Monday, June 11, 2012

Feminist Question of the Week: Identity Flux?

A good friend of mine and I had a brief voicemail exchange earlier this week. She had run into someone whose sex and gender presentation inspired her to wonder about transition processes, and so she gave me a call to learn more. What is "the" transition process? she asked me. Of course, the answer is that there is no singular process; each person chooses their trajectory based on the changes they wish to make. Some choose surgery; some choose hormones; some choose neither; and some choose both.

It got me thinking, however, about the flexibility that cisgendered people experience in their identities without it ever being called to notice. I'm intending to move beyond the "some women wear skirts and some don't shave their legs" routine; what I'm interested in is the fact that cis folk talk about their gender identities and presentations as though they are immutable when they actually experience their own fluctuations from day to day, season to season, and year to year.

For example, my gender presentation changed dramatically when I worked as a victim advocate on Army posts. At first, my presentation was the same as it had generally been: nice trousers, a tank top and nice shirt, flat shoes. There had been minor fluctuations in this outfit over the years, but that was my go-to outfit. Before long, however, my work outfit had transitioned to pencil skirts, high heels, button-down blouses, and makeup on most days. Don't get me wrong- I enjoy dressing up from time to time- but on an Army post, where my job was considered the lowest of the low, I felt that maximizing others' perceptions of my femininity made me appear less threatening and, thus, easier to hear (metaphorically) when I spoke. Now that I'm at a different job, my presentation has reverted.

I find this intriguing because my core identity never changed, but my presentation did dramatically and I was barely aware of it at the time. Professionalism aside (I could've worn a suit), I reacted to a tradition-oriented workplace not by rebelling, but by bringing my identity into line with the expectations of those around me. It even got to the point where I felt less like a real woman, somehow, if I wore trousers. Whatever a real woman is.

So here's a question for all the cis readers out there: when have you altered your gender presentation? Do you change the times you shave your legs? Do you find yourself constructing ever-changing rules for yourself about being a real man? Did you eschew a bra until you became pregnant and changed your mind? And, during those times, were you making a conscious choice?

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