What it Means to Be Feminine

Illustration by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

When I was younger, I rebelled against even the slightest suggestion that I was like my mom. I am much more like my dad. I look exactly like him. We’re pragmatic and tough, share a fondness for witticisms that sometimes come out too sharp and a preference for doing things ourselves. When I was a kid, he indulged my short-lived tomboy whims, like playing catch or trying to understand cars. I sat aloft his shoulders on hikes and when he mowed the lawn, I stole his hats and Ray-Ban aviators to feel their heaviness on my head. I loved the idea that I was daddy’s girl. I loved the idea of being masculine. I still do. I didn’t recognize that my love of being like my dad and my rejection of being like my mom was, essentially, a fear of being feminine.

My mom is a beautiful, self-possessed, incredibly intelligent woman with a tinge of New Age left over from her early 30s. She is a fantastic cook and a damn smart negotiator. She smells like coffee in the morning and Coco Chanel perfume in the afternoon. (I cannot deal with other people who wear Coco Chanel, because they stole it. Smelling one’s mother on someone else is bizarre and unsettling.)

She is also very tough, a quality I didn’t see or understand when I was younger because (1) kids can be dumb and oblivious and (2) my mom’s toughness is quiet, invisible steel along the spine. I was in my mid-teens when I learned about the way she had to manage and care for my grandmother, how she found her slumped in the bathroom one day from a depression neither of her parents knew how to handle. I was in my late teens when I really learned about her first marriage — how her husband was abusive, neglectful, how she summoned the courage to leave with my sister in tow. I was in my early twenties when I learned a history of her reproductive choices, the strength of her determination, the pain and hope behind her decisions to have me, to have my sister, to marry my father, to have a hysterectomy.

Toughness is feminine. I used to watch my mother get ready for work in shoulder-padded suits and slingback heels and think, She looks so pretty! Now I watch her blow-dry her hair and think, She looks ready for war (and she looks so pretty!). Now I wear my mom’s old corduroy coat and my dad’s old motorcycle jacket, to which I have pinned a glittering brooch. Now I try on Chanel perfumes at the mall. I try to be like her. There is so much of her I would love to inherit.

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