In the social imagination, those who present as women and perform an acceptable level of femininity are obedient and controllable.

-Sherronda J. Brown

I have always wanted to be strong. Not strong as in a Strong Black Woman™—an expectation of impossible emotional and spiritual fortitude against a world imbued with misogynoir.

Strong as in twenty three-time Grand Slam Champion Serena Williams. Powerful as in Olympic Shot Putter and gold medalist Michelle Carter. Formidable as in the Dora Milaje and their stoic General, Okoye.

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This strength is something that girls, and those assumed to be girls, are not encouraged towards. Instead, we are actively encouraged in the opposite direction. The world, fixed on binaries and polarity, wants weakness to be a core part of our femininity so that strength can remain a core part of masculinity.

But I have always had a natural inclination towards the androgynous and the masculine. Growing up a girl, this was thoroughly discouraged by the people around me.

“Don’t be too masculine.”

All the messages that I received about strength and masculinity said that they belonged only to men and boys, and definitely not to little girls. Now, all the messages that I receive about acceptable androgyny and masculinity for non-men say that it belongs only to those with thin bodies, like Janelle Monàe and Ari Fitz, and definitely not to fat bodies like mine.

To this day, my gender expression is something that I continue to perform “incorrectly,” even in the eyes of those who claim to have an interest in challenging gender norms.

Traditional and limited ideas about gender and sexuality constantly circled around me, my body, and the way it moved through the world, leaving traumas in unexpected ways and in unexpected spaces. I have vivid memories of being chastised and reprimanded for being too strong, too tomboy-ish, and not feminine, dainty, or demure enough.

From family members to teachers and school administrators, within past friendships and romantic-ish relationships, and even in the workplace, my “inferior” gender performance has been commented on, sometimes aggressively and seemingly without end.

Middle school classmates sometimes bullied me with taunts of, “You’re a man,” and I cannot describe what kind of confusion this imparted on me, and the questions it raised about my gender and sexuality.

This intentional misgendering wound down only because my body changed. As I developed more, gaining weight and becoming more unambiguously “womanly,” the accusations of manliness died down as the sexual harassment and fat-shaming ramped up.

Even still, the way I carried myself—my style of dress, my mannerisms, my voice, my interests—left me vulnerable to accusations of being “too much like a nigga.” They made it clear that if I didn’t learn to properly contort myself and fit into the box of femininity that felt stifling and uncomfortable to me, I would never be considered dateable, or fuckable, or valuable.

I carry with me a deep and visceral hatred for most things associated with traditional femininity and the expectations of womanhood ascribed on my body, especially “beauty rituals.” High heels, dresses, skirts, stockings, painted nails, makeup and cosmetics, purses. I hate them. I always have, but I grew to hate them even more when they were forced on me. While others complained that their parents wouldn’t allow them to wear makeup yet, I cried because my mom forced me to wear it on picture days.

I cried when she made me wear skirts, stockings, and heels, and carry a purse to church. And I cried the day a former boss forced me to wear makeup to a work event when I was employed as a clerical assistant at a cosmetics company. I resigned soon after.

“Don’t be too masculine.”

I have many traumas from the social conditioning of compulsory femininity, more than I am willing to share here. Like a thousand paper cuts, they add up to something unspeakably painful.

Suffocating expectations of femininity have left me psychologically scarred, physically uncomfortable, and emotionally drained.  

I experienced years of internal conflict, thinking about the implications of my aversion to femininity. Never totally sure of whether or not it was due to internalized misogyny or gender disidentification or a combination of the two. Or something else entirely.

I didn’t have the language to talk about it during the years when these things impacted me the most, but it felt like I was being silenced and made to disappear. I know now that this is because the world wants women to shrink, and it takes great offense when I go against that expectation.

I learned, through many hurtful lessons, that women with a certain level of femininity (but who are not too feminine, of course; no, that’s “frivolous”) are taken more seriously because it makes people less uncomfortable. In the social imagination, those who present as women and perform at least a somewhat acceptable level of femininity are obedient and controllable

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The journey here has been long and marked by various traumas, but here is my androgynous, fat, Black truth: I am not feminine. That is not how I am meant to move through this world, even if the world thinks my “womanly” body suggests otherwise.

I am a woman, or at least I think I am most days, and my androgyny and masculinity are welcomed parts of my womanhood.

I feel most confident when I allow myself to live in this truth, and that is okay. No one ever told me this. So, I try to tell myself as often as I need to hear it.

Editor’s Note: June is LGBTQ Pride Month. At BYP, we will be exploring gender, sexuality, transgender issues and queer theory, and we are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.