What is the Deal with Female Gender Performance (really???)

This is a blog full of questions and thoughts and feelings. I smashed it out right in WordPress and almost decided not to post it, because it always seems like such a superficial topic. Let’s not split hairs, let’s not divide women, etc. But I have questions and thoughts and feelings about these things. I sincerely encourage discussion in the comments.

What is not a question at all is that Katie Ledecky is a stunning, amazing, often breathtaking young woman.


Besides all that (and the staggering quality of her swimming, of course) she is utterly adorable.


That smile, man. Honestly, what kind of sublime, joyful water creature are you?

Ledecky of U.S. reacts after settingnew world record during women's 1500m freestyle heat during Aquatics World Championships in Kazan


But the other night, while waiting to watch her race, NBC throws up this profile picture of her with all her stats or whatever:


And I’m like, wait. What? Where has that Katie gone? Who is that? I kind of see a resemblance but… but…

This has been a thorn in my side ever since I first figured out I was attracted to women, and I think part of the reason why it took me so long to figure it out. When I see a woman I find attractive (we all have our preferences) in her natural state, I cannot stop looking at her. I cannot stop looking at her. Like just this intense enjoyment of her natural features, her expressions, her humanity. But as soon as the makeup goes on and the hair is “styled” nine times out of ten I find myself scrabbling to find that woman I admire again. And a part of me doesn’t even want to look at her anymore. It’s like with the application of a few salon products she’s lost to me.

It seems like a tremendously overreactive response to the very things that are supposed to accentuate a woman’s natural beauty. And it bothers me, because I feel like I’m probably missing out on a lot of interesting women because I can’t get past the way that look dissuades me.

Now, I know – we all know around here – that makeup and hair styling and much of women’s fashion is designed to alter womens’ appearances towards the preferences of men. To make them look younger, more sexually approachable, more closely aligned with some kind of Perfect Model Beauty Standard only a handful of women in the entire world naturally express. I also personally believe that a great deal of that standard comes from the way women are made to appear in pornography – maybe much, much more than your average neighborhood 40-something wife and mother might consider while shopping at the Clairol counter. We all know that patriarchy, the male gaze, and capitalism are shoving all these products – based on this particular look – down women’s throats.

And we know because of all that, a bit of hair and makeup styling is sometimes essential, as Maria Catt and PurpleSageFem have both recently reminded us.

I also want to leave room for fashion and for personal grooming, including makeup and all kinds of hair styling/coloring/whatever, as a form of personal expression. It can all be used to create unique looks and if that’s what expresses your personality the best, then hey, I am all for it, men and women and everyone who identifies in-between.

What I am more concerned about is the near-ubiquitous acceptance and attraction to a very particular, standardized way for women to appear. For me, living in the US with a basic cable package, if I turn on my TV at any time during the day or night, for any length of time, 98% of women will strictly abide to this standard of appearance. The outliers will be a handful of contestants on reality shows, like chefs on Food Network, or a nice lesbian couple looking for a new house on HGTV.

Ellen Degeneres and Rachel Maddow, the most gender non-conforming celebrity women I can think of right now, both wear noticeable makeup. I have to say Ellen does a great job of downplaying it, however, despite being a spokesperson for CoverGirl. But hardly anywhere can you see a woman in her natural state.

With the Olympics we have an opportunity, at least now and then. Thank goodness! But then the network profiles the athlete, and in the case of several female athletes I’ve seen profiled so far, the first – the FIRST – point made in her biography is how really feminine she is and how she likes to go shopping and do her nails just like any other girl. Let’s not forget she’s only NOT wearing makeup to do her sport, right? And those muscles don’t make her any less of a girl!!!

Okay. I know, I know, the pervasive effects of gender roles under patriarchy. I know, I know. We live in a highly gendered society. But this is the question: If I am attracted to women in their natural state, and I know others – probably even (even!) men, I’m sure – are also attracted to women in their natural state, why is there utterly no room for that to be seen or expressed? Are there no women who can safely show their natural faces – none, anywhere? Is our world truly that small and oppressive?

This is what really worries me. And it spirals down to something else, which is the issue I’ve always had with the words “butch” and “femme”.  I know, I know, lesbian terms from the days when it was best to appear in public with one woman passing as a man and the other appearing as a woman. But times have changed, and I sincerely don’t believe that in most cases “butch” lesbians are performing a male role. I think these days most “butch” women are simply eschewing feminine gender roles and dressing comfortably, perhaps with a short hair style she prefers. If a woman buzzed her head but wore makeup and a dress she would be “femme”.  It’s not the buzzcut that makes the butch. It’s the total dropping of the feminine gender role.

So is Katie Ledecky “butch” in the pool but “femme” when doing a press interview on stage?

I know it is a precious term for many lesbians, but there are times when I want to do away with the word “butch.” We are all just women in our natural state. Sometimes, some of us put on makeup and feminine fashion. Sometimes, women in our natural state choose – or are pressured into – being femme.

(The problem with this blog is that I could go off on a tangent regarding transgender gender performance now, but you can all feel free to go off there in the comments instead. 😉 )

As a person who is primarily attracted to women in their natural state, it just boggles my mind – sincerely, in a frightening way – to think that there is a natural system of attraction that we could all rely on, that would leave women to be themselves in all their individual, unique glory (as men are allowed to be) but we are so overwhelmingly manipulated that we hardly ever get a glimpse of that possibility. Women do not have to wear makeup to be attractive. I say it again: WOMEN DO NOT HAVE TO WEAR MAKEUP TO BE ATTRACTIVE TO THE SAME OR THE OPPOSITE SEX. But we are so conditioned to believe women have to that we never see anything else. Sometimes, it seems like that alternative isn’t even an option.

At least not without some reassurance somewhere. Oh, look at this glamour shot. Oh remember, she likes to have her nails done, she’s just as girly as any other girl. Oh, doesn’t she look better with some makeup on. Oh, doesn’t she look better with her hair done. Oh, don’t we love seeing her dressed up to “go out”?

Because heaven forbid she go out as she is. Heaven forbid.

I know it’s misogyny. I know it’s patriarchy. I know it’s the veils women have been forced to wear since Roman times. I know it’s all of these things.

But is it really, really, that deeply, disturbingly pervasive?  So pervasive that (I have no doubts) a woman will read this and immediately begin defending her use of styling products to make herself look like every other woman in the world, not as a social necessity, but as an innate expression of herself?

Honey, I know you’re so much more beautiful than that.

I always thought it was me. I always thought I was weird or super-picky or just not getting it. I always doubted I could be truly attracted to women because I wasn’t attracted to that standardized performance of femininity at all. But now that I’m older and wiser and absolutely sure I am attracted to women, in their most basic, natural state…

It is terrifying, at times, to think of what we’re really up against.


28 thoughts on “What is the Deal with Female Gender Performance (really???)

  1. There’s a lot here to talk about. I’m going to start with makeup. I don’t understand makeup either. I don’t know why I’d want to wear it and I don’t know why I’d want anyone else to wear it. I’ve never kissed a woman with lipstick on, and I wouldn’t want to. I think it would feel uncomfortable to kiss a substance that might come off on my lips instead of just kissing a pair of lips. (I do wear chapstick for dry lips but I don’t apply a layer of it before I kiss my partner.) When women say things like they wear eyeliner so that their eyes “pop” I don’t understand any of that. I don’t know what it means for eyes to “pop” and I don’t know why they would need to “pop.” It’s completely baffling.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s weird with eyeliner because I always find I pay much more attention to the COLOR of women’s eyes when they have no eyeliner on, even if the eyeliner makes their eyes “bigger”. Like the eyeliner emphasizes the shape of the eye, and the presence of the eye, but there’s so much more beauty in the natural color that’s sort of being overwhelmed by the surrounding darkness.

      Mascara is the same thing. I love love love fine fair eyelashes and think it detracts so much to cover them up just to “define the eye” or whatever. Especially on blonde women!

      You make a great point about lipstick! It’s always been a symbol of “sexiness” (i.e. the lipstick on the collar) but I can’t imagine it somehow *feeling* better than natural lips (even with chappedness/chapstick!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, we are up against that.
    Yes, it is so persuasive.
    Yes, butch is more than a choice not to gender conform, and more than a waystation on the way to somewhere else.
    Yes, we must sometimes assume protective colouration in order to survive.
    Yes, it is that hard to break through 10,000 years of ‘grooming’.
    Yes, there are more of us than anyone realises! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  3. So in regards to what I find attractive on women. I do find feminine women nice to look at (*cough*Gillian Anderson*cough*) but I prefer if women look relaxed and comfortable in casual clothes and a “hanging out around the house” look. I find GNC women sexy because they look confident and at home in their bodies and they look GAYYY ha ha.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I first noticed Gillian Anderson not in the X-Files but when she did Bleak House, and she was this very plain, severe woman. Her natural, statuesque beauty was just stunning in that pale Victorian way. No matter how “feminine” a woman’s features, I always get angsty when looking back and forth between red carpet photos and more candid casual shots – the more dressed down the better.

      I was never immediately attracted to GNC/butch women (because I was hung up on the “Are they men?? Am I a man?? internalized thing) until I got down to this whole “They are women in their natural state” thing. Then it was like, HELLO. The confidence is indeed a lot of it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. And then there’s the butch/femme thing. In 1950s working class America everyone had to be either a butch or a femme, so for at least some of them no doubt they were performing a role that people expected from them. But these days people calling themselves butch are generally just being themselves. A woman once explained to me that being butch means you can’t hide your gender nonconformity. Even if you tried to perform femininity, it wouldn’t work. It’s not about wearing an outfit, it’s about having a personality that is not what people expect from women and being unable to blend in. I thought that was a good explanation.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah, I think there is a lot of natural personality that comes out with some butch or GNC women that goes beyond just being GNC. I find it’s a bit like the counterpart to really flamboyantly gay men, like it really is a biological thing, and can’t easily be hidden or disguised. I still have trouble accepting it but very much feel this way myself, because I am an utter doofus in women’s clothing.

      Liked by 1 person

    • This was a really interesting perspective, especially written by a femme about both the butch and femme – personalities. I think this is where it gets down to talking about perception vs. actual being – like above, I really do think that there’s a “butch” personality and a “femme” personality that is deeply biological and “fixed” and also manifests across both sexes – much more than we probably know because it’s not often allowed to freely express itself.

      This is the one facet of the whole transgender movement (stripping away the autogynophiles) that I really, really hope develops beyond “Oh you’re feminine so you need to be a woman/you’re masculine so you need to be a man.” If these personality types to which we ascribe “masculine” or “feminine” or “butch” or “femme” could just be allowed to express without being assigned to a particular gender role then wow, how healthy would that be for everyone?? I really hope we are moving towards that, even if in a winding, kind of unhealthy way right now.

      I have to argue, however, that we do have visibly butch/femme couples – I really think that Ellen and Portia are a butch/femme couple, even if Ellen appears “soft butch” I really do get the butch feel from her. I don’t think she cuts her hair short as a performance but rather it’s part of her personality. Then again, that all gets down to perception (and I was referring much more to perception vs. personality in the blog itself) and it’s hard to know without knowing the person. Even then I really think it gets down to the individual’s personal ideas about themselves regarding embracing butch vs. femme. You know I still wrestle with it myself. 😉


  5. As a straight woman who performs some aspects of gender conformity, I’m not sure how helpful this will be to you. But I don’t know, here’s some thoughts.

    Make-up is weird. I’ve never liked to wear foundation or anything but I do on occasion wear brightly colored eye-shadow. Because it looks cool. It also makes me look like I care, which if I’m having a hard time motivating to do something or leaving my house, it seems to convince other people that I want to be in this place at this time. So I guess I steel myself against unpleasantness by wearing make-up from time to time. (Honestly the last time I put on eye shadow was probably 4 or 6 months ago. Last time I definitely remember was almost a year ago now.)

    But here’s the thing: my mom is very anti-make up. My grandmother wears very little and only on special occasions. They both find it strange that I wear make up. My mom will make negative comments if she sees me wearing eye shadow. Growing up, I remember my mother making very negative comments about make-up. I think I missed a lot of important cultural conditioning there. She also wears practical clothing (sometimes skirts and dresses but all clothing she can move in, most of her skirts are for tennis). She also doesn’t dye her hair and wears it very short. So I think I was raised with a woman who is gender non-conforming in appearances. My grandmother is the same in a lot of ways.

    In rebellion against being forced to wear jeans when I was an exchange student, and in feeling like I was part of a hive mind in high school where girls almost never wore dresses or skirts, I’ve become someone who does not wear pants. I have one pair for doing stuff around the house, but the rest of the time I do not wear pants. My hair goes from long to short because I hate going to the hairdressers very often.

    Sometimes I read about gender conformity and I find it a little alienating. It’s not that I think women analyzing it are wrong, I just feel like I grew up in an area where women are frequently non-gender conforming and also not lesbians. My younger generation is definitely a lot more gender conforming than the previous, though. I don’t know. I think we’re getting even more brainwashed, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like hearing about those personal choices – like brightly-colored eyeshadow looking cool to you, and being accosted to wearing skirts or dresses. I can only imagine it, but I do have a space in my mind for women (and men!) who really like the flowing freedom of that style of clothing, all wooshy and open. It’s always interesting, too, how the women surrounding us affect our own choices.

      Just mentioning this blog brought up a lot of discussion with my own mother, and we reflected back on previous decades. I honestly don’t remember makeup being SUCH a must back in the 90’s and earlier. I also found things much more casual when I visited England, and a lot more variety in the women on TV. But here in the US, and with our media, it’s very overwhelming, and I see all the time young women on tumblr worried about being feminine enough in regards to makeup and hair.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I am one of those men. Kissing women in full face makeup is revolting. I’ve always fancied GNC (hat that term and the way its been hijacked by trans) women. A woman can be fully female and sexy as hell and strong and capable and courageous. That strength and capability and courage is sexy as hell. Think Ripley in Alien.

    Part of romantic and sexual love is having the trust to expose our vulnerability to each other. If some is strong and courageous that vulnerability is even more precious. Patti Smith singing Because the Night

    One of the first signs of our daughter falling under trans, as opposed to just being lesbian, was that she was really pissed off at my partner having short hair, not wearing makeup, not cooking much and driving a bigger car than me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much for chiming in here, gendercriticaldad. I love reading your perspective and definitely agree with you about Ripley!

      The strength of the trans-identifying mindset is so remarkable at times, and I’ve known myself how it feels to have examples of gnc women and reject it all because of that internal distance and disidentification. As always, I’m hoping for the best for your daughter and you.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Still, there’s a standard of beauty for lesbians too. Not makeup or foofy hair, but an androgynous body. The lesbians who are considered the most desirable are medium height to tall, small breasted, narrow hipped, sharp featured, young, and cool/unemotional acting. If you are short, fat, big titted, wide hipped, baby-faced, too feminine in your emotions but butch looking despite that ‘dumpy’ body, say goodbye to being desired in the lesbian community, much less having a girlfriend. If you’re all that and also shy and “beyond sale date”, you will find that lesbians find you utterly unattractive–you are the stereotype they eschew.

    Face it: both lesbians and straight men are attracted to the same women, only the lesbian finds her hot with a short haircut, without makeup or breast implants, and in her jogging clothes, while the straight man likes her implanted and dolled up as if she’s on the red carpet.

    Kind of analogous to how the Black actresses/singers considered most attractive by whites have white features despite more melanin in their skin (and more melanin only up to a point).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Our entire society has a real problem with setting up standards of appearance, no matter what category or sector we find ourselves in. Being familiar with lesbian mood boards on tumblr, I know what you mean by the alienation of only seeing certain “looks”. It’s very difficult to never see yourself, and one of the reasons I’ve struggled not just with the butch/femme descriptors but just being a lesbian in general for years.

      I don’t believe that “both lesbians and straight men are attracted to the same women” even if I agree that the media (both popular gay and straight media) pushes a particular look. And I’m quite sure gay media pushes the look due to straight media pushing it first. I was reading Sheila Jeffrey’s “Unpacking Queer Politics” for the first time recently, and was really struck by the history of the lesbian/women’s movement being deeply manipulated and undermined by men, forcing a perspective on sexuality more similar to their own. There are such deep and powerful social forces at work, manipulating all of us.

      We would have a much healthier society if we valued people more for what they bring to the table in regards to their minds and hearts rather than how well they fit a particular “look.” The good news is, when I look at happy couples I see all kinds of people, all shapes and sizes and colors, loving each other for who they are. That’s the real thing I hoped to get across in this blog, that deep down we are all going to fall in love with who we fall in love with, uncontrollably, and all this stuff on the surface – as painful and frustrating as it can be – is just stuff.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Eyebrows | This Soft Space

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