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Monday, January 17, 2011

I enjoy being a girl (even though I look like a boy)

Yesterday I was mistaken for a man. It happened at the Harris Teeter near Timberlyne up on MLK way. It was around 10am. I had just come from visiting Matthew at Cup of Joe and had on a Cup of Joe baseball cap (more like a Greek fisherman's cap), my flannel jacket from Nepal (it's black with multicolor bands at the wrists), and my yoga pants (which for me means my ankles are showing) with my keen slip ons. I mention this because I think if one were to see me, the entire me, there are sartorial signs that may read more as "feminine" than "masculine" or at least clothing you'd associate more with a woman (yoga pants), although I also recognize that some of my other clothing may have seemed either masculine or androgynous (baseball cap, keen shoes). The jacket probably just registered as "ethnic."

Anyway, I was standing in line with my basket and a checker appeared and said directly to me, "Sir, I can take you at that counter," pointing to the register to my left. I literally looked in back of me, wondering if perhaps I was mistaken in who he was speaking to, and then I realized that, no, it was ME, and I dutifully followed him.

And then I had to make a decision: do I say something or not say something. Do I try to pass as a guy or do I let him know he's made a mistake.

Since I am pretty sure that as low voiced as I *think* I am, I'm really not so low pitched as to be mistaken for a guy. I also think that upon closer inspection (like seeing the diamond wedding band that I wear or the bracelet on my wrist) the guy might realize his mistake and feel more embarrassed. So I said to him, "Even though I know I look like a guy, I'm actually a woman."

I said this without any judgment or inflection--just stated it as matter-of-factly as I could. The checker (a college aged kid) was pretty chagrined--apologized--but I smiled and told him it was my short hair that fooled him. And he smiled, relieved, and agreed that the hair was what made him think I was a man.

Which of course has led me to think about my gender identity--or the way that I present myself as a woman.

Because previous to my cancer/chemo/surgery, I would have told you that I exhibit pretty masculine traits. That I liked wearing men's shirts (especially oversized white button down shirts); that I used to sing tenor parts in the chorus during high school because there weren't enough boys to sing those parts; that I have that annoying "male" way of interrupting people during conversations and other verbal markers that signal a more masculine rather than feminine talking style. And, in general, I just would have said that I don't *feel* very feminine.

To which I now say: RUBBISH.

I mean, you don't know what it's like not to feel feminine until you lose your hair and your breasts.

I also think it was easy for me to say that I felt masculine, because my female identity and my hetero identity were so firmly entrenched and seemingly one and the same. In other words, I wonder to what degree it's easy for me, as a straight-identified, pre-bilateral mastectomy and pre-chemotherapy-loss-of-hair woman, to say that I identify as "masculine" or feel myself to have "masculine" traits when so many of my obvious physical features read "feminine"--including my clothes and accessories: necklaces, rings, dresses, etc... Even more androgynous clothing like jeans or suit jackets were tailored for women rather than men--as well as my shoes--they clearly read female.

Yet ever since the loss of my hair and the loss of my breasts, I've been thinking about my gender identity, in terms of my physical features. I've been wondering about what parts of me are still coded as feminine and which parts of me may truly seem to be more androgynous, more masculine. When I look at myself from the neck down wearing a t-shirt for example, I encounter a flat chest that resembles a boy's more than a woman's. And when I look at myself in the mirror, with my hair cropped close to my head, I see an uncanny resemblance to my male cousins. In fact, when I had my head shaved by Matthew back in July, my mother remarked that I in the photos I posted on this blog I looked just like my Uncle Hunter.

All of which has made me realize that as much as I may look like a boy, I actually do feel like a girl (or woman rather). I actually identify, quite strongly, with being a woman--because my mannerisms, my clothing choices, my body language, my voice, are all coded as feminine and all convey a sense of my womanliness. My missing breasts didn't make me more of a woman, nor more feminine. My hair, well that's a different story. I do think that short hair plus androgynous clothing can equal gender confusion. Which may be why I'm not sure if I'll be keeping my hair short. That as much as I like to academically think about ambiguity, I'm not sure how I feel about being in an ambiguously gendered body.

And yet there's a part of me that thinks that perhaps this is a time for me to explore androgyny--to explore what it means to occupy a body that is feminine without such feminine markers as longer hair and breasts. To think about what it may mean for me to either intentionally pass as male or to allow myself to be mis-read--to not have corrected the check-out clerk but to just let him make his own assumptions about who I am.

Something to think about as I more through space in this new body of mine and a key question for me to wonder about is: what will I feel like wearing a summer dress? Will this be a moment when I feel the full weight of the loss of my breasts and the loss of a part of my femininity? I suppose we'll have to wait until May to find out.


  1. Hey Jennifer,
    Just came across your blog and absolutely loved it. I'm in the midst of the breast cancer thing as well. If you would like to follow my blog. It's

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    You have such a great blog! I'm also in the middle of breast cancer treatment and came across your blog when I googled "chemo makes me feel crappy" lol I can relate to so much of what you've written. Keep it up and take care!

    Judy D

  3. Estelle & Judy,

    Hi--thanks for finding your way to my blog. I'm glad that my own perspective speaks to you--and I can really empathize about what you are both going through. Chemo is a necessary evil (sigh) -- and I really do understand how awful the whole thing is.

    Take care and be gentle with yourselves! And whatever you are feeling, it's absolutely the right way to feel--don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise (including other cancer survivors).

  4. Hi! I am so glad I found your blog, thank you. I am choosing not to reconstruct and I have been trying to explore its meaning and consequence for myself as an individual. I too, can and have ben mistaken as a man with 34DD breasts. A doctor in my care canter mistook me for a man last month and I still have breasts, though no hair.
    My biggest challenge right now is the surprise of my breast surgeon and her team when I tell them I do not want to reconstruct. I didn't expect it. I have made this decision for some of the reasons you have stated but also because I do not want to introduce a foreign body (or two) into my perfectly functioning self.
    I was given a surgery date yesterday, that is something.
    Thanks for writing.

  5. Hi Melly,
    Thanks for writing--and I know what you mean about looking for a community of people, of women, who do not want to reconstruct after doing their bi-lateral mastectomy surgeries. There is a link I put to a woman who posted Flicker photos of herself 2 years after her surgery--she's topless at Virginia Beach and looks so confident and content--it gave me strength and conviction in making my decision not to reconstruct.

    Good luck with your upcoming surgery--I hope you have a good community of folks with you--or that you've at least found some people in the blogosphere!