Skip to main content

Dressing up as a woman

A tipsily cheerful, older-than-me chap in the pub where I go to write recently informed me that, d'you know, he'd walked past my table a couple of times and he couldn't decide whether I was a man or a woman!

To be fair to my new friend, I wasn't dressed as a woman. I wasn't dressed 'as' anything. I was just there in jeans and a conference hoodie – ideal for the (coldish) weather and the errand-y to-dos on my list, but hardly apt to give a person curves they don't already possess. My medium-length hair had been styled by the elements, my complexion was as even and clear as OK-ish hydration and cleansing would have it, and I hadn't so much as sketched a single facial feature. And yet, here I was outside the confines of my own home and apparently quite comfortable to be seen in public. It does seem like more the sort of thing a man would do...

Not that all men choose to present themselves 'as-is', but at least it's socially acceptable for them to do so [1]; the non-requirement for them to visually accentuate their gender in quite the same way as women tallies with the underlying de facto assumption that humanity is by default "male", with "female" as a special category. And not that I don't admire those who enjoy and are creatively adept at self-styling! There's plenty of times when I would be glad of more of that skill and inclination. But my lack of either doesn't make me less female; the fact that gender norms demand so much artifice on the part of a non-negligible proportion of women (I don't think I'm entirely on my own in my tail of the distribution) surely indicates that maybe they are more constructed, on the whole, than 'natural'.

Fifteen years ago it's safe to say I would have been (indeed was, on occasion) mortified at being mistaken, or being told I was mistakeable. But over time I've developed a deep suspicion of that shame instinct, and its role in enforcing said constructed norms. Thing is, whenever I allow it to influence me personally, I contribute to its power as a mechanism to tyrannise and manipulate others ... some of whom contend with a whole lot more and a whole lot worse in the way of scrutiny and comment than I typically face. And to what purpose? What is achieved by our constant collective anxiety to falsely exaggerate the ways in which women differ from men – and to erase all except that binary? Well, it certainly helps preserve the status quo, closing down a range of threats to its logic of male dominance and cisheteronormativity. Only, well, I'm not sure I want to help preserve the status quo anymore... It doesn't necessarily feel like What Jesus Would Do.

So yeah, no, I'm not up for being shamed by this stuff nowadays. In theory, at least. I'm by no means ashamed to be a woman ... but, especially, I'm not ashamed to be this woman, sans disguise. If your model – your mental image of a woman – lacks the scope to encompass my real-world instantiation of one then maybe ... just maybe ... your model is inadequate.

Now, not all followers of Jesus take the same view, as I'm uncomfortably aware. Christians have been (and are) among those most keen to (over?-)emphasise the male/female distinction, and to theologise that (over?-)emphasis. I found myself starkly confronted with this recently, when I finally got around to reading Paradise Lost. In his poetic elaboration on Genesis 2 and 3, Milton goes all out to stress gender-based differences in appearance, nature, role and worth. Apparently, not only is woman created "for" Adam, but he even has some sort of "Author" role in her inception; apart from him – her "Guide and Head" – Eve is "to no end". Her unique and special features are her beauty – "the fairest of her Daughters", all slender softness and golden tresses next to his broad shoulders and impressive forehead (?!) – and her attitude of submission, which is "requir’d with gentle sway,// And by her yielded, by him best receivd"; but ultimately "beauty is excelld by manly grace// And wisdom, which alone is truly fair" (and, by implication, the exclusive domain of males).

Milton may have penned these words nearly 400 years ago but his vision of paradisal manhood and womanhood is not out of place in many Christian circles today; I even found a page on BibleGateway which cites his poetry as supporting evidence!

Except (I argue elsewhere, with the help of Phyllis Trible) it's just not really there. In the Bible, I mean. At least, not in the passages Milton extrapolates from, and not (I believe) in the overall impression given by scripture as a whole.

In Genesis 2, when God creates human sexuality, no descriptions are given of the couple's physical appearances. Adam's delight on first meeting Eve seems to derive first and foremost from her resemblance to him, not her difference. "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Genesis 2:23a). Finally, a creature like and equal to him... Not other and above him, like God; not lesser and subject to him, like the animals; but a partner – a "helper fit for him" (Genesis 2:18). Acknowledgement of complementary difference follows, as Adam first introduces the Hebrew words recognising males (in the specific, rather than the generic) and females: "she shall be called Woman (’iš·šāh), because she was taken out of Man (’îš)" (Genesis 2:23b). [2] In union together (Genesis 2:24), they would find mutual aid to worship God above them and steward creation below them. It is only after their disobedience that the harmony unravels and the differences between them become oppositional and hierarchical (Genesis 3:16).

Just as opposition and hierarchy have no part (I believe) in God's original ideal for humankind, neither, I suggest, do they have a place in the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims. "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:27-28)

In short, the Bible seems to place far more emphasis on our common humanity than Christians (and society, for that matter) are sometimes apt to recognise [3]. It also, let's not forget, acknowledges certain forms of non-binarism (see, e.g. Matthew 19:12), albeit not necessarily in the language/to the extent of contemporary gender theory.

There is beauty and complementary strength in the diversity associated with gender. I'm not seeking to deny or erase that fact! But I do feel as though it needs to be held somehow in tension with something about the underlying relative irrelevance of gender to a person's individual identity and worth – and, for Christians, to our unity in Christ.

My identification as a (cis) woman contributes to my self-understanding and my navigation of the world – sometimes helpfully, sometimes (e.g. thanks to limiting social norms and unchecked lenses) less so. But before that I am a person! As is, without ambiguity, the person next to me. We don't (or rather shouldn't) need to know each other's pronouns to show each other full and unequivocal dignity and respect as fellow human beings – to "outdo one another in showing honour" (Romans 12:10b). (Although – I wish it went without saying but I fear it doesn't – if we do know those pronouns it is basic to our common dignity to use them!)

Which brings me back to my associate pub regular – the one set wondering by the sight of me. He (and yes, aargh, I am suddenly aware of the arguable irony/hypocrisy of taking for granted that they were a he) seemed sufficiently tipsy and cheery for me to suppose that he probably meant no malice by his comment. All the same, it is hard to see in what possible way he considered my gender to be relevant to his interaction with me as a fellow person in a pub. Especially as (so it transpired) he wasn't interested in me so much as my connection to the Internet: he was trying to find a woman he once knew and had been advised that maybe she was tangled somewhere in the World Wide Web. Perhaps, sizing me up before his approach, he thought that a man would be more likely to empathise with his goal than a woman ... or that a woman would be more pliable to his request than a man? Unfortunately, he was bound to be disappointed – to whatever extent the instincts of basic humanity might have united me in sympathy for his project, they all the more inclined me to be mindful of this other, unknown fellow person who wouldn't necessarily, I thought, be looking to be found. I regretted to inform him I had rather too much research of my own to do to help him out just then, and did my utmost to look extra-specially industrious for the remainder of the afternoon...

[1] I refrain from specifying "cis-men" here only because I don't want to risk seeming to imply that the self-expression of other men is in any way "as isn't". But I can't imagine there are many trans people who experience gender norms less oppressively than those who identify with their birth-assigned sex – a humbling realisation.

[2] Phyllis Trible, in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (1978), observes that the phrase "taken out of" echoes the "taking out" of the first human creature from the dust of the earth. It implies a commonality but also a separation. It does not imply a hierarchy; in fact, the logical inference would be the superiority of woman over man, as the human creature is given dominance over the earth from which it is taken. But the context makes clear that this is not the case when it comes to the woman and the man.

[3] Which is not at all to say that it obliterates sex and/or gender distinction: sex differentiation is celebrated as integral to the erotic and creative potential of created humanity (see, e.g. Genesis 2, Song of Songs), and most of the individuals portrayed act mostly consistently with culturally-expected gender roles (although not to the extent of stereotype or constraint, see e.g. Ruth and Boaz, Deborah and Barak, Mary). Moreover, some of the teaching and instruction of the Bible has gender-specific aspects (e.g. Proverbs 31) – sometimes (I won't pretend otherwise) with uncomfortable implications (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, Ephesians 5:22-33; see Rachel Held Evans' blog for lots on this).

[Thumbnail image cc. from mac_filko on Flickr.]