According to the new feminism, I am cisgendered because my gender matches my biological sex. There is no dysphoria because I am content with my gender and my body – the two of them match each other. And according to this new feminism, I must refer to myself and other supposed happily gendered women as cisgender and ciswomen.
Trans individuals, on the other hand, are people unhappy with their assigned gender and often believe they are born I the wrong body. They go to great lengths to change their physical sex to match the gender identity to which they feel defines them.
What happens, though, when you are not happy with your assigned gender but don’t have a desire to change your sex?
Gender non-conforming lesbians may first pop to mind, but I believe many heterosexual women who are gender conforming are not necessarily acting out certain aspects of femininity because of an innate essence of womanhood and gender that matches their sex.
The logic is in the very phrase “gender conforming.” Many women express femininity to conform – which is NOT the same as embracing your assigned gender identity or even being content with your assigned gender identity. To conform means to fit in, and this isn’t always a positive experience.
I started shaving my legs when I was laughed at by other girls on the playground. I choose to begin the discussion with shaving legs for two reason: one, it is a patriarchal construct based on infantilizing women, and two, it is a big issue for trans women in passing as women.
I didn’t begin shaving my legs at 12 because it was part of some inner female essence (another favorite of the cis/trans ideology). I shaved because I was laughed at and I became self-conscious. Because this occurred during my formative years, this self-conscious attitude towards hairy legs remains – despite my boyfriend not giving a crap about my hairy legs. Pressure to conform so as not to be laughed at during your formative years is not an embracing of female identity, it is a coercion to conform to a physical gender presentation.
During middle school, I also realized that being “loopy” got me better liked than the serious and intense person I naturally am. So I would purposely act a bit ditzy and silly, hoping people would like me more. It kind of worked, but by high school I was like ‘this is bullshit’ after reading books such as “Reviving Ophelia.” This act I was putting on was not a natural part of me but IS a gendered expectation for girls and women. I realized I was not happy with this partucular gender expectation and thus rightfully discarded it.
It is the same with makeup, another hallmark of female gender expectations. I was never interested in makeup and I still don’t care for wearing more than lipstick and mascara. I actually didn’t begin wearing mascara until a few years ago when I experienced pressure to wear makeup in a retail job. Wanting to keep my job, I put on a full face of makeup (after learning to do so) every morning until I got a new boss who didn’t care so much. I now feel unprofessional, however, without mascara and lipstick, so now I always wear the two to work. Otherwise, I am still not into makeup.
Or dresses or skirts, for that matter. I wore dresses and skirts in high school to conform but always felt a bit uncomfortable in them. They just weren’t me, so I have discarded them, too.
When I was a child, I was a tomboy. I never had any interest in fashion, makeup, sitting around and talking in groups like many of the other girls did – I preferred to take part in the athletic play of the boys. I did play with dolls at times, but for me dolls were characters in imaginative play with my friends – not items on which to practice future femininity or motherhood (I never owned a baby doll). Funny story: when I was about seven or eight my friend and I had come up with an elaborate story in which all of our barbies were captured by an evil witch and put in prison. Not having an actual prison dollhouse, we strung all the barbies up on the bars of our stairwell, leaving them there when my mother called us for lunch. In this house, you opened a door to go upstairs (resembling a closet door). So imagine my Mom’s shock when she opened the door and saw about 20 barbies strung by various body parts to a stairwell….
As an adult, I am still not interested in fashion and makeup. This doesn’t mean I don’t dress well, and I love platforms – but I hate heels. I do see a difference. Heels are specific to a certain sexualized female beauty, while platforms were worn by men in the 1960s and 70s. I do, however, wear some makeup and low heels to work because that is expected of women in the workplace, and I want to be treated and viewed as professional at work – so I conform. On my own time, however, I don’t wear makeup and generally wear flats and sneakers, with a platform thrown in here and there. Actually, now that it is summer I have been wearing flats everyday to work and feel quite light and free.
The point is many women perform femininity as a pressure to conform. I know that there are women who sincerely love the look of heels and find makeup fun. But many, many women wear makeup because they feel self conscious without it. Many, many women, including a friend of mine, had to retrain themselves as adults to act strong and independent, struggling to chuck the female stereotypes to which they were pressured to conform as youth – and to which they no longer related as adults. Old habits die hard, though…
The idea of “cisgenderism” ignores the realities of why women perform femininity, and all of the coercion it can entail. It ignores the fact that many aspects of the female gender are unnatural and oppressive but are still performed by women, particularly heterosexual women who wish to attract mates, because such pressure is very, very strong and very, very influential. Wearing makeup everyday because you have been taught you could be viewed as ugly without it and thus leading to a lifetime of insecurity, reflects internalized misogyny, not contentness with your gender identity. Such expectations go beyond the physical, of course, and influence the way in which women react to the world around them, particularly men (and particularly by heterosexual women). Being nice to men at our own expense, putting their needs before ours – all representative of coerced gender expectations performed against our own judgement.
Similarly, when you are accused of “cissexism” by relating certain issues to being born female, you cannot talk about the specific ways gender expectations impact women. It also distorts the meaning of sexism. Trans individuals cannot experience sexism from feminists as they claim because they are not being discriminated by sex; nor are feminists structurally oppressing them in any way. On the contrary, trans women have male privilege whether they like it or not, and FEELING like a woman does not erase male socialization and privilege within a social structure, or the lack of a female reproductive system that men wish to regulate and own. Any discrimination they face is based not on their sex, which is the dominant favored sex regardless of how they feel, but on their gender roles – and it is those of the the same sex, males, who commit all the actual violence against trans individuals. Transphobia is a more appropriate term because if the the transwoman detransitions for whatever reason, they will undoubtedly not experience male violence in the same manner. This is not true for women. This is not the same as the sexism that aborts female fetuses, tells women they are worse at math and science because they are female, and leads to men sharing naked private photos of women despite the fact that these women have left the gendered female identity to join the military. It doesn’t matter how women identify, because they are being discriminated according to their sex – and nothing can actually change sex.
To state someone is cisgender – that is, not conflicted about their gender in relation to their sex – completely ignores literally everything I described. I am happy with my body but, like many other women I know, have actively struggled against pressure to act the passive, pretty feminine woman – and in some areas (such a shaving) failing. Similarly, claiming that feminism can be cissexist makes it impossoble to overthrow a system based on controlling female bodies. Yes, gender roles are used to maintain patriarchy, but the bodies most abused by patriarchy are female bodies. I understand that some may consider the refusal of hormones and sex reassignment surgery for males wishing to become female as similar to controlling women’s bodies – but this is a false equivalency. Not being able to access hormones and surgery does not equate to the regular and systematic rape, domestic violence, and murder of women caused by male entitlement to female bodies.
I used to just be annoyed by the term prefix “cis,” by now I actively despise it. I do not have to or want to gender myself in any way to appease another’s gender identity. Because that is what the term “cis” is really about. It does nothing to actually address female oppression – it is purely a tool to neutralize gender and normalize queer theory within feminism and society at large.
I am a woman who has struggled against gender expectations, and I refuse to pretend that gender is some neutral inner force propelling people to self-fulfilling identities. And I utterly refuse to label the prioritizing of females within the fight against patriarchy as “cissexist.”