Today we’re going to talk about gender.
Something I’ve noticed coming up a LOT in my webinars and coaching calls lately is the question of what it means to be female, and what to do when being “female” doesn’t quite feel right.
Now, I (like you, probably) grew up in a gender binary system. Our options used to be male, female, or “transexual.” Some men liked crossdressing and some lesbians liked looking butch, but gender and sex were basically the same thing and we were expected to like it.
In recent years, culture has changed to reflect a different understanding of gender, and I’ve changed along with it.
It is now widely recognized that sex is assigned at birth based on genitalia, while gender is the identity a person resonates with. That no longer means each person has to check the box next to “male” or “female,” either.
We have only begun to scratch the surface of recognizing intersex people, non-binary individuals, gender-fluid and gender-queer people, and more.
Gender identity and gender expression have created a whole new landscape for us to consider ourselves, our identities, and our bodies, as well as our beliefs about how things “should” be and where we have hang-ups. (Note: If you find this whole conversation ridiculous, offensive, or annoying, I humbly suggest you have some major hangups.)
So what does this new gender landscape have to do with body image?
When I look back on my life, having been born into an unambiguously female body, I can see that the vast majority of my personal body shame and hatred came from the fact that I did not want to be female.
I had an older brother, and I was always EXTREMELY aware of how differently we were treated. From a very young age,I felt existentially cheated, and angry. He could run and show off and be difficult and get dirty and be forgiven for being an entitled dick sometimes (sorry Ben), while I was expected to be helpful, nice, calm, pretty, and polite.
Before I could even read or write I was aware that being a boy was indisputably better, and being a girl was indisputably worse. I was mad that I had to be a girl just because my stupid body said so, and I was mad that everyone treated me like one as if they couldn’t tell it didn’t suit me.
Questions I’ve asked myself a lot, as I process this experience within our new non-binary gender landscape:
How much of my resentment came from living in a sexist patriarchy, and how much was my inherent gender identity?
How much of my resentment came from an intuitive (and accurate) understanding that girls are more vulnerable targets, and that I was unsafe?
I’ll never know the answers.
My parents didn’t buy into gender roles the way some people did, thank goodness, so many of the messages I got about gender roles came from elsewhere, but they came nonetheless. My parents proudly empowered me to do and be whatever I wanted, which was great, but what I wanted was to be a boy, and that wasn’t on the table.
Examining and choosing my own gender identity wasn’t an option at the time. So a girl I stayed, and then I hit puberty and became a “woman” and I hated every fucking second of it.
I hated my breasts. I hated my vagina and the fact that I had periods and could get pregnant and had to take birth control. I hated that I was supposed to like girly stuff and supposed to want to get married and grow babies inside my body (NO THANK YOU) and generally just be something I wasn’t.
I hated the gross attention from men.
I hated the unfairness of how we females got treated, and the stories from history of how women had to work so hard to convince everyone that we were worthy of the vote, or physically capable of running a marathon. I hated that even today sexism and misogyny are alive and well, but also completely invisible to most straight men, who have the privilege of not being affected by it.
I hated how boys were taught to be entitled dicks whose only job in life was to convince girls to put out. I hated the fact that I had been initiated into my sexuality at the age of 7 by an older boy who felt like my female body existed for his pleasure.
I hated myself for being female, I hated my body for being female, and I was in an enormous amount of pain.
I was, however, way too others-conscious to do anything about this.
My boobs were huge, and I was a good kid from a good family in a hyper conservative town who wasn’t about to screw up my whole life by calling myself a boy when I obviously wasn’t a boy. No fucking way. Even if I’d had the language around gender expression we have now, I wouldn’t have risked being seen that way.
Instead, I learned to wield my female body like a weapon. I learned how to control everything, especially boys and men. I tried to find an identity that fit me while living in a body I resented, and the parts of my body that I hated the most were the ones that gave away my femaleness: my curves, my softness, my breasts.
I obsessively focused on my flaws, distracting myself with the wild goose chase of pursuing “body perfection” while trying to harden, tighten, and erase all the most female parts of me.
Looking back, I can see that many of these feelings were the result of terror and rage. Crushed under the weight of centuries of unequal treatment, I was afraid for my safety, and angry at the situation.
Being female in this world is scary, and unfair, and painful.
I’ve done a lot of work to heal my relationship with my body and my gender since then, and I’ve even come to love being a woman in some ways.
But I do so wish I’d had the freedom back then to NOT identify as female, without stigma, as I sorted through the experience of being in this body.
I’ve never felt a need to talk about gender identity before, although I’ve been slowly processing my own for years.
However, someone recently asked if my coaching program was open to people who weren’t sure if they identified as male or female or what, and I realized I’ve been doing a major disservice to the conversation on body image by not discussing gender.
So I’d like to make a few things clear:
Your sex is assigned at birth, and your gender is how you identify, based on what feels right for you.
Gender is no longer a male/female binary.
If everyone agrees respects everyone else’s gender identity without judgement than more people can explore themselves and their identity in a way that makes them feel safe, authentic, and accepted for who they are.
Body image and gender identity/expression are deeply interconnected, and for many women (even if they identify as fully female) this is a topic that needs to be discussed, considered, explored, and healed.
Please understand, this is absolutely terrifying for me to write, but I believe in transparency and I believe we need to talk about this.
Years ago, I told my best friend I was a boy sometimes.
I had been consciously exploring my own femininity for a while, and had committed to wearing dresses for an entire summer to see if I could face my distaste for female-ness head on.
I told him that I was doing it because deep down there is a boy Jessi and a girl Jessi, and that I was trying to get girl Jessi to show up more by making her feel welcome.
He gave me a look I’ll never forget, nodded supportively, and said “Wow… how does that feel to say out loud?”
It felt… liberating. Embarrassing. Exhilarating. Ridiculous. Glorious.
There is a Boy Jessi and a Girl Jessi!! It felt so hilariously and obviously true. I couldn’t believe I’d never let myself say that before.
In the years since, I have welcomed Woman Jessi, too. (Interestingly, I never feel like a Man. Just a Boy, Girl, or Woman.) Some days I feel more one or the other, and most days I feel like a blend.
When I started to write this, I had no intention of getting so personal or vulnerable. I actually had to stop midway through, to tremble and cry and come up with a thousand reasons not to send this. (It might not feel like a big reveal to you, but it sure as hell feels like one to me.)
But here you are reading it anyway.
My hope is that this helps us all open up a better, more nuanced, and compassionate conversation about gender, identity, and our relationships with our bodies.
There are SO many ways in which gender identity (and expression!) can affect your relationship with your body. Even if you don’t resonate with my story, I challenge you to think of ways in which traditional gender roles, expectations, and “norms” have helped you create (or reject) your identity, and the possible relationships between gender, safety, beauty standards, and feeling like you belong in your body.
I cannot believe I’m about to hit send on this.
I love you.