Am I Being Feminine Enough?

illustration by Alja Horvat

illustration by Alja Horvat

A few years ago as the result of the convergence of some serendipitous circumstances one autumn day, I met a man at a friend’s party. For my own sake, and his privacy, I’ll call him Oskar.

Oskar was an exchange student from Sweden, and we had bonded over my (what he perceived as a peculiar) decision to move to Sweden in the upcoming summer. He was genuinely piqued by my decision to move to his homeland, and was not shy in questioning me throughout the night. The conversation between us was easy and jovial. We traded jokes and jabs as if we were well versed in each other’s sense of humour. It seemed that within the short time of our meeting, we had become fast friends.

Many weeks after first meeting Oskar, I told my friends about him, and was naturally confronted by a series of questions:

“Are you two dating?”

“Who pays for dinner?”

“Does he open doors for you?”

“Does he say _________?”

“What about how he acts towards you?”

“Does he hold your hand?”

“Has he tried to kiss you?”

“Does he decide on what you guys do?”

“Who initiates conversations?”

“How long does it take him to reply to your messages?”

The list went on, and to be utterly honest I can’t remember the context of some these questions, but I remember the furrowed brows, which were elicited by the honest retelling of my relationship with Oskar.

I had told my friends that although at first I was interested in only being his friend, it became clear after a few coffee dates and drinks later that I had began to feel the familiar flutters of the nervous giddiness I came to associate with being romantically interested in someone. Although I was seeking comfort and some advice, I was not expecting the barrage of questions and scriptures that they would prescribe me.

I was, after all, really only looking to vent my newfound feelings for Oskar. Unsure if I should ask him if he felt the same, I turned to my friends for advice. I sought enlightenment but was instead faced with a survey of his conduct, of my conduct and how the ways in which we “acted” could elucidate our underlying motives and feelings.

One particular story I remember sharing with them was about a time Oskar and I found ourselves ice-skating and then having a four hour dinner followed by a dessert hunt. I shared this story as a matter of fact, merely relaying a fond memory to my closest friends.

At this story, a friend, who I love dearly, but perhaps was little misguided on this point, asked, “Did he pay for you?”

To which I replied, perhaps to her horror and shock, “no,” that it was, in fact, I who paid for his ice-skates and dessert that day.

She was surprised, and expressed to me that I had to let him pay for me so that he wouldn’t feel overpowered. Furthermore, if I wanted to know his feelings, I would have to wait for him to initiate conversations to make plans.

Even though her advice went against my own philosophies, I began to doubt myself, and questions wracked my brain, which coloured not only past interactions I had with Oskar, but also future ones as well.

Was he supposed to pay for my meal? Does not paying make him uninterested in me? What about the fact that I seemed to plan most of our outings? Or initiated conversations more than him? And who decided that that was a “masculine” trait? Why couldn’t I initiate more than him? Why couldn’t I plan most of our outings?

Sure there were things that he did and didn’t do that made me question him in indistinguishable ways. I remember fleetingly asking myself if he was straight based solely on some of his gestures and body language. There were times that I swear were “romantic” moments, but somehow unclear because of some indefinable thing about him.

Talking to my friends only worsened this line of thought. I began to question parts of his masculinity because they did not align to what I was used to. There were certain acts and behaviours that he failed to do that made me uneasy and confused about his intentions.

Whereas before I was content with simply laughing at his jokes and talking nonsense with him, I quickly became worried with my own performance as a woman. I tried implementing the advice my friends offered me, trying desperately somehow to act more feminine or in ways that emphasized my femininity in an attempt to … to what? To seduce him with some distilled (albeit a fake) feminine image? To communicate my budding romantic feelings for him?

What was I trying to do?

Gender goes beyond role performance and acting out normative gender behaviours.* Gender is our constant participation in organizing our reactions and responses to particular situations and experiences according to what has been deemed appropriate for our perceived gender. That is, we, as gendered individuals, are held accountable for the manifestation of our gender.

So if gender and the behaviours associated with a particular gender is constantly being evaluated by those around us, we must then be vigilant, and ensure that whatever the situation our reaction(s) must be gender appropriate. If they’re not, we run the risk of having our sex** questioned, or worse we become disqualified from the very sex we identify with.

Looking back,  I realize that by trying to exaggerate my femininity, I was trying to set up a situation where Oskar and I could follow a normal gender script. I thought that by being my most feminine self, I would somehow force a response from Oskar that would push him into a more familiar brand of masculinity—easing my worries but perhaps provoking new ones in him.

Since Oskar acted not as a man as I defined them to be, he was not being accountable for his gender, which caused a crisis in my own ability to act gender appropriate.

In all my self-centeredness, I had failed to acknowledge that although his masculinity was incongruent to the North American definition, he was Swedish and therefore probably held slightly different ideas of what it meant to be masculine. That perhaps the cultural symbols and gender appropriate behaviours internalized in Swedish men and women differed from that of Canadian men and women. After all, isn’t gender informed by context, and therefore culture?

So when he behaved or responded to me, although it may have been vague or confusing for me, he was, in fact, acting in gender appropriate ways—just not for a Canadian.

When there were times “romantic” moments became clouded with confusion it was not because he was gay or leading me on, it was probably because of the misaligned cues we sent each other. To him splitting the bill was not unromantic, but in fact was the dating custom he was used to. In Sweden where men and women generally try to be egalitarian in all their interactions, it was the norm for the woman to “make the first move” and for the man to wait (to avoid appearing misogynistic). As for public displays of affection, Swedes are reserved and will normally limit physical contact to two hugs—one at the start and one at the end.

So although gender may seem globalized, it is important to remember that certain social, historical and political contexts may affect and alter the definition and actions associated with femininity and masculinity throughout time and place.  If this is the case, then there is no true meaning of femininity or masculinity, and in fact as Messner, West and Zimmerman argue gender is thus not an innate difference that manifests itself when we interact with someone of the opposite gender. Gender is merely a tool we use to continue the categorization and reification of imagined differences.

For all my sociological knowledge, I was blind to this phenomenon, and blind to the very ways in which I actively tried to regulate his gender expression. I was becoming the very thing that sociologists criticize!

Of course, I would only come to fully understand these differences when I myself moved to Sweden and began to navigate my life there. Only when I became fully immersed in Swedish culture and customs did I come to realize the subtle (but poignant) differences of Canadian and Swedish gender displays.

By then, Oskar and I had put our romantic endeavours aside and chosen, instead, to continue a colourful friendship marked by our past misunderstandings.

* Candace West and Don Zimmerman in “Doing Gender”.
** Not used interchangeably with gender. Our sex is the assumed biological category we are born into, whereas, as mentioned in the blog, our gender lies in the psychological, social and cultural.