Featured Society/Culture — 25 May 2012
What Does It Mean To Be A Woman?

By Liz Belilovskaya

As a child I pondered the meaning and the implications of my sex since I was already being told that certain behaviors and interests were for boys and that I should align my own with those of girls. I thought that was shitty right from the beginning; while I liked my dolls and my dresses I also liked my construction set and magnets.

It occurred to me early on that in many children’s books, princesses were helpless creatures who had to have men come and whisk them away to a life of utter boredom and overly emphasized civility and eventually they would be turned into birthing machines that probably would be stoned to death if a male heir was not produced. The fact that most of these princesses were idiots was also disconcerting.

Depending on men was something that was almost cheered on; servitude on the part of the woman was implied. It also dawned on me that if women didn’t comply, they would be ostracized by their society. So far, being a woman was less than appealing.

I have had the recent pleasure of interviewing Mx. Justin Vivian Bond who is a writer, singer and performance artist. Bond doesn’t associate with terms like male or female, Ms. or Mr., opting for Mx. instead. Born male, Justin did not feel like all the other boys, even before he was able to truly understand the underlying separation. His outward maleness was not part of his identity.

While this article is not about Mx. Bond, our conversation got me thinking. Being a man or being a woman is mainly associated with our genitalia. Based on our organs, we send people out to live their lives. It certainly works out for most of us but there are many people who get trapped by that initial distribution and are unable to play the role they were given. Mx. Bond was born a man but lived as more than just that.

Those born with both male and female sex organs are often subjected to gender assignment. In many cases, the decision is made on medical grounds; what is easier to clean up or shape is what you get to live with. If the case is 50/50, then the parents give their two cents and the sex of the person is decided that way. Meanwhile, all of these decisions are being made without the child, despite how that decision affects every aspect of the child’s existence.

Of course there are cases when the made “decision” is an accurate representation of the person’s internal perception of themselves. Other times, the decision is a wrong one, forcing the person to change their sex when their identity dissonance gets to be to much. Such a transformation is not only physically taxing but ultimately emotionally and mentally difficult, never mind the social factors.

What about medical accidents that turn would-be sons into engineered daughters and vise versa. Accidents happen. Botched circumcisions, other types genitalia mutilations and the solutions for rectifying these conditions carry risks and implications that are serious – some people adjust to their reassigned sex while others do not. The latter group then face the same identity as the hermaphrodites, that is, the need to look the same as they feel.

What about women who can not have children? If womanliness is dependent on the ability to carry a child, do these women become slightly less than? What about the pregnant man? Would we consider him a woman despite his sex reassignment surgery? Recent studies have shown that the brain of homosexual men resembles that of a woman and the brain of a homosexual woman resembles that of a straight man- what are we to make of these results? Clearly the question of what it means to be a woman or man is not an easy one.

I think there is no clear definition of what it means to be a man or a woman. To me, womanhood is independent of sexual organs, sexual orientation or gender roles. I think it really boils down to the individuals wiring of the brain and everything else is what society places on us.

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(3) Readers Comments

  1. Like everything in our culture, it stems from antiquated ideas, ideals and absolute ignorance… of the raw kind. I always get flack for liking Broadway music, being accused of being a homosexual. Expectation, lack of expectation, ridicule (ball busting), condescension… it has to be shaken off and those that can’t shake it are poisonous.

    This is not too far from the idea that employers don’t want to hire “jack of all trade” types, they want people who can only do one thing and that one thing only. That is their mission, their goal blah blah blah. That mentality is applied to sex, a woman has this job, and this job only. Blah blah blah.

    Fuck ’em all.

  2. “Being a man or being a woman is mainly associated with our genitalia.”

    No, it starts on the chromosomes, and it impacts everything in your body, every cell. The genitalia is part of it, then hormones, brain, set of instincts, energetical charge, and so on.

    The cultural / societal part is the very last peel on it.

    “I think there is no clear definition of what it means to be a man or a woman.”

    I guess you mean, culturally wise? look at every culture. There are many, many definitions. Sometimes contradictory. But you can look past culture by focusing on nature. Humans didnt invent sex nor gender. Primitive archaic cells did. We just invent new shapes and fashions and roles that we play on top of what’s already there.

    “To me, womanhood is independent of sexual organs, sexual orientation or gender roles. I think it really boils down to the individuals wiring of the brain and everything else is what society places on us.”

    If it was individual there would be more variance. There’s little, and mostly superficial.

  3. Erik,

    “This is not too far from the idea that employers don’t want to hire “jack of all trade” types”

    Can you elaborate on that?

    Say. If you were hiring, would you look for a specialist or for a jack of all trades? assuming both cost the same a and are similarly good persons… what’s the deciding factor?

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