Renouncing ‘cisterhood’: personal musings

I hit puberty late; my figure was that of a skinny boy until about 17. I didn’t bleed until I was almost 16. Throughout my teen years I starved myself — into a thin, fragile, disappearing femininity. Four years later, I’ve never outgrown a size 8. I’ve never seen myself as a woman.

I’m getting a bit taller, my growth having stopped whilst I abstained from food. And that’s good. But I have osteoporosis, and it’s likely I’m infertile. Which isn’t too bad, because the thought of having children discomforts me. Actually, pregnancy and childbirth sound horrid, and alien to my body. I am not remotely motherly.

I have friends who are different. I have friends who coo when they see babies, whose womanliness is something large, maternal, sensuous. And it is infinitely beautiful — but I couldn’t empathise less.

Womanliness, for me, has always been a bit of a veneer. As a teenager I wore (and sometimes still wear) ribbons and flowers in my hair, pretty floral dresses, high heels. To look the part. And I enjoy it. But it’s always been a compensation of sorts. Femininity was something I borrowed, for others; something performative.

So it’s a bit weird when people ask about my “gender identity”. They assume, because I’m female and wear skirts, that I identify as “cisgender”.

But I don’t. I don’t feel like a woman at all. I don’t “identify as” a woman, to use that language. All the experience of womanhood is alien to me. Now, that might well change. But right now, the things that are traditionally called womanly are not very like the attributes I possess at all.

What am I, then? “Genderqueer”? “Genderfluid”? No. No, not either of those. And I am very decidedly not a man.

The terms “trans” and “cis” demand that we dissociate the word “woman” from mere biology. But in order to ‘identify as’ a woman, we need a stable, fixed meaning of womanhood. And if we can’t get that from biology, then — absent some transcendental womanhood floating in the noumenon — we must derive it from society. But as any progressive activist will tell you, society’s norms involve outdated gender roles, sweeping generalisations, and bad stereotypes. Where else, however, are we meant to find out what it means to identify as a woman? What is this non-biological womanhood to which we ‘cis’ women allegedly attach ourselves, if not a set of gender roles?

Is being a ‘cis’ woman, then, just being stereotypical?

And where does that leave the rest of us? Teenage me — thin, awkward, girlish at best — didn’t fit many traditional gender roles. And I’m not sure 21-year-old, sarcastic, ambitious me fits them very well either. So unsex me here. Along with every other ‘cis’ woman in the world who isn’t a stay-at-home mother, or shoe-shopping fiend, or baking fanatic, or nail-salon devotee, or whatever else womanhood is supposed to comprise these days. You might be there a while.

‘Cis’ may suit some. But those who apply it indiscriminately, and to any woman who doesn’t explicitly ‘identify’ otherwise, are pulling exactly the same trick sexists have pulled for generations: taking a misleading, oppressive stereotype, foisting it upon an unbelievably diverse and divergent group, and using that to justify all kinds of assertions about that group’s character.

As for using ‘cis woman’ as a slur — it’s unclear whether that’s misogyny towards all non-trans women, or just non-trans women who inhabit traditionally female roles. But I’d ditch it.

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