Thursday, January 20, 2005

On Being a Woman: To Sir with Love

There are few things more offensive to a woman – no matter where on the gender continuum she falls – than being mistaken for a man. I speak from experience since I was constantly mistaken for a boy as a child. By neighbors, by store clerks, even by relatives. I don’t think it’s that these people actually did any sort of in-depth analysis to assess whether I was a boy or a girl. People are just inherently lazy, so they tend to look for the most obvious visual cues:

Tall equals boy, short equals girl. Long hair equals girl, short hair equals boy. Leather equals boy, lace equals girl.

So when they saw a grubby little curly haired kid, climbing trees and catching frogs, these were all the clues they needed to determine that I was a boy. I suppose the fact that I didn’t wear a shirt until I was thirteen might have added to the confusion, but I can’t help that I was a late bloomer.

Occasionally, in what he deemed to be the ultimate insult, my brother would call me, “Yentl.” As far as brotherly insults go, this one leaned a bit to the esoteric, but my brother did skip a grade in school. After I started carrying a candle around the house and singing, “Poppa, Can You Hear Me?” for the next hour, he soon realized that his taunts really hurt him more than they did me. He also told me that I was born a hermaphrodite, and that my parents chose to raise me as a girl because the girl surgery was cheaper. Though my parents will neither confirm nor deny this claim, I just feel grateful that they made such a wise and economical decision.

Remarkably, my gender crisis crossed international boundaries – during the 70’s, my aunt’s church took in some Laotian refugees who had fled their country’s oppressive regime. For several years, this family would join us at our holiday get-togethers, and I would always play with the youngest son, who was about my age.

We would spend hours climbing trees, playing hide and seek, and tossing a Frisbee. Laughter was our common language. But more tragic to this young boy than being forced from his homeland was the day he became proficient enough in English to finally understand that I was a girl. As it turns out, the word “Jenny” carries no gender in Laotian.

He actually cried.

We never climbed trees together again.

To this day, I refuse to eat at Laotian restaurants.

Everyone lost.

So most people are simply unobservant, but let’s face it, some are just plain dumb. Case in point: I had an uncle who called me “Son,” even when I was wearing a dress. Of course, the word “Son” was usually preceded by “Go get me another Jack and Coke,” so that may have had something to do with his lack of awareness.

Or consider the case of the inept waiter: a few years ago I was out for drinks with a group of girlfriends when an unobservant waiter asked my short-haired gal friend, “What can I get you to drink, Sir?”

When, in her high-pitched voice, she responded, “A Guinness,” he didn’t know what to do, so he had a meltdown in front of our very eyes. Instead of simply saying, “Oh, I’m sorry,” like any normal person would have, he muttered and mumbled, then tried to make a joke of it by calling her “Sir” every time he came back:

“Here’s your Guinness, Sir.”

“Will there be anything else, Sir?”

“A refill on those pretzels, Sir?”

Because really, the best way to deal with accidentally embarrassing someone is to keep doing it. Over and over.

It just got worse and worse until one of us – I’d like to think it was me, but I really don’t recall – finally told him that the joke was over. As were his chances of earning a tip from us.

But back to me and my sexual identity challenges – as I got older, stopped catching frogs, grew my hair longer, and started wearing bras, people stopped mistaking me for a boy for the most part. But I still fight a daily battle against traditional feminine fashions. I just can’t help it – I like big shoes, and roomy pants, and cozy turtlenecks. I’m not trying to make some radical statement with my clothes. I don't want to relinquish my status as a woman. I just want to be comfortable. Pantyhose are not comfortable. High heels are not comfortable. And thongs? Newsflash: not comfortable.

On the contrary, Gap denim overalls and worn-in Doc Martens are really, really comfortable. It is important to note, however, that comfort must never trump common sense, which is a lesson I learned quickly when, as a naïve college student, I wore said Gap denim overalls and worn-in Doc Martens to my grandmother’s house. We hugged hello, she adjusted her glasses, looked me up and down, and then told me I looked like a beet farmer. Not just any farmer, mind you, but a beet farmer.

I imagined myself riding atop a truckload of freshly-picked vegetables, my hands and knees stained violet from beet juice. A piece of straw in my mouth, the warm sun on my face, and the gentle bouncing of the beet truck lulling me into a daze. It was hard labor – physical – but I earned an honest wage and a good night’s sleep each day…

Much as I enjoyed this image, I assure you that I never wore that outfit again – at least not in my grandmother’s presence.

Now, older and wiser, as I hike from the train station to work, the blistering wind hitting my cheeks, I stare lovingly at my fellow Chicagoans, buried under their wool hats, long scarves, big boots, and puffy jackets. I have come to realize that winter is the great equalizer. It strips us of our gender – we become faceless, sexless blobs shuffling from one building to the next in search of warmth.

I have determined that, as dreadful as Chicago winters can be, there is something wonderfully liberating about living in the Midwest because no one expects me to wear low rider jeans and strappy heels in December. For at least three months out of the year, cargo pants and Steve Maddens are perfectly acceptable.

So while everyone around me was thrilled by yesterday’s heat wave (32˚), I have mixed feelings about it. While I, too, look forward to a day when I can wear fewer than three layers of clothing, I also know that the longer days signal the coming of the season of skin. The season when I must consistently shave my legs, and slather my pasty arms with self-tanner, and struggle to find any fashions that do not expose my navel.

But until that fateful day comes once again, my focus must remain on comfort – all those beets aren’t going to pick themselves, you know.