Words by Devana, 23
Though I am an AFAB (assigned female at birth) and use the pronouns “she/her”, I have grappled with gender presentation my entire life. As a young child in Sri Lanka, I learned all about what it meant to be a girl. Girls loved pink lipstick, pink tutus, and ballet shoes.
“Girly” things. Girly meant giggles. Girly meant prim, proper and polite. Girly meant never having scratched knees, mud on your shoes or tangled up hair. I could never conform to this image of “girly”. It never felt right. It never felt like a label I could pursue and use on myself.
During my adolescence, I clung to a tomboy uniform of old t-shirts, jeans, and glasses. Subconsciously, I tried to recreate the cool, alternative girl look so popular during the 2000s. Think Avril Lavigne in the ‘Sk8er Boi’ video, or Mary Kate Olsen in the movie New York Minute. Cool, alternative girls in the 2000s had something beautiful about them. Though they stood out as fierce and tough, there was still something likeable and desirable about them. But even though I tried to copy their look, I could never quite pull it off in the same way. I could do “alternative”, but I could never make alternative “girly”.
Our school enforced group sports, and this resulted in days of scratching my hair. I had lice! Though my mother medicated my hair, I eventually had to shave it all off. I rocked up to school with a haircut shorter than any of the boys in my class. I loved it: my hair dried fast, it did not need to be combed, and it suited the humid climate of Sri Lanka. The boys around me had much to say about my new look. They called me boyish and ugly. They focused on my incapacity to look “girly”. In line at the canteen, a boy next to me asked me if I was be a boy in a skirt. Annoyed and humiliated, I ran off. It made me question and overthink my appearance. Eventually, my short hair stopped being the hot topic. It plumped out to its usual length in less than a month. But walking through school and class, I continued to feel bare and exposed. The chorus of criticism had initiated a spiral of criticism and revulsion inside me. This feeling can be compared to an itch that cannot be reached or scratched. It’s an itch I have not been able to shake off.
Once, a friend’s mother exclaimed at my choice of attire: long-sleeved business shirts. She advised me to instead choose clothes that hugged my body and complimented my figure. But I loved large shirts because they covered my body likes robes from Harry Potter. During those adolescent years, my body changed fast. I couldn’t understand this change. Squeezing my body into a tight dress felt like a claustrophobic nightmare. And though my friend’s mother and other mothers thought I’d grow out of this business shirt phase like an ugly duckling transformed, I never did! However, I’m constantly reminded that my choice of clothing is not “girly” enough; that I do not fit in. I am reminded that I am choosing to dress in clothing traditionally kept for men.
The policing of bodies does not start and end in school; it’s eerily present in professional life as well. My face is super sensitive and hates make up, and though I use expensive skin care products, my face still breaks out. Make up also makes me feel disingenuous. People see a cleaned up and glammed up version of me, but they do not see me: hyperpigmentation, eye bags and all – and so, for years, I refused to wear it. Finally, my supervisor, raising her eyes at me, mentioned that I needed to look “professional”. I complied for the sake of my career.
During my final year at school, our grade held a ball. All the girls had to appear in a saree. While now as an adult I can appreciate the elegance and timelessness of a saree, as a teenager I had no intention of being near one, or any garment that could be perceived as “girly”. All my friends bought sarees, and spent time picking out their shoes and make up to match. In the end, I didn’t go to the ball. I had not caught up to that plane that my friends had reached. I did not feel comfortable being a “young lady”, because all my life I had failed at any display of “girly-ness”. This ball didn’t allow me the luxury to be myself. My personality could not be expressed by clothes, because it did not conform to the expected dress code for my gender.
Similarly, my behaviour has been constantly policed and regulated. Like my body, my behaviour has had to correspond to a prescribed set of rules. To this day, my parents try to police me in social situations – they make eyes at me to be nice, to keep smiling and maintain the social harmony. Despite this, I refuse to be silent and docile like a decoration, standing around, champagne glass in hand, lipstick on the rim of the glass, smiling and agreeing courteously.
From a young age, I stood out as an opinionated girl. I loved English class because it gave me a voice and a right to express it. Still, those around me tried to passionately shut me up, to steal my voice, and squash my identity. They failed. I continue to vocalise my opinions very passionately through my career in media. I used to play tennis as a child. Once I hit a ball so hard I broke the strings on the racket. This wasn’t seen as acceptable for a girl. They did not notice my aspiration or ambition. They only perceived and focused on the aggression I exercised on a ball.
I have noticed an interesting trait in the men that police female bodies. Men, particularly, are constantly subjugating women through the “should be” statement. “You should be this” or “You should be that”. Men are constantly pointing their fingers at women, analysing them and trying to define them. It is scary that simple passing remarks can carry on and be exercised on a structural and institutional level. As Mona Eltahawy said, “Patriarchy is institutionalised misogyny that enables and protects men to control women’s bodies”.
It is scary that “girly” is not about being creative, emotive or vulnerable. Rather it is an ideal born out of pure fantasy. “Girly” is a reference point of the imagination. It is not a set of factors based on real bodies or behaviour. It has no correspondence to the female body or behaviour. It does not exist. Through no fault of mine, I have never been “girly”, and I will not apologise for this.
NB: The author did not supply an image for this piece, we chose a humdinger ourselves.