The other day when I was on the tube, I looked up from my book and a man sitting in front of me caught my eye. He was quite a burly guy, dressed in jeans, a workman’s shirt and sturdy work shoes; then my eyes wandered to his hands. His nails were perfectly manicured (waaay better than Miss W ever manages to paint her nails!) one hand painted black and the other bright turquoise.
Miss W was inwardly shocked.
I looked around at other people sitting next to him, and I could see another woman peering at him cautiously out of the corner of her eye. London is a city where pretty much anything goes, one often sees strangely dressed people wandering around, but I was genuinely shocked when I saw this man’s nails. After recovering, I wondered why. Was it because his outfit didn’t fit with the idea I would have of a man that would paint his nails? I probably wouldn’t bat an eyelid if I saw an ’emo’ type wearing nail varnish.
This made me think about gender, and the expectations that society puts on us. Miss W has a confession to make, whenever she goes into duty free at the airport, ferry etc, Miss W heads straight for the men’s cologne and secretly sprays a bit on her sleeve so she can sniff it (and then worries that people around her will think she smells manly!) I love fresh and spicy scents and find that often women’s perfume is way too sweet for me. I once went in to Penhaligon’s and after sniffing all the feminine scents with vanilla and roses I happened to come across Endymion, a men’s cologne that I absolutely fell in love with.
So, I thought, what is so different to me secretly liking men’s cologne and this burly looking builder type painting his nails? What is it that makes us expect a person to do or not do something based on their gender, or the way they are dressed?
When I studied French A-level (post on why I am a francophile to come at some point) I came across the work of the genius feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir. In her book, The Second Sex, she said “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” She believes that gender is not something intrinsic, but that it is a facet of our identity that is gradually built into us. Therefore, being a ‘woman’ and being ‘feminine’ are not necessarily the same thing.
I have always had lots of questions around the issue of gender and gender roles. I was brought up going to an evangelical church, although now I don’t adhere to everything I was taught and I am much more sceptical. I vividly remember being taught one particular verse in the Bible that says “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the Lord your God detests anyone who does this.” (Deuteronomy 22:5 NIV) This verse is in the Old Testament and I don’t want to launch into a dissection of meanings and interpretations, but I guess this was always in the back of my mind when I saw a person that defied the norms of “gender” as a societal construct.
Who tells us what a woman is supposed to look like? or whether a man is supposed to paint his nails or wear make-up? who made these ‘rules’ up in the first place? just because men or women have been doing something for hundreds or thousands of years, who says we should continue doing it? I am sure that among some circles there would be whispers of deviancy if they had seen this man’s nails, and as I said earlier, even I was slightly shocked. The question that really interests me is why? and, when was I ‘programmed’ to think that it is abnormal for a man to paint his nails?
At one point in my life my ideas about gender constructs were much more fixed but as time goes on they are becoming more fluid. After all, there is no one person that can perfectly fit into the mould of what a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is ‘supposed’ to be. In any case these parameters change depending on culture, so then they can’t be quite so real in the first place. One example of this are the burrnesha, or sworn virgins in the Balkans; women who take pledges to live and dress as men. I also remember watching a documentary about the Mosuo tribe in China where women are the ones who run the show, and they take several husbands to do different tasks around the house and father their children. So, gender roles and appearances are not universally fixed.
As the writer Chimananda Ngozi Adichie said, “The problem with gender is that it prescribes how we should be rather than recognizing how we are. Imagine how much happier we would be, how much freer to be our true individual selves, if we didn’t have the weight of gender expectations.” What Miss W seeks is to connect with the person inside, and she is trying to shed her preconceived ideas about what a person should look like because of their gender. So, I say, wear high heels, paint your nails if you want to, douse yourself in wonderfully spicy cologne, do whatever the heck you want!