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Published on August 12th, 2015 | by Louise Sloan

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Passing for Female: Caitlyn Jenner, Serena Williams & Me

How do you do “being a woman”? In a fabulous follow-up to their epic “Bic for Her” pen-marketing fail, Bic took at shot at it this week for South Africa’s National Women’s Day: “Look like a girl. Act like a lady. Think like a man,” their ad suggested. The target market took to Twitter immediately with howls and snark.

But seriously, what’s a woman to do? There’s been a lot of talk lately about how hard Caitlyn Jenner and other transgender women have had to work to pass, on the outside, as the females they’ve always felt like on the inside.

Now let’s talk about how hard women who were born with XX chromosomes and all the usual equipment also have to work to pass as female. Women like Serena Williams and me. All of us, really. Bic’s just trying to help.

Perfect example: last month’s article in the New York Times about the effort women pro tennis players have to put in to avoid becoming world champions. I mean, to avoid looking like Serena Williams. I mean, to avoid seeming “too masculine.”

serena_1.jpg.CROP.rtstoryvar-mediumSerena’s on the cover of New York Magazine’s fashion issue this week, and was on the cover of Vogue a few months ago. But her pro tennis competitors know the score – fashion shots aside, Serena’s about as close to our cultural ideal of femininity as Caitlyn is.

I can relate. I’m a full-on certified 100 percent biological female, with the blood tests, uterine sonograms and the bio-kid to prove it. I’m no Serena Williams, for sure. I’ve never been particularly masculine or tomboyish or sporty or anything, though my mom sure wanted me to be. “I don’t understand!” she’d complain in her Southern drawl, catching me lolling around on the sofa for hours, reading. “Your father and I were always such athletes.”

When I was 16, a friend’s mother, a local fashion model, encouraged me to go into modeling, since I was 6’ tall, slim and pretty. “Did you model?” strangers still ask me at 52. A backhanded compliment: “You’re clearly too old and fat now, but if I squint and use my imagination, it looks like maybe once, long ago, you might have made the grade.” And thanks to my hardcore childhood dance teacher, I’ve often gotten compliments on my graceful movements—until recently, when I’m occasionally forced to adopt the fetching “needs a hip replacement” waddle.

My point being, I’m a biological female with conventionally feminine looks and zero gender dysphoria, and even I have to work to fit society’s expectations of what it is to be a woman.

God knows I’m not alone. Just look at any magazine display rack, full of tips on how to dress, eat, act and paint yourself into becoming a more convincing, successful female. And boy, women really want to know how. At the dear, departed women’s magazine Ladies’ Home Journal, where I worked as a senior editor, beauty content scored us the most hits online, by far.

I’ll admit I’m personally not too interested in hair and fashion and cosmetics. But despite my comfortable shoes, minimal makeup and unruly tresses, my transgressions against femininity are more about what I do, not how I look.

Are you a real “lady” if you can lift heavy things?

“Why you want to be so strong?” my son’s “manny,” a traditional-minded young man from St. Lucia, asked me a few years back, clearly disapproving, when I arrived home from the gym. He called me “brolic,” a compliment for a man; a diss for a woman. My arms aren’t big, but if I straighten them you might see the outline of my triceps. “Are you gonna be there on speed-dial every time I have to carry my 40-pound son or 50 pounds of luggage up three flights of stairs?” I retorted. I’m a single mother. Health and fitness concerns aside, it behooves me to be physically competent – I have to do all the “mom stuff” and the “dad stuff,” too.

Here’s the thing. Even though I’m not an athlete, I’m 6’ tall with an athletic build. There are things I can do quite easily with my female, feminine body that tend to call my femininity into question. Like how every December, I throw an 8’ Balsam Fir Christmas tree over my shoulder and carry it three blocks home and up those stairs. Now, again, I measure 6’, taller than the average man. (I know, I know, you’re ALL 6’. You truly are. No, I absolutely believe you.) And Balsam firs are light—Fraziers are another story. But women just don’t do these things. Every year I get stares.

One night in college, my 5’1” roommate and her short, unathletic, intellectual guy friends and I were trying to go out for Chinese food, but her car was stuck in the snow. She and I stood by demurely as the men attempted to push the car out of the drift. I was the biggest person there by far, but I knew helping out would cost me femininity points. I continued playing my part, watching them struggle, until I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I got behind the car and pushed. With all of us pushing, it was instantly freed. Yay! The guys looked at me as if I’d just taken my knee to their nuts.

These are insignificant examples, really, but they go to show how little it takes to break the rules of our culture’s strict “natural” gender binary. Sure, our enforcement of this fantasy level of biological differences is way harsher for males who look or act “feminine.” My otherwise sporty, masculine son got shamed in 2nd grade just for wearing pink shoelaces. He “doesn’t like” that color anymore. But as we can see with Serena and the other tennis pros, our gender expression rules can also affect women deeply.

“I can’t handle lifting more than five pounds,” Maria Sharapova, who is 6’2” and ranks number 2 in women’s tennis worldwide, told the Times in July. “It’s just too much hard work,” she explained.

Seriously? This is a world-class pro athlete whose serve once clocked in at 126 mph. And apparently, in order to make herself seem and feel more feminine, she’s actually saying, out loud, in public, that a six-pound weight would be just too darn heavy?

I’ve spent most of my adult life in New York City and am here to tell you that regular women routinely carry sleeping 30- and 40-pound kids up multiple flights of subway stairs. Sharapova telling herself that she can’t handle, say, a 10-pound dumbbell—is that really that much less extreme in its alteration of biological reality than a man taking female hormones or submitting to the surgeon’s knife? I’d call it a psychological sex-assignment technique. As a society, we’ve put her in the position to have to work really hard in order to be perceived as the biological female she actually is.

This isn’t just an issue for pro athletes. I have a friend who was a track star in high school. She won lots of medals. She was faster than all the boys in her school. There was talk of the Olympics. There was also talk behind her back. She’s straight, but had short hair and a direct manner and wore clothes she could run in. People called her “butch.” She didn’t have a boyfriend. Then she became anorexic, and, around that same time, started wearing short skirts and uncomfortable shoes. Her body was no longer strong enough to compete in track. She could not move as freely in her clothes. But suddenly, she got her first boyfriend. Like Caitlyn Jenner, all it took was seriously altering her body, drastically modulating her demeanor and wearing a miniskirt and voila! She totally passes for female.

Is Bic showing us a mirror with their lady pens and sexist ads?

Thing is, they’re kind of right, the straight women tennis pros shying away from weights and feigning weakness. And as politically incorrect and culturally unsavvy as it was, Bic’s “act like a lady” ad had a point. My tennis serve doesn’t hit close to 126 mph. I’m lucky if it gets over the net. But men bigger and way stronger than I am have sometimes found my size and strength to be intimidating. Yes, they’ve actually told me that. And yes, that’s absurd. But that’s how men are conditioned to feel in our culture that insists on exaggerated differences between the sexes. For me, and certainly for Serena, “Act like a lady” takes some doing. Or undoing – of unladylike things like being able to lift heavy stuff or (in Serena’s case) having ripped muscles. I wonder if Caitlyn’s adjusted her workout recently.

My favorite response to the Serena flap was J.K Rowling’s smackdown of a troll on Twitter. He thought Rowling’s tweet saying, of Serena, “What a woman!” was “ironic,” because, he opined, the “main reason for her success is that she is built like a man.” Rowling posted two photos of Serena showing off her curves in a tight red dress, and shot back, “Yeah, my husband looks just like this in a dress. You’re an idiot.”

But what if Serena didn’t happen to have big breasts and curvy hips and a rounded butt or like wearing dresses? Would that make her less female?

Can we please stop shoving such rigid, binary roles down our own collective throats and making everyone work so hard to fit into them, and forcing some people to sacrifice so much of their identity and potential while imprisoned in this ridiculous gender-role gulag? The idiots in Bic’s marketing department are just following our lead, though they clearly need a more nuanced understanding of the politically correct lies we tell ourselves about where we actually stand. Just think of how much better the world might be if, to use a metaphor from my college stuck-car experience, everyone pushed?

My son, now age 9, will probably be 6’ 5” and with his strength and athletic abilities, he is on track for full acceptance as a male. If he keeps his diction clipped and his clothing dull and his physical expressiveness to a minimum. So far, so good—I guess. But I hope by the time he’s grown up we will have gotten over ourselves, at least a little. My future 6’3” granddaughter will thank us. Who knows, she just might be the athlete my son is and my mother wanted me to be. Maybe she can Just Do It—use her body, celebrate her strengths, be herself, use a regular unisex pen—without having to contort and diminish herself to prove she fits into some messed-up gender mold.


About the Author

Profile photo of Louise Sloan

Louise is Singlewith's founder and content director. She's been an editor and writer for print and online publications including the New York Times, Glamour, Ms., Salon.com, Out, Ladies' Home Journal, Health.com and The Huffington Post. She's also the author of Knock Yourself Up, a memoir and report about choosing single motherhood. She lives in Rhode Island with her 10-year-old son, Scott.



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