When I was four, I always wanted to wear this patterned T-shirt that had basketballs, tennis balls, baseballs and footballs printed on the front and back. I took every opportunity to put it on, dirty or clean, which my mother found appalling. She had bought it for me without much thought, imagining that I’d wear it only at night, in the privacy of our home. During the day, of course, she would dress me up in pink and frills, with a red bow clipped onto my short hair.
I’m not sure why I loved that shirt so much. I’m also not sure why the first item of clothing I’d ever picked out at a department store was a pair of gray sweat pants from the boys’ section (maybe it was the amazingly gigantic pockets). I grew up watching Pokémon and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, collecting Yu-Gi-Oh cards, wearing large-sized T-shirts I got from playing tennis. My mother often joked to me, “Things would be so much easier if you were born a boy. I wonder what happened.”
But I did not, and I still do not, consider myself to be a “boy.” I’ve always been a girl, and I’ve never been uncertain of my “girlhood.” For some reason or another, I simply felt uncomfortable in “girly” clothing. In middle school, my mother introduced me to “skinny jeans” and suggested I have “long hair,” all to my horror. In high school, when my peers were more free to express their developing bodies through their clothing, I wore big sweatshirts that flattened my chest and baggy pants that hid my butt. “How,” my mother would plead, “are you ever going to get a boy to notice you?”
I’m approaching that stage in my life when calling myself a “girl” draws puzzled looks. I hear them thinking, “Don’t you mean woman?” and I’m not sure how to answer, because for my whole life, I’ve lived comfortably in the more ambiguous “girl” category. What, after all, is a woman? Isn’t she supposed to be white, heterosexual, beautiful, slim and tall (but not taller than her man)? Doesn’t she have an hourglass figure, strutting down the sidewalk like it’s her runway, her perfect hair bobbing and flowing in the breeze? Where exactly do I fit in that image?
These musings have recently sprung to my mind for two reasons. The first being my mother’s recent talks about the “M-word.” I should be married by the time I’m 26, she says. I should have my first child by 28. I should have at least two children. I should make myself look more attractive to men. I should be searching seriously while I have the time, because after I graduate, I won’t be surrounded by as many people as I am on campus. These suggestions have, to say the least, caused some unnecessary anxiety.
The second reason comes as a much more welcomed and pleasant surprise. The Central Student Government has been working to expand the University’s non-discrimination policy to include “sexual expression.” If implemented, we’ll be seeing “sexual expression” receiving protections alongside the many other identities we all carry: race, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, religion, etc. I think, however, while race, gender identity and sexual orientation are usually at the forefront of identity politics (and rightfully so), we should also pay more attention to sexual expression and gender expression, and how they tie into each of our lives.
Sexual expression describes not just the sexual activities we engage in, but also how we present ourselves as sexual beings. How we dress, talk and behave all factor into this. Along the same lines, gender expression deals with how we present ourselves within expected gender roles. I think it’s pretty clear that while these two concepts are distinct, they are also very closely related to each other. How I dress dictates how I “show off” both of these identities.
In the mornings, I put on a T-shirt, a thin jacket and a pair of jeans. I tie my hair into a ponytail and brush my bangs to the sides. As I leave my apartment, I slip on my gray overcoat and step into my sneakers. I tend to walk briskly, especially when it’s cold outside, hands buried in my pockets. Sometimes, I worry what people think of me when I pass them by, but then I see all the people around me — the different ways they dress, walk and talk — and feel just a little more at home.
Jenny Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.