“Your underwear isn’t… it isn’t very elegant,” my stepmom says while we’re chatting about sartorial comfort.
I did away with underwired bras the day I decided sharp metal and delicate boobs did not bosom buddies make. Especially when the underwire part of the bra slithers out of place and pokes you in the ribs.
After one too many frustrating trips to an underwear store that offered nothing that wasn’t push-up, padded, or made out of scratchy polyester lace, I gave up. I’m frequently braless at home and will don yoga bras or soft bralettes when going out. Most of my underwear is black and simple, in line with the rest of my wardrobe, while some is lacy for days when I need a little self-confidence boost.
Because I’m the one who wears it, I buy my underwear for me, to suit my needs, not to please anyone else. Which isn’t to say I’m against super sexy underwear as an erotic device on occasion.
Femininity, to me, is an attitude common to all those of us who identify as women, it’s in how we inhabit our power. Soccer player Megan Rapinoe is as much of a woman to me as journalist Janet Mock, actress Lea DeLaria, or activist Chelsea Manning.
And my seldom remembering to brush my very long hair or apply lipstick, or my abiding love of comfortable footwear do not disqualify me from womanhood either.
Even though my stepmom disagrees vocally, but only to tease me.
Not only does she embody French elegance, but she is a paragon of strength with an imposing presence she refuses to let cancer weaken. She rocks a bald head in public, with designer glasses, perfect makeup, and statement earrings.
And yet, the way she does woman is as valid as mine, in my sneakers, pony tail, and backpack that all make me look far younger than my years.
The latter isn’t even deliberate, only a side-effect of putting practicality above all else.
Every human gets to define for themself what gender means, if they don’t bravely opt out of this constraining construct altogether.
Although I present as feminine now, I haven’t always done so. At one point, I had very short hair, a lot of piercings, wore combat pants, a biker’s leather jacket, and big boots. Even as a little kid, I went through a phase when I was frequently mistaken for a boy even though I was born a girl; my mother had decided short hair was less maintenance.
I didn’t care.
The only reason I’ve had long hair for the last two decades is that I can’t be bothered going to the hairdresser’s every month, nor can I afford to. The end result always makes me feel good but the process bores me to tears and I can only tolerate it when it is as swift as possible.
Plus I have no talent for the kind of chit chat that passes for conversation in most salons.
As a result, my stylist in Seattle is a blunt gay guy; sometimes we discuss politics and culture at length, other times we’re both quiet but we’re always in sync. The one I see in Paris is a family friend who is delightfully straightforward, too, like an older brother with scissors, a motorbike, and helmet hair.
Rehashing tired clichés in print just to elicit sympathy because many of us don’t fit those promoted by women’s magazines is tiresome. Worse, it reinforces them instead of broadening our shared understanding of what womanhood is.
Let’s face it, without Photoshop or smartphone filters, most of us look less than picture perfect and that’s because this is what humans look like in the wild. Your shape, your size, your hair, your skin do not define how much of a woman you are; you do, and you do it for you, not for anyone else’s benefit.
You’re the one who lives in your skin so being comfortable in it should be your one and only concern.
French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir had it right.
“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”
Which is why there aren’t any real obstacles to belonging to womanhood even if you were born in a body that doesn’t match your gender identity. Plainly put, you can be a woman — or indeed a man — regardless of what’s between your legs.
As a case in point, some trans women are far, far more feminine than I’ll ever be. And although I’m a US size 4 and my stepmom takes XXL, she too is more womanly than I’d ever manage even if I tried. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi in her attitude, an effortless sense of style that I simply don’t have.
And will never have because beauty, fashion, and shopping don’t interest me much even though I’m a woman and clichés dictate these are the pursuits I should be into, apparently. Although I use makeup, it’s only to make me look less undead, cover up imperfections, and boost my confidence.
I do this for me, the same way I’ll occasionally wear a dress because I feel like it.
Why shouldn’t the measure of a woman be the same as the measure of any other human, i.e. the evidence of a curious and active mind, a people-focused disposition, and a good heart?
The rest is fluff.
Each of us gets to decide who we want to be, how we want to live up to that choice, and we also have the prerogative to change our mind as often as we need to or feel like.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.