Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Auntie Seraphic & the Doomed Tomboy

Dear Auntie Seraphic,

I am studying engineering. This means that the majority of people in my class are guys, which is fine by me. They are nearly all very nice, and I have never been treated with disrespect. It was the same in high school: most of my friends were guys. This is normal for me, I suppose, as I  grew up with brothers. I act like them, I am told, as I am fond of shenanigans and rowdy jokes (working on that :-p ).

What does make me unhappy, though, is that no young man has ever even looked at me, not even once. I don't understand why, as there is nothing wrong with me to look at, and I have many friends. However, all of my male friends have only ever seen me as a friend and this makes me feel as if I am somehow not a woman.

I know what you are likely to say: that guys want someone who is more feminine, and if I act like them, I will only ever be a friend. However, there is no point in saying that. Goodness knows my mother gave up saying the same thing long ago. You might as well tell me to immediately grow three inches taller; you could also say "Fribble bobble boo," which would be equally helpful. I simply do not understand what that would entail; that is not something about me that is going to change, any more than my eye color.

What I want to know is: is there any hope for someone like me? As all of my friends have had past boyfriends, girlfriends, etc., this has been gradually doing a real number on my self-esteem. Do you really think that unless I make drastic changes to my personality, I am doomed to remain forever Single?

Doomed Tomboy

Dear Doomed Tomboy,

You're an undergraduate engineering student, which means that neither you nor the guys you're around have that much time for romance because when you don't have numbers pouring out of your eyes and nose, you are thinking up ways of disassembling cars and reassembling them on top of the Student Council building or whatever.  Okay, sure, everyone you know has managed to have past boyfriends and girlfriends, but what this means is that everyone you know has had a perhaps shallow emotional connection which just didn't work out and ended in disappointment. That's not really something to envy.  

I don't see that you have to do a major conscious overhaul to your personality, unless it means paying more attention to how people feel, if hitherto you have been careless of other people's feelings (e.g. laughing at people who you thought could take a joke but secretly can't), and realizing what you do to annoy people, if you are annoying people. 

If you make men laugh all the time, and everyone thinks you're hilarious, that's not particularly feminine, but it's a good personality to have, so why change it? You may eventually meet a guy with the same sense of humour who can dig your jokes and you at the same time. Tough-talking gals in the Canadian militia I've known have married tough-talking guys in the Canadian militia. The one I knew best was feminine-looking though, with long hair. You didn't mention if you are feminine-looking.

There are all kinds of way to signal "I'm a girl" without having to stop being you. The absolute easiest is looking like a stereotypical "girl": long hair, skirts, non-sensible shoes, lipstick. Wearing girls' stuff, if you're not already, would not a betrayal of your personality. All it would do is signal "Hey, I'm a girl, and I'm pretty, and I enjoy being a girl and pretty."

The only other things I can think of off-hand are as follows: 

A) that it is not that difficult to stop swearing like a guy, if you are swearing like a guy. (Swearing like a guy makes women seem more like guys.) When I've fallen into a bad-word habit, I pick a substitute word and make myself use that instead until the problem is solved.    

B) that one of the most attractive things in the world--in men and women--is shutting up long enough to listen to other people's stories without sitting there dying to tell your next joke or story, and to ask people about themselves and show a real interest in them as people in themselves and not just audiences who will respond to your ideas and your jokes. Even if you are an intensely chatty, dynamic girl, you can remind yourself to do this. 

I don't know if this will be helpful or not. I just want to assure you that there is absolutely no point giving up on the hope of husband and children when you aren't even 30 years old, let alone 25. As an engineering student, you have better things to worry about at this particular moment, like passing your exams and getting a fellowship or a great job. You have been gifted with the kind of intellectual skills the world really needs, and that's fantastic. There is no doubt in my mind that if you make the grade, you will always be able to make your own living, and that's fantastic, too.  

Grace and peace,

I suggested last week that women are a lot more visual than we are given credit (or blame) for, but men are very visual. Very, very, very. And this means you can put a quiet, shy, kitten-loving poetess in overalls and tennis shoes and a loud, outgoing, truck-fixing electrician in a cute dress and heels, and men will think the latter is the feminine one.  

I keep thinking about Miss Congeniality although one of my life rules is not to look to films or fiction for guides to real life. Maybe it's because I'm a sucker for transformation scenes. And I also love the idea of a smart, strong woman understanding that it's okay to be attractive, it's good to be attractive, and it's fun to be found attractive. It doesn't mean having to dumb down or give up your personality. It just means trying to see yourself as others see you, as Robbie Burns might have said, and figuring out how to make the impression you want to make.

Update: FWIW, since we are on the topic of making a wished-for impression on others, in this specific case, "Hello, in case you have not noticed, boys, not only am I a clever engineering student, I am a girl and pretty", I shamelessly googled about and found this interesting article. Ignore the lame-brained comments. Frankly, I do not think high heeled shoes at all appropriate for wearing to class, but nobody has to wear trainers (runners), either.

Update 2: And, yes, I see the irony of talking about clothes again! However, this is not really about clothes. It is about impressions.

Update 3:  I just noticed that my link is to the Pakistani version of the International Herald Tribune. That certainly explains the references to Eid. I think it still works for us Christian and Jewish girls, though, as obviously the sort of men we are most likely to be interested in are those who at least acknowledge the role of modesty (for both sexes) and religion alongside romance and attraction in society.


Jam said...

This might be a little digressive...

In re the "dressing like a girl" thing. When I was in college I dressed like a man: size XL Star Trek t-shirts, an $8 haircut with blunt bangs (before those were at all stylish), baggy cargo jeans, beat up sneakers, no clue about makeup. I felt very shy about "girl clothes" and paranoid that, eg, if I wore a fancy dress for a party, it would seem like I was being "untrue to myself" or "trying to be someone I'm not" etc, and anyway I would do it wrong (somehow). Meanwhile, the admiration I felt for other girls' clothes, any interest in makeup or shoes or fashion, made me feel inadequate. I could never be like that. Waking up in the morning and taking 5 minutes to comb my hair and pick out a sarcastic unisex t-shirt was just "me'. (Incidentally, part of my problem was the sexualized comments I would get from both genders anytime I dressed in a more figure-friendly fashion. People, if your shy friend suddenly levels up in fashion, don't treat her like she's walked on water and DON'T emphasize that she/her body is sexy.)

But it wasn't the whole story because I did have an interest in fashion (historical fashion mostly, and theatrical costumes), and I did notice and admire what other girls wore. And if I could ever set aside my anxiety and feeling of imminent failure, I enjoyed those dress-up occasions a lot.

I'm not trying to say "no, you're wrong, deep down you like pink if you really look" or "here's how I was converted to the Truly True Path of True Femininity". I'm just saying, for me personally, when I was in college, I thought "tomboy" was the be-all end-all of my personality, and it was a great day when I decided to go easy on myself and not fret about things I was interested in being somehow out of character. Buying shirts that came in girl sizes and revealed my waist was not a betrayal of my practical mindset. I would say the same thing to a girly-girl sorority sister who found herself alarmingly drawn to robotics. But anyway, you have to start with that genuine interest. I dress much more femininely (?) now; but my clothes and hair are still very low maintenance, everything is very comfortable, and most of my jewelry is humorous/wacky. So while I look at old pictures and marvel, really there is a lot of continuity.

Makeup was my biggest hurdle. My mom never ever wore any and I was totally clueless, but I recognized that makeup would help cover up some red patches that made me self-conscious. I would recommend watching lots of Lisa Eldridge (.com) videos; visiting multiple makeup counters in the knowledge that some of the shop assistants are good and others aren't, and that you can walk away and not buy anything; recognizing that it's a trial-and-error thing; and being prepared to spend/waste money. Nailpolish was my first step. It got me used to putting color on my body, not to mention enhancing some fine motor skills. Anyway, even now I only wear minimal makeup about 4 days in the week.

Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

Hear, hear, Jam! While not exactly the same, I identify with a lot of what you said. I tried to camouflage myself a lot because of weight and I think it would have taken a magic dress that gave me an Audrey Hepburn figure for me to think I looked good in anything. My nearest two sisters seemed to have picked up style naturally; I've really only acquired my own in my 20s. When you first "up the ante" and start dressing nicer, people will notice and comment, but once it becomes a normal thing, that stops and it's just, "Oh, she always looks nice." (I have to admit, privately I do say things like, "I always see her in jeans and a sweatshirt; I wish she'd dress nicer." For fairness sake, there's one girl my roommates and I wish we knew how to tell to tone it down - she puts make up on in such a way that she looks like a painted doll. *shudder*) Also, I dress nicely most of the time now, but I don't have very long hair and I wear nice looking but comfortable shoes - they're feminine but practical.

Perhaps more pertinent to Doomed Tomboy is that of the three of us, my most tomboyish roommate is CONSTANTLY getting asked out. And she has short hair, almost never wears skirts or dresses (even for professional stuff), I assume she has heels but I can't remember her wearing them ever in nearly 2 years, and very little make-up. What she does do is wear clothes that fit, a bunch of jewelry (bangles mostly), smiles a lot, talks to people (very forthright!), and goes out in public (walking, to the gym, etc.). Basically, she's pleasant, approachable, and visible. If the engineering guys have kind of "colleague-zoned" you, DT, maybe just get out of that area and walk around campus with a smiling face. Walks are nice anyway (sunscreen tho!).


Sarah said...

I totally understand what Jam is talking about, especially regarding makeup. I never liked wearing makeup, and only wore it in the States because I was a receptionist at a lawfirm. But once I came to germany, where there are more barefaces than not, and because I spent a lot of time outdoors doing things that would have made makeup impractical/smear off, I stopped wearing it for the most part.

And then once in a while I have a day where I just really want to look pretty, and so I whip out the mascara and lip gloss and everyone looks at me funny. In a "who are you trying to impress?" kind of way.

This is also why it can feel uncomfortable picking a "bombshell" kind of outfit or shoes, even if they're modest.

So, yeah... changing your "look" doesn't mean changing who you are, but it can sometimes feel like wearing a hot and itchy sweater, especially at first.

I once read somewhere (a fashion magazine or something like that) that you should never wear an outfit you're going to be thinking about the entire time you wear it. If you're unsure about how it looks, or if it's "you" or if you like it, no matter how objectively great it is, you shouldn't wear it. I take that advice to heart whenever I pick something.

To the letter writer, I would say not to worry. I'm a woman whether I fit the stereotypes of "femininity" or not. And there are men out there who will recognize that.

This post by Melinda Selmys is really cool. Of course, her issues with femininity are much, much deeper than mine (and probably the letter writer's) are, but I found it really inspirational and encouraging anyway, to not feel less womanly for not being very "girlish."


Mena said...

I can sympathize a little with Doomed. I, too, grew up in a male-dominated family - four brothers, no sisters - and felt uncomfortable with most things feminine until I was an adult. Lots of guy friends; plenty of girl friends as well, but so not into hugging and pedicures. Oh and I had NO idea how to do my hair and face. Even now there's still the occasional bit of residual discomfort when I'm "caught" doing anything very girly, like putting on makeup, looking at pretty shoes and clothes, and such.

The turning point was at the end of my college years, when one day I borrowed a rather bohemian roommate's pink paisley coat (I had sworn off anything pink since I was 7 years old, and was now 22) to wear to the theater as a gag - and discovered to my shock that 1) I looked really good in pink! and 2) I kind of liked it! After that, I gradually started incorporating more femininity into my wardrobe and behavior. It certainly wasn't, and shouldn't be, a sudden thing.
I would say this: you don't have to change your personality; you are who you are; but you CAN soften the edges a bit. Certain language isn't great for women to use (yeah, men shouldn't crack dirty jokes either, but like getting drunk, it's one of those things that just ARE worse when we girls do them). Been there, done that, still a bit embarrassed. And maybe check to see if, like I found for myself, much of the sarcasm etc. was really just a cover for other thoughts and sentiments that I hid because I thought of them as too girly or weak.

You want a good relationship; how do you want to be treated in that relationship? Probably not as one of the guys, but rather as a woman, THE woman, right? This does not mean you have to start wearing pointy heels and spending hours on makeup every day, cease talking engineering with the guys, or act like an air-head. (I once dated a guy who expected me to act and dress just like his extremely girly, trendy sisters - nooooo!!!! I couldn't stand it! We broke up, of course, and I haven't stopped thanking God since.) But maybe give some thought to who you want to be in a relationship, how you see yourself being treated, and act accordingly. Pick a female friend you admire and see if there's anything she does or does not do that you might want to emulate. And one more thing: go out to the shops or raid a good (and slightly more feminine) girlfriend's closet, try on a few things you normally wouldn't, maybe snap some photos to take an honest look at later. You just might discover that you like them. And if not, well, there are happily married, well-loved women out there who never wear skirts. All women are not the same, and neither are men.

Finally: Auntie Seraphic is right when she points out that there's no real rush. I had a lot of figuring out of myself and life to do in my twenties, and while there were waves of panic as friends got married off and had babies, it all worked out for the best, better than anything I had planned out, thank God. (If I'd married any of the guys I had crushes on back then, hoo boy would we both be miserable now.) So far, my thirties beat my teens and twenties, no contest. Relax and just live, be good, and be happy.
- Ex- (and still sometimes) tomboy, happily married to brainy manly man who loves me just as I am, thinks I'm pretty AND likes my brains, and would happily take me hunting.

Seraphic said...

I worry sometimes about why it is that some women feel guilty and uncomfortable if caught admiring shoes in a window, or a baby in a pram, or putting on lipstick. Is it internalized misogyny, or some vestigal worry about being rejected by brothers or male friends for being too girly, or laughed at for not being really girly enough to genuinely enjoy such things? Whatever it is, it worries me.

Jackie said...

This is a really fascinating discussion!

I, too, was like Jam from the 1st comment in college. It felt "safer" somehow, to wear baggy clothes, a dumpy haircut and glasses. At that point in my life, I didn't have the self-confidence nor the ability to be as vulnerable as fitted clothes can make you feel.

Something I realize, too, is that as a teenager I associated the high heels, fitted clothing, skirts, etc as "grown up" and part of the realm of adulthood. I wasn't ready to go there quite yet -- it felt like all my classmates had grown up so fast.

It was an interesting transition through my 20s to get more and more and MORE feminine. (Now I wear pencil skirts, makeup and heels everywhere except the gym!). I think for me there was a link between self-confidence and feminine appearance that put me on "the radar" of guys, so to speak. As my identity shifted, so went my appearance.

Thanks for such a great discussion. :)

Andrea said...

I find Seraphic's question interesting. "I worry sometimes about why it is that some women feel guilty and uncomfortable if caught admiring shoes in a window, or a baby in a pram, or putting on lipstick."

I think if I were honest with myself I am concerned quite a bit about not appearing too girly. Why would that be? who cares??

c'est la vie said...

"I worry sometimes about why it is that some women feel guilty and uncomfortable if caught admiring shoes in a window, or a baby in a pram, or putting on lipstick."

I think it's to do with femininity being perceived as vulnerability.

Woodbine said...

DT - I can't think of any instances of girls I know being overlooked for not being girly enough, especially girls with male friends. Guys like girls who they can be be themselves with, and who understand them. Sure there are some who have very specific ideas about how women should look and act, but no one is going to be oblivious to the fact that you are, indeed, a girl. Maybe the guys around you are a little emotionally stunted or narrow-minded about what sort of girl they would date right now, but that can't last long. Sooner or later they will realize that all of the reasons that they like you as a friend actually make you great girlfriend material: your easy-going nature, your smarts, your comic timing, whatever helped you get along with them in the first place. They'll notice that you've got a lot going for you, regardless of how you dress.

MaryJane said...

I highly recommend watching "What Not to Wear" if you are interested in learning how to dress (and do hair and makeup), etc. Because they have all sorts of women on the show, all the new outfit choices are different: some more dressy, some more business-y, some more casual. But they all are well put together and appropriate.

Seraphic, this is a fascinating question. I think when I was younger I was very concerned about being judged based on "my BRAINS not my BODY" - but the more I reflect on this, the more puzzled I become about where this idea originated. I can't remember a time where I was judged on my body with no regard for my intellect or personality {whistling men on the street aside, of course}. Moreover, it was usually "me and the guys" in intellectual endeavors, and none of them treated me like I was stupid. So really, I don't know. It's possible that I was thoroughly annoyed with other girls for being "stupid" and thought they would give our half of the race a bad rap... ah the arrogance of youth.

Then again, it is quite possible that I just imbibed too much "girl power" from brownie girl scouts, despite playing with barbies.

Seraphic said...

People silently judge strangers by what they look like day in and day out. We always have, and I hope we always will because this is one of the most important ways human beings protect ourselves from other human beings.

We are not invisible, although women can render ourselves almost invisible by looking as drab and inoffensive as possible. Many of us choose to do this, but the price of looking unnoticeable is not being noticed.

When I worked at a government office, I had to see thousands of people and by their documents always knew how old they were. It was amazing to me what a difference clothes, hair and make-up made to women aged between 40-60.

As I was busy, I could only roughly put them in two categories: the hockey-moms and the glamour queens. The hockey-moms cut their hair short, wore cheap glasses, slacks and puffy jackets. The glamour queens didn't cut their hair, wore contacts or snazzy glasses, make-up and striking ensembles.

I thought I'd rather be a glamour queen, and so I try to be, except on my 20 minute walk to the gym and on the 20 minute walk back, during which I probably look like nothing on earth.