No matter how hard we try, nobody's gender expression is going to please everyone. If we tread too far away from the traditional “norm,” we're perceived as seeking attention or just downright weird. If we stay too close to traditional norms for male and female, then we continue the cycle of restrictive gender roles.
It's hard to find that elusive balance that will somehow please most people around us, and thankfully through the years many have shrugged off the fears of what people might think in favor of being comfortable with themselves and who they are. Their examples make it easier for each new generation.
Sometimes how that manifests can be as simple as presenting a little more masculine or feminine than is “expected.” Sometimes it can mean throwing traditional gender roles out the window and into a raging inferno fueled by the demise of “tradition.”
Sometimes, of course, it means an entire physical transition. In those cases, it's not just the expression part, but rather the gender we’ve been assigned as a whole. Many trans men and women struggle just to exhibit traits we were told not to have while growing up, and while some feel strongly about having the gender expression that traditionally lines up with the gender they identify as. Others have either grown too accustomed to the only way they've known to behave (regardless of gender) and don't see a need to change their expression, or they feel strongly as a tomboy or effeminate man.
All of those realities and presentations are valid. While society needs to catch up to accepting them, we each must value our own standards above those of the outside world.
Personally speaking, I'll usually be seen wearing a t-shirt and jeans, generally being a tomboy. Even before I transitioned, I would imagine myself as a tomboy because that's just how I'm comfortable perceiving myself most of the time. Other times, I put on a dress because I feel like I want to present more feminine that day — and I may as well wear the ones I have while I still have the body for them.
I hear all the time, whether it's about me or someone I know, that we should do more to present “female” as if there's a right and wrong way to do so. These commenters wouldn't say the same to a cis woman, and that’s usually because these “good Samaritans” want to “help” trans women to feel more themselves.
In fact occasionally, they're right in prescribing a dress, skirt or makeup because the woman in question is too afraid to express herself that openly on her own, but most times it just comes off as invalidating to tell a trans woman that her sense of self-worth isn't where it should be because she hasn't “taken that extra step” to expressing herself as someone else sees fit.
It should be obvious, but being a woman isn't solely about outwardly expressing traditional feminine traits. Expression is a separate entity from our identity, and anyone, regardless if they're male, female, or non-binary, can express the same feminine or masculine traits and qualities we're all familiar with without somehow damaging or muting the gender with which they identify.
Our gender isn't the sum of our traits, but rather a point along a spectrum that we most identify with — on the most personal level imaginable.
Everyone should live freely and explore themselves to their heart's content. And while I still encourage everyone to do so, a more important message to send would be to allow others to live freely and explore themselves.
We all have ways in which we want to express ourselves, but the more restrictions and judgment we place on others unnecessarily, the worse we make it for everyone, ourselves included, to live a life of freedom and personal truth.
Heather Maloney is a writer, editor, and creative thinker from Atlanta with a vested interest in gender and sexuality.
Photo by Robin Rayne Nelson/Zuma
This article originally appeared in Q magazine. Pick up your copy around town, and read the digital version below: