Monday, 6 April 2015

Gender Identity and Fashion

I had very positive responses to my post "" with one exception. A total stranger, well to me anyway, a friend of a friend, read it and contacted me with an objection. This is my response, which I hope is sufficiently explicit that it may change their mind.

When we are born and the nurse says "it's a girl!" or "it's a boy!" suddenly all sorts of decisions are made for us. They are made with every good intention, and if they are not made - those rare few parents who deliberately and methodically raise their child with no gender expectations at all - it is considered anything from a bit odd to dangerous.

So before we go any further, let's define gender.

  1. Gender is the range of characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity.

Well, that got us a long way, didn't it.

OK, let define feminine:

  1. 1.
    having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with women, especially delicacy and prettiness.
    "a feminine frilled blouse"
  2. 2.
    of or denoting a gender of nouns and adjectives, conventionally regarded as female.

I have highlighted in red the parts that jump out at me here. But before we get to that, let's look at masculine.

  1. 1.
    having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men, especially strength and aggressiveness.
    "he is outstandingly handsome and robust, very masculine"

  2. 2.
    of or denoting a gender of nouns and adjectives, conventionally regarded as male.
  1. 1.
    the male sex or gender.
    "the masculine as the norm"

Oh dear. Sorry about the aggression there guys, blame the dictionary, not me. Anyway, we'll come back to those traits in a few.

I'd like to begin with this matter of "tradition" and "convention". I'd especially like to examine how much of that is nature and how much is nurture.

Perhaps we can't judge by my own experience, because apparently I'm in a minority. My mother was a tomboy at a time when it was positively frowned upon, and she raised me following any and all clues I gave rather that trying to impress anything upon me. I was a tomboy, and I raised my girls following the same method. I did not get tomboys. I got girls who happily did a wide variety of things not exactly associated with delicacy and prettiness (digging in the dirt and playing Hot Wheels) but then they had an older brother. Neither of them were what anyone would call tomboys, however.

We can't judge by this, whatever it tells us, because it's just one example of family dynamics, and the world is too big and too varied for that. But I must always be honest in my own background when discussing this, because I am obviously biased towards NOT encouraging gender roles in children. I think it's silly, apart from anything else.

No, what's important here is asking do they even exist? And if they do, how much effort should parents make in steering children towards them, or away from them.

Children vary very much in their level of "headstrongness". Some girls, raised by parents who desperately want her to be the epitome of femininity, will be tomboys no matter what. And some girls, raised by parents who are radically opposed to gender stereotypes will get a princess no matter what they do. You can put a girl in a pretty dress but you can't always keep her out of a tree.

On the other hand, some children are meek and malleable, at least at first, and can be easily persuaded to follow any path they are put on. Sometimes this can lead to problems later on, but nobody is aware of that at the time.

One thing is for certain, while tomboys may be a minority, they aren't rare. Everybody has met at least one, probably several. And let's get one thing right out of the way. This has absolutely no relation to that child's gender identity as an adult, nor her sexual orientation. You don't have to take that from me, the data is available from multiple studies. Tomboys are no more or less likely than princesses to become lesbians, or to be transgendered. It would seem connected, but it's not.

In other words, "allowing" a girl to be a tomboy is not going to do any harm. Moreover it will allow her to explore her own interests and grow up mentally healthy.

All of the above applies to boys of course, just change the relevant words.

So why do we even have gender expectations? Well, because biology. Biology is not sexist, it just provides the means to reproduce. Women have the equipment to carry babies, and men have the equipment to fertilize eggs. With technology, that may well change in future, but for now, that's really the key difference between us.

And before modern times, before contraception, especially, women had lots of babies. And this kept them busy. Raising children is time-consuming, even when you have extended family to help. It made perfect sense, therefore to let the men provide the food etc, while the women raised the children. It isn't the only possible arrangement. Other species have other arrangements, in many species the mothers are left to do everything by themselves, in some the parents share the work equally, and some the males are heavily involved. Among humans there have been variations too, but in general that's how we have found it convenient.

But if you were to go back in time and meet those women, you wouldn't find them to be delicate flowers, I assure you. The only princesses in those days were...well...princesses. And even some of those were pretty feisty. Women worked hard, they were as tough as nails as a result, and would put many modern men to shame.

Not only that, they often ran farms or worked from home in various crafts and services, and those who were childless or otherwise free were just as likely to wield a sword or a spear as any man. Biology doesn't say a woman can't be a huntress, it just says sometimes she doesn't have time. Don't even be fooled by size. Think again of animals. The female of the species is often the most fearsome, especially when guarding her offspring.

So, biology is responsible for reproduction, and therefore the hormones that go with it. Much is blamed on hormones, and this is where we come to the aggression. Testosterone, huh? Makes men big and strong, and sometimes they behave badly. Aggression has its uses, it also has its downfalls. It can for example lead to bad decision making, rage, and violence, for all the wrong reasons. Is testosterone responsible for this aggression then? Well, no. It certainly affects risk-taking behaviours, but it's now believed that the male version of estrogen, estradiol, has more impact and that in fact in many cases men with low testosterone are more aggressive. Hmm.

So, what does estrogen do to women then? Probably not what you think. It affects mood, and this is well known, but the critical factor here is in balance, rather than quantity. Fluctuating levels of estrogen are what cause the problem. Not only that, women have testosterone too.

Hormones are extremely complex and so are their effects. We are quick to blame them, but much of the time the impact they have on our personalities and behaviour is only a small part of the story. Compared to the effects on our physiques, it's really not much.

All humans have moods and reactions to outside stimuli. Their response - to cry or to lash out - is more to do with individual traits, upbringing, and "balance" than it is to do with hormones. More and more as we study this carefully we learn that our brains are really quite similar.

What about that right-brain, left-brain thing then? Well, it's mostly bollocks.

In the end, everything boils down to conscious choices, based on the options that are open to us, or those we think are open to us. Aggression, in either gender, is often caused by simply not being able to respond appropriately. Some women, suffering from PMS, will weep privately, some will slap you, and some will alternate between the two. Men often deride this or fear it, but they have their fair share of irrational behaviour, so they have no room to talk.

So, what's this "delicacy" that is feminine then? I think it all stems from women simply being smaller than men. On the whole, that is.

Let's be honest here, for every example that fits the stereotype there are plenty that don't, and we are really, in the end, just who we are.

OK. Going back then, to expectations. What is "feminine", in the ordinary modern daily meaning of the word?

RIGHT! I've got to stop you there! You are already thinking of clothing. Yes, you are. I caught you.

Stop it. Absolutely every single example you can offer of "feminine" clothing has at some time or other in history, somewhere in the world been worn by men. And vice versa. That is only fashion, with emphasis on "only". It's minor, unimportant, and silly. You may well enjoy it, and there's nothing wrong with that, but taking it seriously is absurd.

And as I've said many times before, it's potentially dangerous. I hate to repeat myself but this is "only" fashion:

Before I get into trouble for picking on Islam again (I get into trouble for picking on everyone, so I think I'm probably not picking on anyone), here's another example.

These are all silly. OK? If they are chosen by the wearer, that's her business, but it doesn't change the silliness of it. Clothes are supposed to serve a purpose, some of which is visual, and many people actively like to look good in what they wear. That is not something that can be "rated" although we try ("it suits her" "that's not her colour" "it doesn't fit" "I prefer X to Y") it remains subjective. But either appearance is important or it isn't. You can't have it both ways. 

One of the purposes is identity. That's why we have uniforms, etc.

Oh shit, there's a policeman. 
Don't shoot him, he's wearing our colours.
Quick, pass the ball to a teammate.
Are you a member?
All students will wear the house tie.
Sorry sir, we have a dress code. 
Free drinks for the bridal party only.
Actually, I don't work here.

At some point in time, somebody decided that men should dress differently to women. There are practical matters involved, including who can pee standing up, and we are different shapes, but it isn't really necessary for practical purposes. 

Nor haute couture

And I bet you can't even tell me if this model is male or female

(That's Rain Dove, by the way, and she's a girl.)

More importantly, does it matter?

Well, it matters to some people. I invite all transgendered people reading this, for example to think about the clothes they wear. When a person identifies as the opposite sex to that which they were born, one of the things they do is change their clothes.

I got into a very heated argument one day with a transvestite. A heterosexual man, with no desire whatsoever to identify as female, but who liked to cross-dress. He liked to wear women's clothes. Nothing wrong with that. He liked to "feel feminine". So, as a woman, and a tomboy, and a pain in the arse, I asked him what that felt went on a long time. We talked past each other. We argued over definitions. We ended up never speaking to each other again - seriously - he was so offended that I dared question "femininity" at all. At one point he said I had no idea what I was talking about.

Maybe I don't. Maybe you can only recognize these things from "outside".

But ultimately, if you are going to be honest, you have to admit it's "only" fashion, and that it changes. What women wear and what men wear, may or may not be decided by the wearer, but somebody is deciding it, and yet it most certainly isn't written in stone.

Even in the Quran, where it is recommended that clothing is modest (with no real definition of what that means) that has led to the cultural practice of wearing anything from a headscarf to a tent, and where it strongly admonishes wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, nowhere does it say what those clothes are. Look it up if you don't believe me.

The Bible is similar in many ways, but it goes into more detail. Specifically it admonishes mixed fabrics, braided hair, and gold jewellery. Yes, quite. How about headwear and veils. Ah, should take their headwear off, women should put theirs on. That much is still current in some churches too. But why? Fashion.

It's all only fashion, and words like tradition and custom are euphemisms for fashion, sometimes fashion long since died out. Some of it is retained in religious ceremonies, some in extremist religion generally, and it is an anachronism, with no solid ground whatsoever.

Outside of religious devotion, as I said, it just becomes silly.

So, let's ask again, what is feminine? If you say that you know it when you see it, congratulations, you have been encultured. The choices of clothing, behaviour, and perhaps even careers, decided upon by total strangers, based on their enculturement, has been passed on to you. None of us are immune to this, by the way, it's impossible to escape what you've been taught. It is, however, possible to question it, to hold it up as full of holes, to rebel against it, and to refuse to have any part in brainwashing the next generation.

If you are a girl, and you like all the things aimed at girls, power to you. There is nothing wrong with that. But like any and all decisions you make, just be sure it's your own decision.

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