by Katelyn Burns
My mom’s dress was shiny, silver, and satin. It was truly a monstrosity of eighties fashion, but to me, it was everything. As I pulled my arms through the sleeves and let the hem float down around my knees, I’m not sure what I felt. The nearest explanation for what I felt was a sense of correctness. A few days earlier my mom had joked that I was tall enough that I could probably fit in her wedding dress. I was 10 or 11 at the time. So many questions about myself were answered with something as simple as putting on a dress. People from all slices of life have asked me how I knew I was a girl at that young age. “What does it mean to feel like a woman?” they ask, and my honest answer is “I have no idea!”
When I was a younger, I knew there was something different about me. It was a nagging sense of discomfort or awkwardness that I couldn’t quite explain. I remember the moment that I realized why I was so intensely jealous of the girls in my class with their long hair instead of feeling the “normal” feeling of attraction or curiosity that I assumed the other boys were feeling. In retrospect, this is silly, none of the other boys wanted anything to do with girls, so why was I so different?
When you notice something out of place or in pain on your body, it’s a natural inclination to try to figure out what’s wrong. If you wake up and your knee hurts, you flex it, when your throat is clogged, you try to cough it up. Figuring out that I was trans followed the same pattern. When all of the answers to a young child's questions point to a missing girlhood, what else is she supposed to think?
Sometimes the question of what a woman really feels like can be more sinister, however. Gender-critical feminists often pose the question and then follow up with a caveat, “without using traditional feminine stereotypes.” The caveat is meant to turn the question into a gotcha. If a trans woman says she knew she was a girl because she liked dresses as a kid, the feminist will follow up with “so all girls are supposed to like dresses?” It’s an accusation at the heart of the myth that trans women perpetuate feminine stereotypes of womanhood. The answer for myself and for many other trans women is much more complicated than simple clothes, however.
Despite my jealousy of other girls, and the feeling of correctness when I wore the eighties-tastic dress in my spare time, I was a rough and tumble boy. I played with GI Joes and Matchbox cars. I played every sport I came across, from little league baseball to throwing a lacrosse ball back and forth with a pair of old wooden sticks my dad brought home. When Wimbledon rolled around, I would pretend I was Pete Sampras beating Andre Agassi in the final while hitting a tennis ball off our siding (sorry dad, for the chipped wood). If I had been assigned female at birth, I would have been a tomboy.
When I ask my seven year old cis (as far as I can tell) daughter how she knows she’s a girl, she says it’s because she likes long hair and dresses. To a seven year old like her, there isn’t much of a discernable difference between her body and her male cousin who is the same age. She doesn’t see her cousin naked so what other difference is she supposed to focus in on? Are her co-parent and I supposed to get into advanced feminism with our seven year old? We can barely get her to brush her hair sometimes.
Cis women are never asked what it feels like to be a woman because their cis supremacy is never questioned. It’s considered rude to question a cis woman about their womanhood because cis people often take it for granted. Having your gender match between your assigned sex at birth means you can take it for granted that your feelings as women are valid. It’s a privilege rarely extended to trans women.
Like many other tomboys, I’ve grown to appreciate my femininity now in womanhood since I’ve transitioned in adulthood. If I had transitioned when I was younger, would I have laid down my sports in favor of Barbies and crinolines? I don’t think so. I may have had a princess phase but I can’t imagine my love of sports just disappearing in thin air. What stereotype was I supposedly reinforcing?
The fact of the matter is that trans women come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. I have trans women friends who don’t shave their armpits and have blue hair. I have trans women friends with short hair and long. Some wear graphic tees, jeans, and combat boots everyday while others prefer the freedom and coolness of skirts and dresses in hot weather. There is no one set look or style for trans women and anyone who claims that is perpetuating a stereotype themselves. How trans women dress is a matter of personal choice. We often take on more feminine trappings for safety. Cis people tend to give more leeway if a trans woman is wearing a dress, more ambiguous presentations are often looked at more critically.
So what does it mean to feel like a woman? It means that if you are a woman, it’s whatever you are currently feeling. Women are so diverse in their experiences that there can be no universal model of womanhood. If you feel like glamming it up with makeup and going out in a dress, that’s a woman’s feeling. If you just don’t feel like shaving, whether it’s your legs or your face, that’s also a woman’s feeling. Both are equally valid representations of womanly feelings, no matter if you’re trans or cis. Feminism is about individual choice for women. Feminism fights so that we can make these choices or any other choice we wish with our bodies as women.
Katelyn Burns is a freelance journalist and trans woman. She lives in Maine with her two young children and you can find her on Twitter @transscribe.