Autobiography of Gender

Autobiography:*

When do I feel like a woman?  When do I not feel like a woman?  Getting dressed in the morning, my wardrobe—its contents, its textures, its patterns and fabrics—reminds me that I am perceived as a woman, that the world understands my clothing as women’s clothing, and that the world understands the body underneath these clothes as a woman’s body.  When I wear perfume, the scent reminds me that I choose to present to the world an identity that is gendered.  But when do I feel like a woman?

When do I act like a woman?  When I cry from sheer frustration, am I acting like a woman?  When I try on a bra in a dressing room and fumble with the clasps, am I acting like a woman?  When I retreat into my insecurities, when I talk myself out of important decisions, when I defer to someone else’s opinion, am I acting like a woman?  When I am confident, when I make bold decisions, when I demand that others defer to me, am I not acting like a woman?

When do I know myself to be a woman?  When I take my birth control, I know that I am a woman.  When I menstruate, I know that I am a woman.  When my lower back aches and my breasts are sensitive, I know that I am a woman.

But what of women who do not dress in feminine clothing?  Who do not wear perfume (or who wear “men’s” perfume)?  Who do not cry in public, who do not wear bras, who do not defer to others?  What of women who do not take birth control, who do not menstruate, who do not have breasts?  Where is the line of gender drawn, and who adheres?

I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not feel like a woman, a girl.
The car made a sudden jolt—the tire blew out as we drove down the segmented streets of my grandparent’s neighborhood.  My father pulled the car to the side of the street, and he and my grandfather opened the trunk to get the spare.  New Orleans on that afternoon in 1995 was hot and humid: my sister and I were both wearing shorts and the backs of our legs stuck to the fake leather seats of my grandfather’s Ford Taurus as we pried ourselves out of the car.  My grandfather and father were busy elevating the car, slowly lifting at the frame with the metal jack.  I could see my grandfather, hands on hips, surveying the scene, standing next to my father.  I could see the top of my dad’s balding head, the slouched figure of his shoulders, barely peeking over the slope of the trunk, jerking in rhythm to the car as it slowly rose away from the ground.  My sister and I stood on the sidewalk, impatient, sweating, waiting.

Easter Sunday, 1997.  The parade of costumes is finally over and my sister and I process to the driveway, where our father impatiently waits for us (he hides his impatience well).  Though we are not running late for Mass, it’s Easter Sunday, and we know that finding parking at the church will be hell.  My father stops, looks at my shoes.  Multicolor leather ankle boots, laced up tight.  Any other day, maybe… but Easter Sunday, please Jacquie, wear shoes that are appropriate.  What?  I like the rich, deep colors of my ankle boots; they compliment the muted, rosy tones of my knee-length bold-print flower dress quite well.  Instead of demanding that I change my shoes, my father reaches for the camera.  I want you to see this picture one day, Jacquie, and realize how silly you look.  I found that picture the other day, and despite (or because of?) the lanky awkwardness of a fourteen-year-old body sassing the camera in her inappropriate boots, I love it.

I cannot remember a time in my life where I did not feel like a woman, a girl, who did not entirely fit the mold of what a woman or a girl should be, who did not always at like a girl.  Though I cry in public, have breasts, menstruate, and wear perfume, this constellation of actions, biology, and choices do not make me a woman—they allow the world opportunities to identify me as a woman.

Standing beside my grandfather’s Ford Taurus on that hot summer afternoon, I attempted to offer help.  When that help was refused, I asked to watch.  I knew that changing a tire would be an important skill for an adult to have—a skill that as a young teenager seeking independence I wanted to know.  I was told that as the flat tire was facing traffic, it wouldn’t be safe for me to stand close and watch.  At the time, it did not escape my notice that there was a gendered dividing line drawn along the length of the car: my sister and I stood apart (in safety, apparently), and my father and grandfather took on the presumably dangerous work of changing the tire.  As we sweated and waited on the sidewalk, I understood my gender and my age to operate together.  Because of my gender I was not actively or intuitively asked to participate, and when I had taken the initiative to step outside of the gender norms that my father and grandfather followed, my age prevented me from standing close and learning.  My father was protective of his little girl on that neighborhood street, and because of the confluence of my age and gender, asked me to stand aside and out of danger.  I learned how to change a tire years later.

Standing on the front porch, posing for the camera, I struck a decidedly smart-ass pose.  One hand on my hip, the other propped against the brick wall, I crossed one foot in front of the other and rested it on its multicolor leather toe.  Sass, is what I did.  I do not remember that Easter Mass, or even when the photo was developed, but it was clear in my sassy indignation that I did not want to conform entirely to the gender norm encapsulated in the clothing we wear—donning a dress is about as “girly” as it got, so wearing feminine pumps was out of the question.  Unlike the reaction on my father’s face, his decision to take a picture did not strike me as a reaction to my gender identity and expression.  His face was clear—though he might have called it a matter of taste, his daughter was a girl and a girl should dress as one (which did not at the time typically include ankle boots with dresses).  But at the time his decision to take a picture seemed like little more than a sarcastic attempt at shaming his daughter into accepting the gender norm to which he ascribed.  Not until uncovering this photo recently did it strike me that he did not demand that I change my shoes.  My shoes stayed.  Whether begrudgingly, laughingly, or with sheer admiration of his daughter’s burgeoning independence, he took a picture.  Perhaps he imagined that one day I would see this discordant gender expression as the faux pas he perceived it to be, but perhaps he wanted a record of my sass, a sass that was becoming as much a part of my identity as my feminine gender.

My identity is formed by the intersection of so many identities: I am female, I am feminine, I am a woman.  I dress in feminine and not-so-feminine ways, I have the many biological “parts” that make a woman.  I am also white, I am also healthy.  I am educated, I am from a middle class single-parent family, and I am Catholic.  I am petite, I am emotionally intertwined and sexually expressive.  I am American.  I am knitted together from so many identities that to highlight but one seems to undermine the value of my multiplicity.  But as I interact with the world, I am perceived as woman.  So a woman I am.

*One of my courses this semester is “Feminist Theological Ethics.”  This work was submitted for this course, as an autobiography of the intersectionality of my gender.  The assignment was to analyze one to two influential moments when my gender was realized as an operative component of the situation.

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