How Reclaiming My Femininity Made Me Feel Powerful
Maria Elena

Feminine Doesn’t Have to Mean Female

For much of my life, my sex, my femaleness, has meant very little to me. This female body is simply a result of my genetics and a fact I give to doctors, and employers, and little else. I am indifferent to my femaleness, but after a long journey, I’m learning to embrace my femininity. I’m discovering that female and feminine don’t always exist hand in hand that no matter what your gender, your femininity can be something to celebrate.

Throughout my childhood, I presented as a tomboy. I made it clear to my parents that I did not like the dresses they bought for me and that I did not want dolls and Barbies for playthings. At school, I refused to play boring house games with the girls at recess.

Instead, I ran around and played rough with the boys. I got hurt, and I got into fights, and I felt proud when I won. When it was time to go in, I was always dirty and sweating and grinning from ear to ear.

But as much as I loved playing rough with the boys I was also a highly sensitive and feeling child inside. My emotions would sway me unexpectedly and uncontrollably from joy to tears. Empathy was a talent and a curse. I took great pride in being supportive of others and their needs and I cared very much what others thought or needed of me. I had many traits that most would consider “feminine” and associate with being female but how could I be one and not the other?

Back then there weren’t a lot of words to describe a person’s gender, just male and female, no in between, no spectrum, nothing outside of that binary and nothing outside of the roles and expectations assigned to each. I struggled to understand how I felt inside within this limited vocabulary. I didn’t feel like a girl, but I didn’t feel like a boy either. My understanding of women’s place in this world further complicated my feelings.

Those early years on the playground made being “one of the boys” synonymous with accomplishment, joy, and acceptance. I listen to the way those boys talked about the girls watching from the sidelines and being a girl, being “feminine,” came to mean being restricted, being weak, and being worthless. Now, not only was I fighting against being put into the box marked simply “female,” I was fighting not to be labeled “feminine” too.

So, all of these characteristics I should have been proud of I became ashamed of. I saw these traits as “bad” because they represented a sex I had never chosen or wanted, and because society told me feminine traits were weaknesses. So, the older I got, the more I leaned into masculinity. I tried my best to be strong, assertive, in control, and I did my best not to give away my “girly side.”

When I slipped up, when I cried too much or got upset at the way the boys talked about other girls or me, when I couldn’t do the things they could because I was too small or afraid, they reminded me that I wasn’t really one of them. I was a girl because I acted like a girl, not because of my body. Somehow, that rejection always hurt worse.

Sex and gender can be a confusing thing to work out. Even for cisgendered people reconciling the body they were born into, the person they are, and the expectations society puts on them because of their sex can be hard enough to come to terms with, but for trans and queer individuals, it takes lifelong learning and discovery. It takes making mistakes and working hard to come to terms with and correct some false ideas society has put into your head.

By the time I was in my early 20’s, I’d come to see my femaleness, my biological body including my breasts, hips, uterus, hormones, and related functions, as directly related to my femininity, which included feelings of compassion, sensitivity, meekness, and fear. I expressed myself outwardly as male, or female, or anything in between whenever I wanted to, but my femininity continued to be a source of anxiety for me, and it still might be if it weren’t for the strength of the generation after me and the internet.

Today’s youth possess a passion for self-expression and exact language, and because of them, I’ve learned that sex, gender, gender expression and personality traits are all separate parts of a person and do not have to fit neatly into one another. I learned new words like “genderqueer” or “genderfluid” to describe people who felt like me. I learned about pronouns and tried a few on for size. I learned about gender expression and identity. I learned that masculinity and femininity exist in all of us and that it is okay to accept these sides of ourselves.

It also helped that I met the right woman who could love me whether I felt like a woman, or a man, or both, or neither, and could cope with that changing from day-to-day. I have a family that was willing to be accepting and respectful, even if they didn’t always understand and friends who were willing to listen and learn too. Not everyone has that, but if I could help just one young kid avoid the back and forth and the self-hate I went through, I would do it by telling them this:

Your gender does not have to look a certain way or act a certain way to be valid. You can be male and be gentle, feeling, and nurturing. You can be female and be independent, assertive, and bold. You can be no gender both genders, anything in between or something else entirely and still be you.

No one told me that I could be feminine and still not be female. No one told me that femininity was not the same thing as being female-bodied. No one told me I could reject one label and accept another, even if convention and tradition said they could not be separated.

It took my whole life to realize that my femininity was not weakness and it’s so much more than make-up, heels, hair, and fashion. The more I accept my and refine my genderqueer identity the more I embrace the feminine side of myself I fought so hard against all those years. It turns out femininity has always been a source of strength I never knew I had. Now that I know I am making sure to celebrate and cultivate it every day.

Femininity is vulnerability, sensitivity, softness, compassion, sensuality, kindness, and generosity. It’s all the parts of yourself where your pain lives, where you go to cry, and where you find the courage to be yourself no matter what. Femininity is a part of all of us, and no one should ever feel ashamed of that.