I feel like every time I see myself, I'm performing as a woman and it's never enough to be actually perceived as a woman by other people...
I’m AFAB and identify entirely as a girl. However, I feel like every time I see myself, I’m performing as a woman and it’s never enough to be actually perceived as a woman by other people. I catch myself thinking “I really want to be a girl”, but I already am. I have a lot of traditionally non-feminine features (small chest, broad shoulders, rough facial features, small fingernails, small hips, don’t wear makeup, don’t shave, etc) that make me very self-conscious about how others might perceive me. I desperately want to be a girl, but I already am. I know there’s not one way to be a woman, but I feel like I need to be one specific unattainable way to be recognized and to consider myself as a woman. I dress very femininely and have been told by other people (when asked) that I do look like a girl. How do I fix this? I want to be able to like who I am.
Thank you for your thoughtful and nuanced question. 🙂 As a cis woman, you say you’d like to feel and be perceived as more feminine and that not achieving some standards of beauty is affecting your self-esteem and self-worth. There’s a lot of things I could answer, but I’ll try to keep it brief and somewhat understandable.
Although you identify as your gender assigned at birth, I have to say your experiences echoes with that of many trans people, including myself. The feeling that our bodies are somehow inadequate, lacking or burdensome and the desire to change them in order to be seen in the way we feel inside might not be universal, but it is very common. We might try dresses or make up but there’s always something feeling off or sticking out, our cheekbones, our knees, our knuckles, our stomac. We can easily become experts at picking ourselves apart.
That feeling of discomfort, pain or hatred with one’s body or characteristics and how they are understood by society is called gender dysphoria. It can resemble body dysmorphia, the vision some people with eating disorders have of their bodies as wrong and ugly, regardless of what people around them tell them. It’s this nagging feeling, this annoying voice inside your head telling you that most people can see that you’re flawed and that you couldn’t fit in. It’s exhausting. Those feelings are about specific characteristics of one’s appearance but also the context, how they could be judged by others. To be perceived is to be “real”, or to feel more real at least.
The specific unattainable way you would like to look is also a result of capitalism. Publicity, magazines, movies etc. all cultivate this image of a perfect rich white skinny attractive woman with small features in order to make profit by selling various products. They stealthily or overtly encourage you to feel bad and like you need to fix, improve or distract yourself. It’s really hard and almost impossible not to be influenced a little bit by that culture. That stereotype is definitely not realistic and I can confirm that a lot of other women end up feeling a lot like you do.
As you say, there’s not one unique way to be a woman or a girl. That is true, but it also only goes so far to actually reduce that feeling of inadequacy. Sometimes, even when it comes from a good place, saying that type of empty phrases can be a way to minimise, discredit or ignore what you’re feeling. I hear and I feel what you’re saying. So now I’ll try to come up with some way to hopefully actually feel at least a little better.
More than acknowledging the mere existence of diverse women, I’d say that learning about, admiring, meeting, relating to and loving women of different shapes, sizes and colors can do a lot. It can start with famous or important people across history or fictional characters. Here’s a few quotes for instance. 🙂
I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me, too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you. -Frida Khalo
If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive. -Audre Lorde
I know you’re supposed to pretend that you don’t care about being beautiful or that you’re not trying, but guys it’s the only thing I care about and I’ve never tried so hard at anything. Of course I feel guilty about being so obsessed with it, ‘cause there’s this idea that caring about beauty makes you shallow or vain. You know “smart people” aren’t supposed to care about beauty and I’ve always been categorized as a “smart person” by people around me. –Natalie Wyn, in Beauty
Everyone thinks I’m this big dyke because I wear baggy pants and play sports and I’m not pretty like other girls. But all I really want is a big, fat weiner up my- [interrupted] -Jan, in But I’m a cheerleader
And they don’t have to be celebrities, they can be normal people too! There’s a lot of everyday women who don’t shave or wear makeup, who aren’t athletes, actresses or models but who shape the world, are incredible, talented, wise and yes, beautiful. Meet and talk to them if you can!
If you wish to, there are ways to look more feminine, make up, clothes, accessoires, glasses, hats, etc. There’s many ways to do it with a small chest, broad shoulders or small hips. It can be interesting to try things you don’t usually do, like shaving or having long colorful nails. I would say to approach it like a new artistic hobby, which takes learning and practice but can also be fun! It’s important to do it for yourself, according to your interests and objectives. It’s okay to like typically “girly things”, you’re also allowed not to.
It can help to develop a more neutral point of view of your body. You don’t have to love everything about how you look or fit the exact criterias of what you find attractive in others, but you can try not to hate it, to see your parts for what they do for you and for others and how useful they are. Your face expresses your emotions, your arms and shoulders give good hugs, and so on. The point is to learn to at least feel a little but grateful for your physical vessel, if not completely in love with it.
Another advice I could give is to try to focus on the things you do like about your appearance, however insignificant you might think they are. Maybe you have thick eyelashes, a cute smile or really nice elbows. Whatever it might be show it off, pay attention to it.
And for the things you don’t like, there are ways to appreciate them and even find power and strength through them. Having strong features, being large or tall, is actually really cool, interesting and attractive according to a lot of people. I really like Florence Ashley’s Wonderfully Monstrous Bodies poem. Being unable or refusing to conform to societal gender norms isn’t a failure. As humans we are inherently messy and flawed and wonderful.
When it comes down to it, you’re probably right : a lot of this can feel more like performing a woman rather than being one. To be honest I’m not sure what’s the difference between the two, or even if there’s one. But having a role to fill doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it means you can (re)create yourself every day. You can redefine what beauty and femininity means to you. What is a woman to queen? A queen to a goddess? A goddess to a non-believer?
If ever you feel like the role of a woman isn’t for you we can talk about gender identity, roles and expression and how to transgress and subvert those, but that wasn’t part of your message and I don’t want to impose.
Anyways I hope this helps, that you feel safe and loved and that you have a great afternoon,
Maxime, peer support agent for AlterHeros
Iel/they/them, accords neutres