc Pit of Femininity

Middle Boy asked something along the lines of whether I was sorry I’d never had a daughter.

To be completely honest, I’m not sorry at all; in fact, I’m relieved. I don’t think I would have been a good mom to a daughter; I’m afraid I would’ve messed her up with a combination of my own issues and my inability to perform femininity well (largely because I don’t even bother trying). I feel like I don’t really understand many of the women around me, at least not as well as I am supposed to. That’s not to say that I do understand men, but they do seem less opaque, even if they are generally annoying, if that makes any sense.

I worried much more about how I looked and what I wore before I came to the US, or, at least, I was convinced they were important. It was pure hell to find clothes that were long enough (I’m six feet tall). My mom was and still is quite focused on her appearance, both clothes and physical fitness.  She is bright and capable in the ultraenergetic entrepreneurial way, with street smarts and perhaps some adult ADHD mixed in. She’d always been quite disdainful of my father’s writing and generally all pursuits of the mind, unless they resulted in money. She’d brag about dad or later about me to her friends, but the appeal of our pursuits was alien to her. She’d never appreciated the things that were important to me and had always found me lacking in the arenas that were important to her. You have no idea how many times in life I heard from her, “If only your legs were longer, like mine; if only your fingernails were nicely shaped, like mine.”

After I left for the US, over the years, I became more dowdy. Actually, I think I released my inner dowdiness that was always there and was finally allowed to flourish away from my very looks-centric ancestral culture (which is quite typical in Europe).  After I had a kid, I no longer had long nails or wore bulky rings, because the amount of housework went up; today, I wear only my wedding band. When I started my faculty job, I started gaining weight, mostly due to stress and overwork, and the associated lack of sleep and exercise. These days, my wardrobe is more of a uniform: I wear jeans and have dozens of black tops in various cuts and fabrics (an occasional dark gray or navy blue one, and black slacks when I give talks). I am so grateful for online shopping, because I can finally get the clothes I like in tall sizes, so my pants and sleeves are long enough. I buy a pair of boots every winter, which I wear every day all winter until they fall apart and by then it’s (usually) spring; I get new ones next season (my heart is with Zappos, because I wear women’s size 11 shoes). I have one pair of sandals, which I wear all summer, until they fall apart. I have a pair of black leather shoes for the in-between times (the two weeks of spring and two weeks of fall we get) and more formal occasions, which—you guessed it!—I wear until they fall apart. I wear makeup on the days I teach, and it’s minimal: lipstick, mascara, eye shadow, blush. I have never in my life worn foundation, concealer, or any of the rest of it; thankfully, I’ve always had good skin (probably helped by never wearing full-face makeup).

When I look at the women around me, say, the moms of my kids’ friends, I don’t really fit. On the one hand, you have the stay-at-home or corporate A types. Super fit, super well dressed, everything tightened and polished to perfection. High-maintenance highlights. Brights and pastels in wardrobe. Clothes that require  dry-cleaning or ironing. I, my house, and everything I hold dear must seem like a steaming heap of garbage to them. I know these women embody feminine success and I have no idea how I would even instruct my hypothetical daughter to achieve this level of control over her looks and demeanor, which is needed so people would give her the time of day. All the stuff I hold dear and in which I have competence has to do with the inside of my head, which is not what people around me see. They just see a frumpy middle-aged woman and that’s the end of all consideration. At the opposite end from all the polish are all the frumpy people, and I am drawn to them, because I hope at least they won’t think I’m shit on sight… But then I catch myself judging them for the same things that I hate being judged for, because what’s more fun and healthy than pointing seething self-hatred outward?

Middle Boy, a fifth grader, tells me his female friends (already!) get up at 6:30 to take showers and do hair and makeup (!) and choose their clothes before school (which btw starts at 8:30 and no one lives more than a few minutes from school). They start younger and younger.

I don’t like going back to visit my ancestral home, so I simply don’t. I admit that, in great part it’s because everyone there, blunt and rude as they are (again, not uncommon for Europe)  immediately comments on how fat and old you’ve become (in the 20 years since they last saw you). My own mother can never go long without commenting on my clothes or shoes, then show me all her favorite recent purchases, and commences to compare herself to me. Yes mom, you are almost seventy and you still look better than me. Happy? It sucks to be the homely spawn of two good-looking people.

So yeah, I’m happy I don’t have daughters whom I would sentence to a lifetime of insecurity and invisibility. But what about fighting the patriarchy, you say? Sure, but whom are we kidding—that’s never been a fair fight. Patriarchy may have been taken down a notch in places, but it’s still very much kicking women’s collective ass. At least I am not directly responsible for another young woman feeling like shit because I transferred my own issues onto her or for not equipping her to succeed in this system because I never knew how to work it myself.

Thanks for taking this navel dive with me, reader. Now, let’s both get out for some air.


  1. I am sure you would have been a wonderful mother to a daughter! My mother never educated me different from my brother. I was never called a princess or all that stuff girls are boxed into by their parents, especially fathers. I was always commended for my intelligence, never my looks. I grew up like a tomboy because I found other girls incredibly boring and stupid, so I hang out with my brother and his friends. I did become more feminine in college, especially in grad school, but I was decades behind other girls. I didn’t care, nor did my parents. So this to say, as you are is all that any child needs, boy or girl: a loving and engaged parent.I

  2. I’ve had a lot of the same thoughts about having a daughter. I just wouldn’t know what to do with one that was focused on fashion or boys or that sort of thing. And heaven forbid I have to help out with girl scouts. :p

    My mom was always getting after me about the way I dressed and such, but I’m so much happier just wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. My youngest sister was a model…so everyone else pretty much was interested and involved in fashion, and here was me, begging to please wear sneakers to church because I STILL can’t wear high heels. I usually wear sneakers, jeans, and sweaters to work in winter. In summer, I go with oxfords, and sometimes I’ll just wear slacks because they’re usually cooler than jeans.

    I think I do my part by trying to raise very feminist boys. Or at least I hope I’m doing my part.

  3. Huh. Part of the reason I’d like the chance to raise a daughter is to be subversive, to show her by example that it *is* what’s inside of her head that matters, that what she looks like on the outside doesn’t matter. My dad’s side of the family was very looks-obsessed, and much as I loved my grandmother, I could pretty much count on her to immediately comment whenever I saw her on whether I had gained or lost weight (my cousin still does it!). I learned to laugh it off, or say, “huh, I hadn’t noticed!” … but it took a long time. My mom’s side of the family, by contrast, were the nerds — that’s the side on which my great-grandmother worked as a computer for Lockheed and calculated trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions, for example. So I had a long and distinguished tradition of female nerdiness to fit into that felt very comfortable to me from a young age — I’d love to pass that on to a daughter. It does scare me a bit to think that I might get a daughter who was into looks and boys and the things that I never cared about as a kid, but I like to think I’d be a grounding influence for that kind of daughter — that the fact that I hadn’t the first clue about makeup or fabrics or heels might make her roll her eyes as a teen, but that she might appreciate it as an adult. Oh, well… it’s all quite hypothetical at this point anyway, since it seems likely that I’ll be a mom of boys and that’s that. But it’s an interesting contrast to read how you feel about it, since I also identify as a frumpy-ish female nerd, but could not be happier about it. 🙂

  4. You know your sons can still subvert the patriarchy!

    I’m not sure how “girly” I was–at an all-girls school, norms definitely shift toward hairy legs and goofiness–but I have a mother rather like yours. She is a self-proclaimed feminist and trailblazer in her own field but was “just trying to help” with her regular comments on my skin, clothing, hair, etc. (I escaped so much by wearing a uniform!) Now I tease and correct her when she tries. I understand where she was coming from, but it undoubtedly hurt my sister and me, and I wish I could undo the socialization. That said, some of my care for my appearance is parsimoniously explained by my (i) having aesthetic preferences for everything, (ii) subconsciously seeking hobbies on the tenure track, and (iii) being deeply cynical and practical about what people respond to professionally. But I still wish I could be monomaniacally passionate about my research and not get distracted by musing about the designing and patenting of a tool to assist in the self-application of individual eyelash extensions, which is what consumed me for a few hours Saturday night, and which I really think is a good idea and would satisfy my entrepreneurial tendencies. But this is obviously the stereotype, right?
    I should be too busy to care about my appearance? I am the only female professor in my department who wears makeup–actually, going several departments out.

    Girl Scouts are great for many reasons. Not only was it my introduction to camping, woodworking, finance, etc., but in selling cookies, I learned how to approach strangers regularly to pitch things and make friendly demands.

  5. Although I know I have benefited throughout other areas of my life from being a white and conventionally attractive woman (I am aware this is privilege), I believe this has turned out to be huge drawback for my career as a research scientist and professor. I tried to ignore it for years and I tried to manage the situation by being really careful how I dress, and by being very very good at what I do, but now, after 30 years, I don’t think anything I wore actually altered people’s perceptions anyway.

    I got “hit on” on a lot at work, especially when I first started as a faculty member, and I was also constantly mistaken for a student. I also had businesses here at first refuse to take my checks and had people gossip about me just because I was dressed casually! It’s just a very conservative part of the country here (midwest) different form where I grew up (west coast).

    Every time something like that happened, I analyzed my presentation and tried to retool to fit in better. I started deliberately wearing dowdy and baggy clothing in dull colors, buying suits with skirts unfashionably long, avoiding cute shoes and only wearing black all the time. I tried to dress like a 70 year old republican woman running for public office – ugh. I threw out my contacts and have only worn my glasses to work at all times for the past 20 years. I wear a full face of makeup everyday to hide my freckles and try to look older. I never wore jeans or tennis shoes or a T shirt or exercise clothing to the lab like the male faculty sometimes did. I trained myself not to smile so much and I tried to pitch my voice lower etc. The only thing I could not stand to do was to let my hair go grey – sorry that’s too much to ask!

    Unfortunately, my work image is very different from who I actually am. I feel like it’s a kind of “drag” that I have to put on every day, like a disguise, something I have to fake in order to try to blend in at my conservative school.

    Funny thing, I don’t think any of it worked very well. Now that I am legitimately old (near 60), I STILL get passed over for top leadership positions because I apparently don’t exude that “gravitas” that men decades younger than me apparently have. I’m still too “cute”. I still get mistaken for a junior faculty by those old dudes…grrrrr.

    So at this point, I’m playing with the idea of giving up on the whole image thing. I’m currently trying to work up the nerve to wear nice jeans and a blazer to work instead of my usual black suit…

  6. I do have a daughter, and what I worry about most is not how she chooses to dress (right now, a lot of purple and flowers) but the social messages about The Right Way To Be Female. So I think my main message to her is going to be something more like “wear whatever you want, and work on whatever skills you want; working on your skills and learning is more important than appearances.”

    Also, I would like her to be really good at telling people to fuck off with varying degrees of politeness, a skill on which I pride myself.

    (She’s only three so we’ll see how it goes.)

    Your mother sounds somewhat misguided. I hope I manage to *not* say things like that to my kids! My mom and I just spent like five hours online shopping for a pair of *comfortable* jeans for her, and I also bought myself two pairs. So I guess that part of her message got through. Comfort is important!!

  7. I agree with Lucy. You do not need to be a feminine roll model. My mom was embarrassingly frumpy growing up; she wore sweats (frumpy sweats) EVERYWHERE. It was a good day when she managed to wear a bra to go out in public on her day off. Yet, she was a working professional (health care management), worked her butt off, was down to earth, and took care of the family (in a responsible parent kind of way, not a meticulous home-maker way). I was raised to be independent, tough, and certainly not feminine. I had two sisters… they came from the same home… and while not ultra-feminine, they turned out much more feminine than I. Just intrinsic personality differences. My daughter now is four, and she LOVES dressing up and girly things (dolls, etc.). She gravitates to these things, and I’m okay with it and will support whatever she is interested in. I think that these things are just innate (and obviously encouraged by pop culture). In my family of four, it was my only brother who was actually obsessed with playing dress up from the age of 2-4. I will continue to bombard her with arts and crafts and logic problems and puzzles and books and athletics, because these are the things that I am interested in. And my husband with building things and science and math (I do science and math too, but it’s more of a day job than a deep-rooted passion). I haven’t worn make up since I was in college, and even then it was very minimal and occasional. I don’t wear heels. I wear a ponytail EVERY DAY. But I don’t feel frumpy. Maybe it’s because I’m fit… or maybe it’s because I’m “young.” I think it’s the former though. (Or is it because I’m very “average” looking…). I work out a lot, not necessarily to be “skinny,” but rather because it’s my hobby and I love it. I lift weights and do strength sports, hike/backpack, and play volleyball. Lean-ness is a by-product, and certainly a major benefit. In fact, I will probably get to a point where I’m actually “too” muscular and therefore completely unfeminine. It’s already happening. I’m okay with that though. I feel confident and comfortable with how I look. Even though I don’t always “fit in” with many of the women around me (physically and mentally), this doesn’t bother me (or at least almost never does). (And there are still plenty of women that I do get along with that aren’t totally superficial). If anything, I feel superior because of it (yes, this might be arrogant). Makeup to me just seems silly. Jokes on you, lady, for spending an hour on that stuff every day. I’m okay with it in principle if somebody legitimately enjoys the process and the outcome (it can be artistic in a way… same with fashion), but to do it because you feel like you need to somehow compensate I think is ridiculous, and I’m happy to not take any part in that scene. I’ve heard about this “invisibility” phenomenon that happens to middle-aged women. I can’t imagine that I would ever feel this way, but I am curious whether I will.

  8. I don’t have children, but back when that was an option I felt that if I did have a kid I would rather have a boy because I know far too much about how to screw up a daughter, whereas I would have felt free to make my own mistakes with a boy. I feared either replicating my mother or going too far in trying not to do what she did to me. And then I felt terribly un-feminist for not wanting a girl. As for performing femininity, I do it very well and even enjoy it, but when I’m not doing it, I sometimes get called “sir” or given strange looks in women’s restrooms. I think it’s mainly because I’m tall, but it does make me question what people see.

  9. I’m sure you feel you’re meant to be a boy’s mom because you are one – I’d probably have felt the same if I never had my daughter.

    For a child of either sex I would consider my role to be:

    1. Help her be a kind, and empathetic person, and how to take care of herself
    2. Expose her to many potential interests
    2. Question her about where the ideas about gender she has are coming from (society) and that they in most ways deeply silly and arbitrary

    Both my husband and I are incredibly nerdy and neither of us is interested in performing gender (sometimes we do semi-ironically). My daughter is being bombarded by gendered BS everywhere she goes (I cringe every time she goes anywhere and the only word people can think of to describe her is either “adorable” or “beautiful”). However this would be the same with a boy, just different gendered BS.

  10. As a grandmother of girls: the most important thing you do in raising boys will be to teach them to equally respect and equally treat female humans. My granddaughters and great grand children if they ever happen are absolutely depending on your sons for equal humanity. While you are at it, please, also focus on white male privileged and responsibility because the racial stuff counts too. EQUALITY Voting Exposure to truth. THANK YOU for what you are doing to promote the above.

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