Pressure to conform

Marshall Van Wert, Poolesville High School

Addressing toxic masculinity & hyper-femininity. (Published: 2019)

Art: Bella Davila, St. John's College High School

I was always a more masculine child growing up. I played sports, I played Pokemon, I was always the "guy" when I played pretend with my friends. My elementary school years were happy, but once I hit puberty, I was suddenly expected to show off the parts that I wanted to hide. It was like I was slapped in the face with a handful of pink paint.

Suddenly, dressing in the clothes that I was comfortable in was called “sloppy.” Suddenly I was forced into revealing clothes that clung to the curves I so desperately did not want.

My parents would force me to agree to my sister’s makeovers, because I was a “girl” and that’s what girls wanted, right? To look pretty? That’s every girl’s dream, isn’t it? Make-up was plastered on my face, my eyebrows were plucked, nails painted a hideous color, hair in some sort of intricate coiffure that revealed my tears. I was stuffed into an old dress that showed off my chest — the very thing I hated the most—as if I were a doll at my older sister’s mercy. At the end of it all, I saw my face in the mirror and sobbed.

My parents and sisters told me I was “pretty” and “beautiful” and “this is how you should dress regularly,” as if dressing like a modern day Aphrodite was the only thing that determined my worth.

Despite my tears, the makeovers continued until one morning I woke up with swollen eyelids due to an allergic reaction from the makeup. Even after that, I was expected to wear form-fitting jeans and shirts that clung to my body. The t-shirts and cargo shorts I so preferred were frowned upon, because god forbid I sacrifice beauty for comfort in my own skin.

I began my social transition my freshman year of high school. At the first meeting of the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA) that year, I introduced myself as Marshall to a group of people for the first time in my life. That began a whirlwind of change over four years that has ultimately led to a happier, more self-confident me. But with the escape of hyper-femininity, I became trapped in another foe just as difficult to fight — toxic masculinity.

Though my gender dysphoria eased with a chest binder and more masculine clothing, I constantly felt the pressure to conform to masculine standards. When I joined chorus and found that my pre-testosterone voice landed me in the tenor section, it wasn’t long before I found myself straining to push my voice to go lower and lower, even though it was expected for guys in that section to have a higher voice. I began pushing my body to its limits — and not in a good way. Chest binding is only safe if done for less than 8 hours, 12 hours maximum. Concerts often pushed me over that 12-hour limit, because god forbid someone would see my chest; even though I pass as male pretty well without the binder. I still deal with these issues every day, and it’s a constant struggle to allow myself to just be me.

Toxic masculinity is defined by Teaching Tolerance, a leading education and equality themed magazine, as “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression." Teaching Tolerance adds that toxic masculinity is "the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly 'feminine' traits are the means by which your status as 'man' can be taken away.”

Both cis and trans men often fall prey to toxic masculinity. With strongly gendered objects furthering the divide between men and women in the eyes of society, transmasculine people who are at the beginning of their journey find themselves pressured to buy “men’s” toiletries (my Old Spice collection grew quite large my freshman year), “men’s” ear plugs, “men’s” sunscreen, etc.

Transmasculine people at the beginning of their journey are particularly susceptible to this false ideology because they want to distance themselves from anything feminine.

Planned Parenthood defines hyper-femininity as “the exaggeration of gender stereotyped behavior that is believed to be feminine.” Just as toxic masculinity is harmful to both cis and transmen, and is especially prevalent in the transmasculine community, hyper-femininity impacts women all around the world, be they cis or trans. The pressure to be more feminine, to be more appealing to men, affects women, whether queer or straight.

Society expects women to behave and look a certain way, and if they don’t they are deemed “unattractive.” It is not just men who perpetuate this, either. The other day, I heard my sister rant about the amount of carbs the women in my family consume and how it makes their bodies look. My mom is a 56-year-old postmenopausal woman with cellulite— by all means a normal thing for women her age — and my sister ranted as if my mother’s body was something to be ashamed of.

Transwomen are just as diverse in their gender expression as ciswomen are. Some are tomboys, some want to be super feminine, some like a mix of both. Yet, despite this, there is an immense pressure on transfeminine women to behave exceedingly feminine in order for their experiences and identity to be deemed valid.

The prevalence of toxic masculinity and hyper-femininity severely limits gender expression and the lives of many in society as a whole. However, while discussing these issues in feminist circles, it is important to remember the impacts they have on the transgender community. The transgender community celebrates diversity in gender identity and expression, but society’s expectations of toxic masculinity and hyper-femininity threaten the existence of such a vibrant, loving community. The pressure to conform seeps into a community whose very existence depends on the defiance of conformity.

There is a revolution happening, however. More and more people are standing up and speaking out against these societal norms. More and more women are loving themselves just the way they are — more and more men are embracing femininity.

A revolution of this type can only begin one way — loving yourself for who you are. Spread love to others, promote body positivity, don’t shame each other for being feminine or masculine. Love others as they are.