the problem with bein’ a lady

So, I have been thinking a lot, largely because of an unrelated comment that Missy made, about my discussion board post two weeks ago. Recap for y’all: I talked about not getting negative prejudice based on gender on a personal level because of my upbringing. Also, I identify as a lady. Whee.

This is the problem with identifying as a lady, and the problem with my cognitive dissonance regarding personal experiences of sexism: I have a hell of a lot of privilege.

It is wrong to say that my childhood was largely free of sexism, because it wasn’t. It was full of positive sexism. Being a girl didn’t mean I was limited in terms of what I wanted to do or what my parents wanted me to do; I was never told to behave more like a girl. (My mom actually worried about me because I didn’t like dirt. Because, you know, kids should like dirt.) But I was also rewarded by family, teachers, and external society alike, passively and silently, for being a girl. I was a very girly child who like playing dress-up; I did ballet at the local YMCA for seven years. No one told me that I had to do these things, but everyone supported them, and me. My dad held doors for me and pulled out chairs for me; I was taught to do these things for people who were elderly because they deserved respect. I wasn’t taught to do them for girls, because that’s what boys do.

Being ladylike? That’s positive sexism, too. And I think it’s important to note when I like to dress up and be girly, and when I don’t. At work? My old job (BEST JOB EVER), totally; my current job, where no one respects me for reasons totally unrelated to my competence or the level of brain power it takes to do said job? Never. On a first or second date? Nope. I want potential partners to respect me, and I don’t want to create a ridiculously high standard that I will subsequently have to live up to. (Those occasions are generally more “I dressed myself today! (But I did think about the appropriate level of not-caring for forty minutes.)”) When I go to doctor’s appointments, I always dress nicely, but business-casual-with-pants nice.*

I’m only girly when there’s no negative consequences for expressing my femininity. And to a certain extent, I dress up when there’s a likelihood that I will benefit from positive sexism. If I am going out, if I am with my family, or with my friends – these are settings where I’m sure positive sexism is totally unconscious, but my feminine presentation will nevertheless be supported, encouraged, and praised.

Is dressing up fun? DUH. I’ve been into costuming since I was two years old and raiding my mom’s closet for her shoes and shawls. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with bedazzling myself, and I’m certainly not going to stop. But I’m not going to pretend that I don’t get hella privilege for doing it, either.

Back to the whole “lady” thing. You know what I left out there? Class privilege. Maybe not so much today, but historically? The term “lady” had an awful lot of weight. And it’s all tied in with this positive sexism stuff – definitely problematic. Wearing corsets? I wear mine, tops, five times a year. I don’t wear it every day. It’s hip, not an instrument of torture (even though I did get it custom-made for me and it’s all steel-boned and stuff!).

It’s really naive to say that I don’t understand what it’s like to be raised in sexist society, or that I don’t experience it on a daily basis, or that it’s totally ok to identify as a “lady” just because I personally associate that with my grandmas and Amelia Peabody, lady archaeologist and my childhood fictional hero. (Also, colonialism much? :/ There are some recurring and not horribly stereotyped PoC, although none a main character until much later on… it is Victorian England, so…) I benefit from sexism all the time, and because the negative sexism I experience often falls into the shadow of those benefits, it’s harder for me to see.

So, I’m owning my privilege. I can’t claim traditional aspects of femininity (dress, manners, self-presentation), without claiming their problems, too. This does not make me some kind of gender hero(ine), I must clarify: it just makes me retroactively less of a dumbass. 😉

*Let’s not get into how totally fucked up it is that I have to dress up for the doctor and act and behave a certain way because my health problems rely on my self-report to get appropriate treatment. And then the problems I have had where people assume that my composure doesn’t mean I am not totally crazy without medication. DO YOUR JOB, PEOPLE.

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