How to be a (sexual) Woman

by Lena Potts

When I was younger- chubby, poofy-haired, loud, precocious- I was worried that boys would never like me, and my mom told my that they were just “intimidated by me”.

I’ve thought about that constantly for about a decade. She framed it as a point of pride, and she obviously wanted me to feel the same. She thought the boys of my youth would be afraid of what she saw as my strength and intelligence, beauty she’s always been sure I possessed, and humor she’ll tell you I got from her.

But I never believed her.

First, I believed that those qualities which she saw in me, and saw to be fundamental strengths in my character, were just the sort of things that moms had to say- mothers take whatever you’re feeling bad about and make it a positive.

Later, as I grew into the person I am now, I saw them to be traits that did exist, at least in my presentation as the ‘confident funny girl’, that would hold me back from attaining womanness.

When I started middle school I was mean to people; I built up enough fire and wit to hold off the bullying I assumed would come, but never did. So I learned to tone it down and allow people to be my friends, and with this I became a well-liked high school girl, and one who very much liked herself. I had good friends, and dated a few of them (because high school), and did the things that made me happy because I held a common belief of teenagers- that I was able and deserving.

At 16, I went to college and gained 30 pounds and hated myself, but made a lot of friends who I could make laugh and who rightfully labelled me “dependable”. I was, completely and totally, the funny fat friend. I was a woman, but not of the feminine, desirable sort, surely not of the sexual sort, and, at 17, my womanness felt like a throw-away, something not worth mentioning.

So appealing.

This grew tiresome quickly, but was not so easy to shed. I lost 15 pounds and drank a lot, and went to frats to dance with whoever. Mostly, though, I went to watch my friends, who, while just as confused and self-conscious as young adults normally are, seemed to have such purpose wrapped around their sexualities. I wondered at their misplaced, but very firm intentions to build their value around the men they “hooked up” with. I didn’t understand why guys didn’t like me, too. Why guys tried to dance with them so much more than they tried to dance with me. Was it because I was still fat? Was it because I was “intimidating”? That must be it- yeah, that must be it.

During my junior year of college I found my space academically and politically. Thankfully I learned, as you do in elite liberal settings, of the depths of inequality in America, of fluidity of gender and sexuality, of the interpersonal dynamics that guide us all. I found it important to be someone who will help dismantle the gender binary, rape culture, institutional racism, and the other stealthy but strong “big bads”. I learned it’s best not to need the validation of others operating within a flawed system to truly own my identity.

But instead of deeply internalizing that, I continued to base my own value in a system that conflates gender and sexuality, and gives power to men, one that encouraged me to feel like less of a woman because I wasn’t being chased by them.

Junior year is when I also lost 15 more pounds and decided to stop trying and failing at performing womanhood. I don’t think it was a very conscious decision, but rather one made out of self-preservation. What I perceived as the constant rejection of my sexual self had been too much to bear. I know now that that rejection is partially due to the sins of the world (like racism and the trend of being impressively thin, etc.) and otherwise made up of my own self-sabotage (deciding against my own worth, waiting on men to notice me like I was in a fairy tale), but at the time there was no parsing it out, only feeling it.

It was time to become one of the guys. You can’t fail if you don’t try, and I am a master at not trying. I folded into frat life, which is hilarious, and met some of the best friends of my life, the majority of whom are men. I can comfortably say I was one of the only, if not the only straight woman who spent a great deal of time in that fraternity house, but never so much as kissed one of the members. Instead, I built friendships based on my ability to be “cool”, to be a “bro”. It wasn’t entirely without the trappings of femininity, however. I was helpful, incredibly trusted, and wise, doling out advice and a “woman’s point of view” where necessary. I was once called from my house across the street to tie a number of bow-ties for the bros (yeah).

I’m very good friends with many of these same men today, nearly two years after college graduation. I live with three men. And now, without any actual children, my womanness is almost entirely maternal. This is natural to my personality- I have always taken care of people and always will. But what fascinates me about this is that none of the straight men I interact with, whether regularly or new people I meet, show sexual interest in me, which seems almost anomalistic given how many of them there are. It points to a feeling I’ve had in my gut for a while- that I have, in relation to men, been stripped of sexuality.

As I’ve said, I know it is ludicrous to form my sexual and/or gender identity around who is sexually attracted to me, and I wouldn’t do such a thing. I am a very educated, very sexually empowered woman. I know that my worth and value as woman is not at all explicitly tied to men’s sexual desire, because that’s crazy. But I also think it would be ridiculous to pretend that other people’s perceptions of you don’t influence your own identity formation, and at the very least, your feelings. And the desexualized way with which I now move through the world is a product of both the injustices of that world and my own failings to deal with them. It is something that both interests me and upsets me, probably in equal measure.

I have covered, here, the ways in which I have undercut my own growth and value, and take responsibility for them. What I have yet to do is discuss the external challenges that exist in trying to be a woman. The performative aspects of gender and sexuality are insane (for everyone, many people more so than cisgendered straight women like myself), and they impose on us terrible, often contradictory ways of being in the world.

Because we entwine gender and sex, I feel like less of a woman when I feel my sexuality diminished. And because we have ideals (like feminism and equality and all that other goodness) that don’t align with the reality in front of us, it can become an impossible game trying to be the best woman you can be. Some of the routes you might try:

  • You can be Beyoncè. You can be arguably the most beautiful woman in the world- and she happens to be a Black woman, hooray! Except in 2014, only 19% of major fashion magazine covers featured women of color, and Vanity Fair has only had two Black women on the cover in a decade: Kerry Washington and Beyoncè. It often feels as though the beauty of White women is assumed (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard men assume the “hotness” of a White woman whose face they couldn’t see, but she was pale and thin from the back), and that women of color (especially Black women) must be exceptional outliers to be included.
  • You can be shameless. You can be the woman who goes after what she wants, boldly, without regard for propriety or the norm. Know that you will be labeled “strong” (possible in combination with “Black”) in a way that feels moderately patronizing. Know that you may be a slut, or crazy.
  • You can be the sort of woman who owns that intimidation- whose certainty of being in the world feels like power and regality. Think Angelina Jolie. This works best when you are White and thin, or already in power. Otherwise it is very aggressive and unattractive.
  • You can be one of the guys in a sexy way, like a Michelle Rodriguez kind of thing. This tip is specifically for Latinas, as it fits nicely into a stereotype the world already likes anyway.
  • You can be unapologetically and sincerely feminine, in all the ways that happen to conform to gender norms anyway. Even if this is true to your personality, you will probably be shunned as an anti-feminist weakling, one of the women who was not strong enough to stand with us in our fight. Those most willing to throw stones at you will be the women who happen to proclaim their feminism loudly but still benefit from looking like a male ideal of beauty.
  • Or you can not think about it. You can try to tell yourself that there is no conflict. That the ways in which transformative feminist movements which tend to be White women-centric don’t disenfranchise other groups of women at all. You can tell yourself that your perceived beauty (both inwardly and outwardly) have no bearing on your self worth because you’re above that. You can tell yourself that it’s easy to be a sexual woman who might be exactly what her mom said she was 10 years ago, and that maybe those are good qualities.

About a month ago, a male friend of mine told me that men were probably afraid of me because, “Men our age aren’t men yet; we’re still boys. But in a few years, when we finally catch up, you’re the kind of woman everyone will want”. Huh, sounds just like Mom.

*I fully acknowledge how hetero and cis this piece was. That is in no way meant as exclusionary- rather, this is a piece based in my own experiences, as a straight, cis woman, and I would hate to impose my POV onto others.

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