Written by Jadyn Simental.
Graphic by Quynhmai Tran.
Sometimes I catch myself deepening my voice to hide any form of femininity. I find myself eyeing make-up in stores, but then remember the time I was caught wearing it in high school and swore it was acne medicine. I talk about painting my nails with friends, but consider my disapproving mother the first time she saw my nails a different color.
As a young boy in a small conservative town, I grew up with the notion that leaning away from feminine attributes would earn me success.
There were always jokes growing up that men were the superior gender. Enforced stereotypes were already fixed in my mind before I was given the chance to learn about any accomplishments made by women in this country. From an early age, I knew I didn’t feel included in the interests that other boys my age had. I preferred dolls over trucks and my twin sister’s Dora the Explorer slippers over my dark blue Skechers. I would begin every school year telling myself to talk less and watch football to understand the conversations I heard at lunch or in the church group. I refused to wear nice clothes to school to fit the stereotype that guys dress themselves swiftly.
In high school, I never thought twice about feminism—never considered why appearing feminine seemed so insulting to others. I was never an athlete, strong, or what one might call a “guy’s guy.” Even though I knew I wasn’t a stereotypical boy, I realized I still had an academic advantage: while a girl’s sensitivity is seen as natural and irritating, a boy’s sensitivity is seen as appealing or empathetic. When boys spoke out in the classroom, it was seen as an organized statement or methodic suggestion considering they talked less. When girls talked in the classroom, it was seen as an argument that was used for attention. Recognizing this, I pursued my studies, rigorously competing with the girl who made better grades than me. But, it was my oldest sister, the first woman I ever knew to earn a master’s degree in my hometown, who changed my perspective on everything. She was the first feminist I ever encountered.
When my sister first told me she was a feminist, I constructed a mental wall between us. I remembered what my other sisters and parents told me about her, and how they didn’t want college changing me the way it had changed her. For no specific reason, feminism was demonized in my town and the phrase “I’m a feminist” made me uneasy. However, as time progressed, she introduced me to feminist role models that others in my family never praised. She got me excited about major accomplishments women were making, like the two-time world cup championship of the U.S. women’s soccer team or taking me to churches where women held as much power and opportunity as men. Cracks began to form in the wall I had built to separate myself from her. It wasn’t long until I realized that it wasn’t my sister who I’d built a barrier with, rather the barrier had been between myself and my comfortability with my more feminine attributes.
I never understood why, but when my sister went to college, I saw her as a safe place, and I knew I never had to hold back any part of myself. I eventually realized she wasn’t the only person that made me feel this way. The summer coming into UT I connected with celebrities like Amandla Steinberg who speaks against gender roles in dressing and behavior. The lines compelling me to act, think, work, dress, and speak like a “guy” became blurry. If Amandla could identify as a woman but doesn’t necessarily identify with what society defines as “feminine”, then gender and femininity don’t exactly coincide. Around the time I began to feel comfortable with my appearance, my beloved artist Lizzo was reaching an all-time high with hit singles like “Good as Hell”, “Boys”, and “Truth Hurts.” I was so intrigued by Lizzo’s empowerment of women and how she loved men and women no matter their appearance or origins. Her messages on self-love pushed me to finally start embracing my more feminine qualities with pride.
Soon after, I remembered the independence I had from living in a new city, knowing new people, and investing in the interests I never felt comfortable pursuing in high school. I experimented proudly going to Spotify and listening to Taylor Swift, remembering how eagerly I would listen to “You Need to Calm Down” and other songs from the Lover album that always bothered my friends back home. I soon realized how much Taylor Swift advocated for political issues and women’s rights through her Netflix film “Miss Americana”. Her music, activism, and sense in a strong female community reminded me of my sister’s ideas. I decided to research female politicians, realizing I couldn’t think of any women in politics past Michelle Obama or Nancy Pelosi. I discovered Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) Netflix film “Knock Down the House” where she spoke against all forms of toxic masculinity in a way that also reminded me of my older sister. I never heard women talk the way AOC did in her film, and throughout the year I followed her speeches and developed an admiration for her ability to hold male leaders accountable. AOC built a successful career while refusing to make herself feel small. It was her ambition and fight for women and men who felt like I do that opened my eyes toward how much of a contribution a woman can have in this country.
Today, I still attempt to unlearn everything I was taught about masculinity. Everyday I’m reminded by these five incredible, educated, and talented women how easy it is to feel comfortable with who I am. With their influence, I was able to wreck this barrier I’d put between myself and women. Singing, listening to artists that appeal to me, and dressing and acting however I want gives me freedom I didn’t know I needed. Feminism isn’t some intimidating, radical movement, instead, it’s a step forward for all of our individual freedoms.