A woman in a green dress stands surrounded by colors.
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As a young and impressionable child, the concept of gender and what it meant to be a “proper” girl were enshrined into seemingly every fabric of the world that surrounded me.

When I visited Target to spend my carefully accrued Tooth Fairy money, the segregated blue and pink aisles quickly indicated which section I should browse. The girls section was filled with gendered stereotypes to carefully cultivate a new generation of domesticated women through marketing: Instead of Lego sets, we were offered baby dolls that needed to be “mothered” by us with mock baby bottles and diapers; instead of Nerf guns, we were gifted Easy-Bake Ovens that introduced us early on to the concepts of cooking and baking; instead of Pokémon cards, we got to browse an assortment of plastic Barbie dolls who modeled how to girl-boss through women-dominated fields of life while perfectly maintaining Eurocentric standards of beauty.

Concealed behind fuchsia plastic was the societal goal to slowly condition a generation of young girls to collectively understand our “proper place” in the world without asking any questions. While the boys got to be boys, the girls were fed discreet corporate messages about their predetermined roles in society.

While sex concerns the biological differences between females and males, gender is much more complex. According to ​​Dr. Zuleyka Zevallos, a Peruvian-Australian applied sociologist, gender is “a concept that describes how societies determine and manage sex categories; the cultural meanings attached to men and women’s roles; and how individuals understand their identities.” Gender, she explains, “involves social norms, attitudes and activities that society deems more appropriate for one sex over another.” She adds that gender is further determined by “what an individual feels and does.”

How you comprehend gender drastically changes the meaning of the word to you. On the one hand, gender is a socially constructed concept designed to inform each sex of their respective roles in society, thus confining each gender to specific definitions of acceptability. On the other hand, gender is an intimate experience: an intangible feeling inside each person, unique to each individual’s understanding of themselves and, by extension, incapable of being relegated to antiquated color associations or policed in any way.

Many cisgender people never fully challenge or even contemplate their assigned gender because their gender identity is adequately communicated through the labels of “woman,” “man,” “girl” or “boy.” I used to think that “woman” was an appropriate summation of who I was. But when I turned 18 years old, for the first time the confinement of “woman” that I had been placed within since birth began to make me feel claustrophobic. Of course I still resonated with the collective struggles and experiences of women: frequent catcalls on the streets, being condescended upon by male peers and, of course, feeling coerced to cater to male standards of beauty. But “woman” felt grossly two-dimensional and overly simplistic. “Woman” no longer described the nuance or ambiguity of my gender identity.

For a while, I distanced myself entirely from the label of “woman.” I barred my friends and family from calling me a woman and began to use they/she pronouns, placing an asterisk beside my feminine-presenting self as if to communicate: “I am a feminine being, but I am so much more than a woman.” But I overlooked the most important element of gender identity: Gender, as previously mentioned, is a unique and individual experience belonging to each person. So instead of asking myself if I felt like a woman, I started asking myself what “woman” means to me.

Being a woman extends far beyond the gendered binary that has been prescribed to females for centuries. No, being a woman is not inferiority to men or confinement to the home performing uncompensated labor, as colonialism introduced to the world in the 15th through 18th centuries. No, being a woman is not measured by how pious, pure, submissive or domesticated you are, which was the litmus test for womanhood in the 19th and 20th centuries thanks to the sexist ideas spread by The Cult of Domesticity. And no, being a woman is not even girl-bossing through male-dominated industries and making millions of dollars, despite all odds. No. In order to truly define womanhood for ourselves, we must ditch the preconceived notions of womanhood that were forced onto women by a patriarchal society.

A recent trend I’ve found in my TikTok feed is users who use non-gendered objects as a means of symbolizing their personal gender identity. One user compared their gender to a capybara eating an orange. One compared their gender to a potato. For cisgender people, this may be falsely interpreted as a joke because it seems so absurd. But this seemingly humorous TikTok trend is exactly how gender identity should work: The ambiguity of gender identity can only be captured with symbolic, non-gendered objects because the very concept of gender is deeply abstract and conceptual. And it is with these entities that I can understand the nature of my womanhood.

For me, being a woman is inextricably linked with nature. Women are like water, the life source for all humanity with the looming power to take it all away. The ferociousness of waves in a storm, the soft pitter-patter of raindrops landing on leaves, the peacefulness of a still lake: This is what being a woman means to me.

Flowers blooming with an explosion of mustard yellow across the rolling hills of Santa Cruz, Calif. A raspberry lemonade. Lying in the sun. Taking a nap. The beautiful, ethereal sounds of a harp. Willow trees. A forest fire (Thank you, Mitski). The wind, the sky and the clouds. Eucalyptus, lavender, jasmine. Sequoia trees and all of their wisdom. Callused feet. Stretch marks and curls. A barbaric yawp. This is what being a woman means to me.

Gender identity is a transcendental inner voice and feeling and can be mystical and spiritual. Gender identity is not something that can be vastly assigned to the entirety of humanity or policed by ridiculous rules to delegate the “acceptability” of people’s personal experience with gender. Rather, gender identity is something to explore and to reflect upon over time. It belongs to you and you alone. It is time for us to advance beyond the dated notions of men and women and begin exploring our identities as unique experiences for each person. It is only when we break these societal shackles that we will finally be able to exist freely, as we are.

Sophia Lehrbaum is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at lehrbaum@umich.edu.