There’s a quote by Simone De Beauvoir that goes along the lines of “One is not born a woman, one becomes one”. The first time I heard this it jumped out at me, in part because it made such sense, but mostly because it felt like someone was finally describing how I felt.
As a trans woman I’ve got used to people questioning my identity as a woman. Sometimes it would be through an ill thought out question, or a glance in the street that turned into a stare. Sometimes it felt like the whole process of coming out was one long interrogation, designed to trip me up, and expose me as some gender variant charlatan. It felt very personal, like my female identity was always under question, and always under scrutiny, so to hear someone say that being a woman is actually about the journey rather than the starting point was revolutionary and incredibly affirming to my own sense of self, and ultimately my own journey.
And then I discovered that it wasn’t just me, and Simone De Beauvoir, who felt like this.
I started speaking to other women, both cis and trans, about their female identities, and they told me about their journeys. They spoke about growing up, and exploration of identity, and what they read, or who they knew. They talked about life and influence, about society and fluidity of self.They told me about how they became women under their own terms, and in their own right.
Alena, a lesbian woman from a lower middle class background, told me about her childhood, running around in army gear, but also about how she was insistent on having really long hair down to her waist.
She told me “I always wanted to be a girl on my own terms, I had no feeling or awareness of needing to be ‘feminine’ in my appearance. Though my long hair was, my clothes were always androgynous or more masculine and when I got older, in the 80s and early 90s I bought clothes that gay men wore, that felt comfortable to me.”
Zoe, a working class queer identified woman also spoke about her childhood, saying “When I was younger people often got confused by which gender I belonged to and looking back at photos it really was hard to tell.”
She continued, “When I eventually went through puberty at the late age of 15 my body went from being completely androgynous to very female. I found this transition very difficult and a long relationship with trying to hide my breasts began, from hunching to binding, looking at breast reductions, top surgery and so on. I longed for a small neat boyish body, I got a fully-fledged woman’s body, a bit wasted on me and constantly hidden.”
So often our appearance, and our bodies are seen as a mark of identification in relation to gender identity, but when they don’t match up to our internal identity it can be traumatic, and it can be a struggle to reach any sort of resolution.
For me, the reality of my visibly gendered body in relation to the reality of what I actually felt inside only really started to form a unified identity when I came out as trans and, more importantly in terms of my own journey, as a woman. For a very long time I’d kept this huge part of my identity hidden, in part to protect myself, but also in part because I didn’t think I’d be able to live up to what was expected of me as an out woman.
My preconceptions were that I’d have to be this perfect example of womanhood, more so because it felt to me that I was starting from a disadvantage, because I was a trans woman, and the questions that came with that were relentless and unforgiving.
If I don’t have surgery am I less of a woman?
Do I have to ‘pass’ in order to be even vaguely accepted?
Is anyone ever really going to truly see me as a woman once they know I’m also trans? Is that life even possible?
How far do I have to go to prove that I am who I say I am?
Is it further than I want to go?
Am I woman enough?
Making your peace with the doubts and fears that come with claiming an identity, even when it’s an identity you know is right for you, is a difficult and brave thing to do.
We all, at some point, feel the pressure from this expectation of what a woman should be and in some ways we’re all being asked, are you woman enough?
How we look and behave as women, cis or trans, is scrutinised, and then measured up against a two dimensional and often misogynistic view of what we should be like, be that through the media, or through long held societal preconceptions of what being a woman is.
When I spoke to Zoe she told me more about how this affected her journey. “There was a period between the ages of about 33 and 38 where I tried to dress like, and fulfil my role as a woman, wearing more feminine clothes. This led to me mainly feeling a bit uncomfortable and out of place.”
She went on to say “As I read, thought and spoke to my friends about gender and gender fluidity, I also allowed myself to own my own gender fluidity and femaleness in my own interpretation of how it is to be a comfortable me in the world”
Ananya, a queer woman and practising Buddhist also spoke about her identity and coming to terms with it. “I don’t regard myself as butch particularly but I don’t think I am particularly femme. Somewhere in between probably. I have had a rocky coming to terms with my sexuality and only came out fully about 5-6 years ago having been a closet queer for many years.”
Reclaiming your female identity, from expectations and preconceptions, both internal and external became a common theme with everyone I spoke to. Finding it often involves a long and difficult journey, but once it’s reclaimed as yours then those questions, those doubts seem less important, and less relevant.
Katie, a gay woman, told me “I love being around women and I love being a woman, despite the fact that I look quite boyish and I display (what society would deem) a lot of ‘masculine’ traits.
Because of my identity and what I’m into I’ve often been asked if I’m trans or would rather be a boy. I really don’t, I really love being a woman – I’m comfortable with who I am and in my own skin and how I portray myself to the world – being a woman is just being me. “
How we know we’re women is very different to how others may, or may not, interpret our womanhood. On days where I’m feeling happy, and my confidence is high I may well dress in a more femme way, but on days where I’m not so good I may present as more androgynous, in order to protect myself. I’m still as much a woman on my andro days as on my femme days, but the interpretations of others may not be as consistent. Holding onto that identity and making sure it’s true to you, no matter what others perceive, can be a challenge as everyone has an idea of what it entails to be a woman. Being able to express this though in any way that makes others understand is incredibly complex and difficult, because everyone has a slightly different idea in relation to their own identities.
Audre Lorde, the late Caribbean-American writer, radical feminist, lesbian, and civil rights activist summed it up powerfully when she said
“With respect to myself specifically, I feel that not to be open about any of the different “people” within my identity, particularly the “mes” who are challenged by a status quo, is to invite myself and other women, by my example, to live a lie. In other words, I would be giving in to a myth of sameness which I think can destroy us.”
Recognising the variety and complexity of our female identities and learning to embrace this, both in ourselves and others, is perhaps one of the hardest, and yet most empowering things we can do. It’s a difficult thing to even talk about, because we all have different versions of what it means to be a woman, both internally within our own identity, and also amongst the wider community, and these versions can sometimes be at odds with each other.
I spoke to Jo, a demi feminine, self-identified dyke, who explained “I identify as a woman for work, and I suppose that also allows me to express the side of me that represents the gender I was assigned at birth.
However, when I’m not at work I’m more fluid, depending on the day I can either represent as firmly non binary or as slightly more feminine. I don’t ever really identify as male, which is where I found the label of demi-feminine useful.”
They went on to say “I also think that this is hugely influenced by my identity as a feminist, I don’t think that I’ll ever fully be able to give up being a woman because my experiences being raised as a girl have fundamentally shaped how I see myself and the relationship I have to my body.”
Feminism is something that has been intrinsic to my own identity as a woman and, it could be said, is intrinsic to all female identity, in some shape or form. When I talk about defining my identity as a woman in the face of preconceptions of what that should be, I’m also talking about feminism. The words I use to express myself as a trans woman, what I chose to wear, and how my identity intersects with other women are all part of my feminist identity.
When we explore this as women, when we embark on this journey of discovery, we are all exploring what it means to be a feminist. The need for all our identities as women to be recognised and treated with respect and equality is an aspect of female identity, and by relation, feminism, that we all play a part in.
So, what does it actually mean to be a woman? After speaking with other women I’m no closer to an answer, which maybe is exactly the point. I know what being a woman means to me, and how that identity has been shaped into something that fits for me through my experiences, influences, and continued exploration. My identity though won’t be the same as yours because although we may share common ground sometimes, it’s never going to be exactly the same path we walk.
Everyone I spoke with told me about how their identities changed, and are still changing. They all spoke with passion about the different journeys they’ve been on, and still are on, exploring what it means to be a woman, and what this means to them in the context of both self-identity and the wider world.
If anything, the one thing that does unite us all as women is exactly this, the continued exploration of our identities, throughout our lives. This journey is a connection we all share, despite our differences.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Diva magazine