On Being a Woman, Not "a Female"

by Shaker Maud

When I first encountered at Shakesville the idea that using "female" as a noun was insulting and depersonalizing I was kind of puzzled. I thought of it as a perhaps inelegant but serviceable usage which was in the process of developing into an alternate meaning. I thought people used the words "woman" and "female" interchangeably without thinking about it and that, while it does technically remove the designation of "human being" from the description, that that was not what was meant. There are a lot of shorthands in daily language use where some important element is not actually stated, but is taken for granted as included, rather than excluded. And I do think that unthinking interchangeability of these two words has become somewhat common.

But language is a force which shapes us all, whether we're thinking about it or not, so I've found that when people are thinking about some usage you never saw the need to give thought to, it's a good idea to start doing so.

Thinking about it caused me to remember an incident which happened more than 25 years ago, which stuck with me despite my not fully understanding the import of what I was hearing at the time. In response to a comment from me about a newspaper story, my mother told me that "two large females" (said in a tone of contempt, which was striking enough for me to still remember it, but which was common enough from her for me to take it for granted at the time) had brought into the newspaper office where she worked a press release about the theatre company they had moved into the area.

As it happened, I ended up going to work with and becoming friends with them. One of them became my best friend at the time, and I sometimes brought her to my mother's house. As I was grown by then, and my mother was fully capable of controlling her behavior when it was in her best interest to do so, she never said anything negative about this woman or behaved in any way rudely to her (which she would not likely have done to a guest in her house in any case). But I could always tell that Mother didn't like her, which was interesting because my friend was quite a charming woman whom most people took to very quickly. (My friend knew this about herself, and used to kid about how she was charming my mother. She wasn't.)

I hadn't worked out then my mother's unspoken relationship with fatness.

I subsequently realized that when my mother made the grand announcement to my sister and me that, thenceforth, I would be permitted to drink only skim milk, which she would have to buy specially for me and which I was always to choose at school for lunch because I was (ugh) fat, while she and my sister continued to drink the Whole Milk of the Virtuous, that I was not actually fat—yet.

It was only later in adulthood, when I saw photos of myself at that age that I realized that I had only begun growing fat after that. Of course, since I was seven then, and the only food I ate was given me either by her or by the school at lunch, the whole "Maud is condemned to drink skim milk ever after, as punishment for her immoral, disgusting fatness" was perhaps not an adequate plan to correct whatever gluttonous, self-indulgent behavior had made it necessary if, you know, that was actually the goal.

I did, as it happens, subsequently develop disordered eating and become quite fat. (I know, you totes didn't see that coming, did you?) What I realized, as an adult, after working out the timeline on all this, was that Mother's condemnation of my disgusting fatness at a time when, though I had chubby cheeks and a slightly round belly like a lot of 7-year-olds, I hadn't actually started getting fat yet, also came at the time when she, in her mid-forties, had begun to gain weight. I was the designated family sin-eater (uh-huh), so…

I don't recall hearing my mother overtly fat-shame anyone but me, even privately; I think she would have considered that vulgar. And she did have a couple of social friends (not close) who were obese. So it sort of didn't dawn on me that she extended that particular form of contempt to others.

To me, it was just part of the totality of what was wrong with me, specifically.

So I had to unpack the connection with her feelings about her own aging and weight gain, plus the still later realization that she probably suspected these two women of being lezzzzbeans, based on the known fact that lezzzbeans are women too fat or otherwise unattractive to get a man and why else would they be living and working together, before I finally realized what-all I'd heard in those words "two large females" and the tone in which they had been uttered.

I also realized that one of the reasons it had stuck in my head was that using the word "females" to refer to women was absolutely not something my mother would normally have done. It was a deliberate choice; and yes, it was intended to dehumanize, and specifically to "dewomanize". In my mother's view, these two people did not deserve the appellation "woman" . They failed to qualify for it by being "large", i.e. fat and disgusting.

All of which just brings home to me again that the stuff which is hardest to see is the stuff that gets carefully packed into your own self-image from the outset.

I was probably well into my forties before I first referred to myself, specifically and personally, as a woman. I always felt that I didn't qualify, somehow, because a woman is someone who has physical attributes which I didn't have. This wasn't just about being fat; I felt that way even when I wasn't fat. My breasts, for instance, did not qualify, because we all know what a woman's breasts are supposed to look like, right? And mine utterly failed to meet the standard.

My physical flaws were specifically sexual, in my mind, so clearly I did not qualify as a woman. But this way of viewing my body certainly began with growing up fat. I would never have applied that standard to any other woman, and I'd been calling myself a feminist for several decades before I finally began, rather timidly, to claim the personal identity of woman.

It's probably not coincidental that I was by then at the age at which women's sexuality is strongly devalued in general.

I felt entitled to self-define as a feminist, a designation which is held in low esteem, if not contempt, by those who don't so identify. But 'woman' was a designation that my feminist self did not feel entitled to claim, as an individual, as opposed to as a member of a larger group, because I understood that I failed to meet the "approved" version of what a woman was.

Politically I was a woman, as I was treated as one for political, employment, health care, etc. purposes, but sexually I was not a woman, as I would not be considered by much of the surrounding culture as adequate to that role, although unfortunately that did not disqualify me as a target of sexual harassment (the but-I'd-still-hit-that syndrome, the operative words being 'hit' and 'that'). I also recognized this way of seeing myself as "unfeminist" (Bad woman! Bad feminist! Can't you do anything right?).

But this wasn't a way of thinking, it was a way of feeling, and I knew that changing that wasn't a matter of some internal process of aligning how I thought with how I felt, but of changing the way I saw myself in relation to other people, both men and women, which I could only do by how I chose to live in the world. And I think I was doing a pretty good job of that, until other difficulties made it less and less possible to live actively among others.

The process I embarked on, as a young woman, was one of merging these two disparate versions of what a woman was—woman as female human being, which includes political being, which I felt entitled to define for myself, and woman as sexual being—the larger culture's, and my mother's (unspoken, but clearly communicated), definition of which I was still struggling to emerge from into self-definition.

I realize now that I had a very limited understanding of how broad a political issue this is. Though I identified as feminist, my only exposure to feminist thought was itself quite limited, mostly via Ms. magazine. I was a high-school dropout and, while I read a lot, my reading was limited to what I happened to discover. I knew no one else who identified as feminist. I had certainly never encountered the word "heteronormative." I had a number of gay relatives and some gay friends, a few of whom were even out. I had friends who identified themselves (privately) as bi, one of whom did so at least in part out of fear of the dread woman-failure of lezzzbean-inism. I took for granted that I'd never known a trans man or woman, a person who I assumed only came into being post-surgically and was extremely rare.

So the difficulty in reconciling these two ideas of myself, politically as a woman, sexually as merely female, lay both in unpacking and learning to live outside of my early programming, both at home and in the larger culture, and in a lack of a great deal of information about gender and the spectrum of sexual possibilities which are part of one's self-definition.

One thing my days in theatre taught me, though, is that there's no such thing as "just a word." Speech and writing are actions one takes in the world. They are meant to have impact, and they do, whether we've thought through that impact before taking action or not.

And the language which distinguishes holders of privilege from the less privileged is always rooted in who gets to define the identity of the less privileged. Referring to women as "females" defines them solely in terms of gender, denying them any other attributes of personhood, and specifically denies them womanhood, marking that as a condition which is the speaker's to confer or withhold based on their list of qualifications, whether those be physical attributes at the moment, physical attributes at birth, or whether the female human being is behaving in a manner approved of for women.

So now I get it. I am not a female. Nobody is "a female." I am a woman. Thanks for making that clear.

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