Doing identity


Inspired by this Aeon article on performing gender and my continuing thoughts about this Guilty Feminist podcast on taking up space today.

I’ve long been interested in how we perform identity and all the elements that go into making our bodies and physical selves a manifestation of our culture and beliefs. For the most part this is unconscious – gender, ethnicity, class, etc., are physically, mentally and emotionally trained into us from the first breath, or even before. What has been trained into our bodies can then be presented as ‘natural’ – after all, don’t men behave in certain ways, women in others? Aren’t French people different to English people? Sociology and philosophy can only study beings who have already gained these unconscious modes of physical being – there is no ‘control group’ of humans brought up free of culture. Therefore there is no ‘nature’ rationale for any society’s ‘norms’. However, I have often been struck by how children seem to display more similarities that adults do, because they have not been properly socialised yet (a friend once accused me of this – being inadequately socialised – a very proud moment for me).

So perhaps the best way to test if ‘normal’ is also ‘natural’ is to try to act against what we’ve learnt – individually, physically. I’ve been doing this most of my life and it’s interesting. Simple things serve as great experiments. Although I never ‘manspread’ when space is tight, if the bus or train is quite empty and my clothes allow, I will sit with legs apart, arms resting along the seatbacks, just taking up space in the way I see men do all the time. It garners a lot of surprised looks, but it makes me feel that I belong in the space and the space belongs to me. Just try it, and see how it feels. I like to always come forward and shake hands confidently with people when I first meet them. Again, this was something I copied from men, just to see how it felt. Not everyone likes it, but it’s me declaring firmly the way in which my body interacts socially. I don’t wait for someone else to start that physical dialogue, and it certainly seems to prevent more sexist body interactions, where men shake hands, but women get clasped by the arm or hand, or are given a kiss in greeting by a stranger.

I wear whatever I feel like, and reject all uniforms. And I don’t mean clothes you have to wear for your job, those are fair enough. I mean the clothes you must wear to belong to a group – man, woman, surfer, road protester, graphic designer, etc. People who are shouting their individuality from the rooftops but all look the same. Try swimming upstream here as well – wear a suit to your environmental group meeting, try full make-up and a blowdry on a hike! I’ve found that an office environment can be more accepting of diversity in dress than a Traveller’s camp.

And I have always insisted that I will walk where I like, when I like. I will not take up the cultural burden of fear that society tries to drum into the female body. When I was younger and lived in the city, this meant cultivating ‘fuck-off’ vibes. I drew on my anger about the fear culture and projected that outwards, striding along. I’m not physically brave, but walking through London at 3am, I felt that I was willing to risk anything in order to feel free, as free as a man might. Now I have lived in the country for many years and I love to wander alone through the wilderness. Nothing makes me feel more liberated and powerful than challenging those fears that my female body might be violated if I am alone, or where I ‘shouldn’t’ be. I have experienced just as much – or more – violation indoors, in domestic settings, where I should have been safe.

So have a little go at it, if you like. Wear heels if you normally don’t; if you’re male, cross your legs and keep your hands in your lap on the bus; try to imitate the rolling, bandy-legged gait of a ‘lad’; just see how it feels to be in another kind of body. Remember that all of these performances are open to you, and that you can flow between them as mood and situation demands. This is freedom, this is the ‘natural’ body.

One thought on “Doing identity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s