As part of her project, Shayla Hickerson organized interview-based discussions based on topics of gender, identity and social impacts.
Volunteers had the option to answer one or any of the seven questions which served as discussion starters. They also had the option for voice-recordings or written responses to create a comfortable environment to tell their story.
Meet Vicky Buring! This is her world. This is her perspective:
How do you experience gender?
I experience gender in a very binary way, as far as I’m concerned. I have never really questioned it. I always identified as a woman, but not necessarily with all the stereotypes that come with it. I always felt a social difference between boys and girls, from my early age (in middle school and even in high school, girls and boys formed two very separate groups, with different interests mysterious to the other group). Because of that I haven’t really been interested in what it meant to be someone from the other gendered group. But lately, in regard of my feminist growth, I got more and more interested in the subject which made me question some things, but not inherently. More like how I perceived gender and gender stereotypes.
How do you identify through gender?
I am a cis woman. Because of how important is feminism in my life, it has become something I got proud of instead of feeling bad being a woman, with all the oppression it would imply, I tried to just embrace it in my own way.
Do you find that your gender identification helps you comfortably express the ‘real’ you?
I think so. I feel comfortable being a woman, and experiencing things traditionally linked with being a woman, such as menstruation for exemple. Lately, in the last two or three years, I became more aware of how my body works and how those experiences are inherent to my condition of woman, how they can be problematic in our society, and how to take back a form of power from it, rather than see it as a weakness. I ideally would not try to make a difference in my presentation, and when I meet new people, especially in a work environment, I try to not make my gender something important. However, I also tend to be very aware of sexism and talk a lot about it, which clearly highlights for most people my gender identification: it would be because I am a woman that I talk about these issues (like sexual harassment or salary-gap) a lot. But again, I try to make it a strength rather than a weakness. But it is something I am still thinking about.
In your perspective, how is gender defined or categorized? And do you find this classification to be beneficial to society?
I think gender is socially a more important thing than it should be. Most people, when they meet someone they want to know immediately whether this person is a girl or a boy, which I get, because it is an easy and reassuring way of having landmarks. There is a quote by Kundera, a French literary critique, form L’art du roman : “L’homme souhaite un monde où le bien et le mal soient nettement discernables car est en lui le désir, inné et indomptable, de juger avant de comprendre”. It more or less says that humans feel the need, which they can’t refrain, to judge before understanding. I think it well shows how we have the habit of referring to huge and ancestral stereotypes, such as gender identity, because it help us judge a person. Even though the stereotypes we associate to each gender are different in every society, there is defined difference in many human societies. But in our western society, being a woman is associated to weakness, fragility, beauty, indoors, introversion… Whereas being a man is associated to strength, courage, outdoors…
I find this classification very restrictive and hurtful to both gender. And it is even more, since it is deeply internalized in every one, and it can be sometimes very hard to depart from it. For instance in the dating era, even though I tried to overcome the idea that men should make the first move, that I, as a woman, can be the more active partner in the seduction game, I still put myself in a passive position most of the time and I expect a lot from my partner. Worse, I often surprise myself being more skeptical about an expert when it is a woman. I scientifically trust men more than women, and so do many people. I find it horrible and ridiculous, and I succeeded in overcoming this stupid social instinct. But it sometimes hurts me or makes me very tired to see that some people are still very attached to this notion of gender and the need to have a clear classification. For instance my mother still criticizes my clothing when it is more masculine and believes very strongly that there are “boy clothes” VS “girl clothes”.
But also, this difference socially exists and in the patriarchal system there are men oppressing women, and it gets complicated to think about for me, because I would like to depart from the gendered point of view but still, I feel like I have to keep vigilant and not forget that a man being raised a man he is a potential source of danger, socially, physically or mentally (in the way that he was socially educated to feel superior). It gives me a viewpoint on what to fight for and around what I can build my thoughts in feminism.
Do you feel the need to conform or perform to specific gender roles based on your preferred gender identification?
Again this is a complicated mix of how I was raised, how I feel it is safe to behave, and how I believe I have the right to behave. As a little girl I was playing barbies and pink was my favorite colour but I also liked to make burp contests, get dirty by playing in the grass, and speak and laugh very loudly. But around 14-15 I started to feel that I was expected to behave more like a girl, meaning to repress my thoughts (during family debates about politics I was always asked in the kitchen and men would laugh at me, even recently, when I talked with my cousin’s girlfriend my uncle imitated chickens to mimick us speaking). But also in the way I dressed or moved. I was then learned to close my legs, to walk with grace and to behave a different way around boys. But this was coming from everyone, especially my girl friends who would feel this need to behave differently. I never believed I needed to act differently than boys but it was not always easy. But I also perform my gender in a feminine way: I like wearing make up from time to time, I like dresses etc. But I do not think it is something only for women, even though I am aware that socially it is supposed to.
Do you feel that people place expected behaviours upon you based on your gender identity?
I do. As I wrote in the last answer, since a quite young age I was made feel like I didn’t have the same rights and place than boys. But I never conformed with it. If you wanted me to do something, I think you should only say that it is something only men do: then I would immediately want to do it to show that girls can do it too. I know that in the dating area, I have made some boys feel uncomfortable and “run away” by not responding to the traditional seduction game, or just by insisting I should pay our drink. I have been told twice when I lit a cigarette in front of a guy I liked (not the same one every time), that “a girl who smokes is not beautiful” “smoking does not suit girls”. My reaction to It was just to emphasize my behaviour in a non-expected gendered way. I would then talk a lot about non-delicate subjects, being more offensive in my humour etc. To make it clear that I could do what I want. I also have examples of guys making fun of me for wanting to help them building furniture: I finished it by myself when they were still trying to find the right piece of wood to start with. I think this is something I like a lot, to go against the expected behaviours people place upon my gender identity because it helps starting a conversation about it and helps me making them understand that all of this is frankly quite stupid.
Do you find gender identity to be limiting or beneficial to self-expression?
It depends. My instinct would say yes, because in my experience of gender, as a cis-woman, thus conforming to the norm, I tend to say that it just puts me in a box and if I emphasizes it (by being dressed in a feminine way, with high-heels or a skirt or make up), people don’t see further. They just see that I am a woman and they go with it. If I dress more neutrally, I feel they focus more on who I truly am.
But on the other hand, for people who do not conform to a normalized gender, identifying to the gender of their preference and emphasizing, building their identity on it, it helps them feel true to themselves. It is a way to express themselves.
I think it is what you make of it, and it depends on every person. If the identification comes from yourself than it is beneficial because it is something that help you feel authentic. But if it something that is forced unto you, it is more restrictive because it is just a gaze that transforms everything you do regarding to your gender.