My best friend Liz and I wear the same dress size. I won’t tell you what that size is, but we wear it well. Take the same slightly fitted shift dress, hand it to each of us and this is what happens…
Liz and I are physical opposites. My bra is like the equivalent of pasties on her, while her bikini bottom becomes a thong on on me. She has long lean legs, while my lower body turns every dress into a Hevre Leger bandage dress. She’d spend the whole night checking her neckline to make sure “the girls” were in check. I’d probably go braless, but spend most of the night checking the hemline to make sure my butt cheeks were still under wrap.
In short, Liz and I could wear exactly the same dress, but it wouldn’t look like the same dress. We’d wear that same dress entirely differently.
Now, I’m gonna go ahead and make a philosophical and metaphorical leap here…
Just as no two women wear exactly the same dress on the hanger in the exactly the same way, no two women wear the dress of womanhood in exactly the same way. Life presents us with experiences that are ours and ours alone, that shape our individual identities. And yet, as women, there are experiences universal to the Sisterhood.
We’ve all gotten our periods at the most inopportune moment — like on the morning of a big athletic event, or when we’re wearing white, or when we’re on our first sleep-over with the new plus one. We’ve all faced some kind of gender based discrimination at some level — whether it’s in little league (girls can’t pitch!) or in the corporate office (women make $0.70 for every dollar a man makes.) Big girls don’t cry. We’ve all sat on the couch with a friend, and talked trash about the man or woman who most recently broken our heart. Etc.
Some of these shared experiences transcend “Woman” and are universally “human” — like broken hearts, feelings of inadequacy, moments of joy, the euphoria of love, etc, but some are ours and ours alone as women.
While we all wear the dress of womanhood differently, we’ve been growing into it and altering it as our custom piece of couture from the day we were born.
Elinor Burkett was making a similar point in her NYTimes opinion piece “What Makes a Woman?” — it takes a lifetime living as a woman to really BE a woman, because womanhood isn’t just about biology (and that is part of it.) Being a woman is about sets of shared and individual experiences.
About a year and a half ago, I started work on an exhibition about feminine identity. My driving thesis is that femininity, and gender generally, is one big performance art piece — a sort of play within and against socially constructed norms and personas. A battle between self-definition and societal-definition.
I am most certainly a product of a generation raised on the doctrine of inclusivity, to acknowledge and embrace differences. To understand that the world doesn’t exist in simple binaries — straight or gay, black or white, etc. And yet, I am also the product of a society that is built on a system of binaries — us or them, male or female.
Language is surprisingly limited.
In the sandbox on the playground and into the sandbox of my adult life, the Battle of the Sexes was always simple — us vs. them: Girls rule! Boys drool!
So while I’m embracing of the transgender community, and everyone’s right to live as he or she chooses, I can’t help but feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea that a born man can, with the help of medicine and performance, transition to a woman and get to be a She in the same way that I am She.
The Monday after Burkett’s piece ran in the Times, we had a meeting with women leaders from my community to discuss how we’re partnering on this exhibition. We talked about the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover and Burkett’s op-ed feature. One of the woman shared an apt analogy:
“If your 4 year old child came up to you and said, ‘Today I am an adult!,’ would you accept that at her word? Or would you tell her she still needs some experience? That she has some growing up to do?”
Caitlyn Jenner is a she, but she wears the dress of womanhood differently than a 65-year-old born woman wears it. Ms. Jenner metaphorically walked into the store, tried on the dress, and bought it. I was handed that dress in the womb… and so was every other born woman. We didn’t get to chose the dress. We’ve spent our lives breaking it in, figuring out which angle is the most flattering, where it should be nipped or tucked so it fits like a glove, patched the holes we’ve picked up along the way…
Ms. Jenner can wear the dress too. That’s okay, and welcome to the club! But I’m not sure it fits her yet, not just yet.