On Being a Woman: To Sir with Love

There are few things more offensive to a woman – no matter where on the gender continuum she falls – than being mistaken for a man. I speak from experience since I was constantly mistaken for a boy as a child. By neighbors, by store clerks, even by relatives. I don’t think it’s that these people actually did any sort of in-depth analysis to assess whether I was a boy or a girl. People are just inherently lazy, so they tend to look for the most obvious visual cues:
Tall equals boy, short equals girl. Long hair equals girl, short hair equals boy. Leather equals boy, lace equals girl.
So when they saw a grubby little curly haired kid, climbing trees and catching frogs, these were all the clues they needed to determine that I was a boy. I suppose the fact that I didn’t wear a shirt until I was thirteen might have added to the confusion, but I can’t help that I was a late bloomer.
Occasionally, in what he deemed to be the ultimate insult, my brother would call me, “Yentl.” As far as brotherly insults go, this one leaned a bit to the esoteric, but my brother did skip a grade in school. After I started carrying a candle around the house and singing, “Poppa, Can You Hear Me?” for the next hour, he soon realized that his taunts really hurt him more than they did me. He also told me that I was born a hermaphrodite, and that my parents chose to raise me as a girl because the girl surgery was cheaper. Though my parents will neither confirm nor deny this claim, I just feel grateful that they made such a wise and economical decision.
Remarkably, my gender crisis crossed international boundaries – during the 70’s, my aunt’s church took in some Laotian refugees who had fled their country’s oppressive regime. For several years, this family would join us at our holiday get-togethers, and I would always play with the youngest son, who was about my age.
We would spend hours climbing trees, playing hide and seek, and tossing a Frisbee. Laughter was our common language. But more tragic to this young boy than being forced from his homeland was the day he became proficient enough in English to finally understand that I was a girl. As it turns out, the word “Jenny” carries no gender in Laotian.
He actually cried.
We never climbed trees together again.
To this day, I refuse to eat at Laotian restaurants.
Everyone lost.
So most people are simply unobservant, but let’s face it, some are just plain dumb. Case in point: I had an uncle who called me “Son,” even when I was wearing a dress. Of course, the word “Son” was usually preceded by “Go get me another Jack and Coke,” so that may have had something to do with his lack of awareness.
Or consider the case of the inept waiter: a few years ago I was out for drinks with a group of girlfriends when an unobservant waiter asked my short-haired gal friend, “What can I get you to drink, Sir?”
When, in her high-pitched voice, she responded, “A Guinness,” he didn’t know what to do, so he had a meltdown in front of our very eyes. Instead of simply saying, “Oh, I’m sorry,” like any normal person would have, he muttered and mumbled, then tried to make a joke of it by calling her “Sir” every time he came back:
“Here’s your Guinness, Sir.”
“Will there be anything else, Sir?”
“A refill on those pretzels, Sir?”
Because really, the best way to deal with accidentally embarrassing someone is to keep doing it. Over and over.
It just got worse and worse until one of us – I’d like to think it was me, but I really don’t recall – finally told him that the joke was over. As were his chances of earning a tip from us.
But back to me and my sexual identity challenges – as I got older, stopped catching frogs, grew my hair longer, and started wearing bras, people stopped mistaking me for a boy for the most part. But I still fight a daily battle against traditional feminine fashions. I just can’t help it – I like big shoes, and roomy pants, and cozy turtlenecks. I’m not trying to make some radical statement with my clothes. I don’t want to relinquish my status as a woman. I just want to be comfortable. Pantyhose are not comfortable. High heels are not comfortable. And thongs? Newsflash: not comfortable.
On the contrary, Gap denim overalls and worn-in Doc Martens are really, really comfortable. It is important to note, however, that comfort must never trump common sense, which is a lesson I learned quickly when, as a naïve college student, I wore said Gap denim overalls and worn-in Doc Martens to my grandmother’s house. We hugged hello, she adjusted her glasses, looked me up and down, and then told me I looked like a beet farmer. Not just any farmer, mind you, but a beet farmer.
I imagined myself riding atop a truckload of freshly-picked vegetables, my hands and knees stained violet from beet juice. A piece of straw in my mouth, the warm sun on my face, and the gentle bouncing of the beet truck lulling me into a daze. It was hard labor – physical – but I earned an honest wage and a good night’s sleep each day…

Much as I enjoyed this image, I assure you that I never wore that outfit again – at least not in my grandmother’s presence.
Now, older and wiser, as I hike from the train station to work, the blistering wind hitting my cheeks, I stare lovingly at my fellow Chicagoans, buried under their wool hats, long scarves, big boots, and puffy jackets. I have come to realize that winter is the great equalizer. It strips us of our gender – we become faceless, sexless blobs shuffling from one building to the next in search of warmth.
I have determined that, as dreadful as Chicago winters can be, there is something wonderfully liberating about living in the Midwest because no one expects me to wear low rider jeans and strappy heels in December. For at least three months out of the year, cargo pants and Steve Maddens are perfectly acceptable.
So while everyone around me was thrilled by yesterday’s heat wave (32˚), I have mixed feelings about it. While I, too, look forward to a day when I can wear fewer than three layers of clothing, I also know that the longer days signal the coming of the season of skin. The season when I must consistently shave my legs, and slather my pasty arms with self-tanner, and struggle to find any fashions that do not expose my navel.
But until that fateful day comes once again, my focus must remain on comfort – all those beets aren’t going to pick themselves, you know.

On Being a Woman: What’s Your Bag?

Real women carry purses.
I didn’t make that rule, I don’t particularly like that rule, but that’s just the way it goes. And not only that, but real women own seasonal purses. Purses that match their shoes. Going out purses. Stay at home purses. Bar purses. Work purses. Wedding purses. Funeral purses.
This isn’t a modern phenomenon – it has been true all throughout history. Even in caveman days, I am certain that Sheanderthals carried around mastodon bladder purses, although I can’t imagine what they put in them. But then again, what exactly do I put in my purse? I often wonder why we as women need enormous bags, yet men can just shove a wallet in their back pocket and seemingly have everything they could ever need. But then when I see my brother and his wife, the answer becomes clear:
“Hey, hon – do you have any Chapstick?”
“Can I borrow your pen?”
“Got any gum in that bag?”
“Can you stick these tickets in your purse?”
“Hey – did you bring that Snickers with you?”
So, instead of a purse, I really just need a wife.
Maybe part of my problem is that growing up, I just didn’t have the right role models. Aside from my mother, whose ethnic heritage is 50% gypsy, 50% 1940’s Hollywood starlet, I didn’t really have any ultra girly influences.
This problem was clearly illustrated by a recent visit from my old friend, Vivian. She stayed with me for a few days last year during the holidays before going to see her family. After lots of laughs and catching up, she started to pack up to head out to her parents’ house. What I witnessed next both shocked and appalled me:
“Vivian, what are you doing?”
“Did you just put your wallet and keys into that black knit cap?”
“It’s my hat purse.”
“No, it’s a hat that you stuck your wallet and keys into.”
“Right. A hat purse.”
“You can’t do that! You can’t just take a hat, put stuff in it, and call it a purse! People will think you’re crazy. You’ll look like you just robbed a bank!”
“Jenny, I do this all the time. I hate purses – you know that.”
“Look, Viv. I may not be a girly-girl, but I know a thing or two about parents and daughters. I know that every time I go home, my dad will ask me how my car’s been running. I know that no matter how old I get, my mom will tell me I don’t wear enough lipstick. And I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if you walk into your parents’ house with that hat-purse-excuse-for-a-handbag, they will think that you live in a roach-infested flophouse behind some Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn.”
Since I refused to let Vivian visit her parents carrying the burglar purse, I told her I would lend her one of my purses. And thus began my brief journey into self-discovery where I learned that, sadly, I am not a real woman. I don’t own a purse. Not an official one, at least. While I don’t go so far as to use hats, I really only have mini backpacks or unisex messenger bags to transport all my belongings.
The one purse I did find was a spangly little sequined number from a wedding I went to several years ago. I offered it up to Vivian, but she declined, saying that she’d rather have her parents think she was a “dumpster-dwelling bank robber than be caught toting that prissy little Zsa-Zsa purse.”
“All right, well at least let me find you a hat that looks less like a ski mask.”
I dug around my closet until I found this hip, multi-colored Guatemalan knit hat that had two long tassels that wrapped under your chin. I turned it upside down, tied the tassels together, and voilà! A fetching patterned knit bag!
“Just tell your mom that they’re all the rage in New York this year.”
I just couldn’t let Viv set herself up like that. I mean, come on now – a hat purse? I may not be a real woman, but I am a real friend.

On Being a Woman: Long as God Can Grow It

“I’m growing out my hair,” I said, as I nibbled on my cranberry scone, even though I wasn’t hungry.
“How long are you growing it?” Kim asked.
“Until it stops.”
Natasha piped in: “Oooh! Then you can let me flat iron it!”
Natasha is mildly obsessed with straightening my hair, but I always just laugh it off and tell her that someday I’ll let her do it. And just like when I promise that someday I’ll have lunch with my old co-workers, this, too, is a lie.
“You keep saying that! One day I’m just going to sneak up behind you with chloroform, and then you’ll wake up with straight hair!”
We all laughed and drank our overpriced coffees, but… I wasn’t laughing on the inside. Deep down, I felt a little scared.
My friends say a lot of things they don’t mean, so I wouldn’t normally give the flat iron comment much concern. However, given the fact that a) Nat has mentioned straightening my hair no less than 30 times over the past two years, and b) her father is a doctor, giving her ready access to both chloroform and gauze pads, I no longer consider this threat an idle one.
I think my fear of heated hair implements might go back to a horror I witnessed as a teen, on my first trip to Paris. I was sixteen, and sharing a room with my best friend, Carrie, and another girl we didn’t know very well. I can’t remember her name, so I’ll call her Rhonda. Rhonda was new to my high school, and had moved to Wisconsin from somewhere down south. She had beautiful platinum blonde hair and, in her slight drawl, would call me “Kitten,” which I found immensely charming.
One morning, Carrie and I came back up to our room after eating our complimentary continental breakfast, walked through the door, and almost instantaneously vomited up our croissants and Nutella. We had to cover our mouths and noses to protect ourselves from the stench that was coming from the bathroom.
I cautiously opened the bathroom door to find Rhonda sitting on the floor, sobbing.
“Rhonda! What’s wrong? Are you okay?”
She had her head in her hands and her shoulders were heaving as she gestured toward the garbage can. When I got up the courage to look in the direction of the pungent smell, I saw a blackened curling iron, with long chunks of charred platinum blonde hair melted to it.
“Oh god. What happened?”
Rhonda wiped her tear-soaked cheeks and took her hands away from her face to look at us. I audibly gasped – she had burned her bangs off all the way to her scalp. As I later learned, Rhonda hadn’t fully read the “Know Before You Go” handouts that our teacher had given us, otherwise she would have known that European appliances operate on a different voltage than American ones, and if you plug an American curling iron into a French outlet without a converter, it reaches the temperature of the Earth’s core in three seconds flat.
For the rest of the trip, Rhonda worked on perfecting a female comb-over technique to give the illusion that she still had hair on the right side of her head. I bought her a beret. She never called anyone “Kitten” again. Sometimes I can still see that blackened curling iron, Rhonda’s smoking hair desperately clinging to it. It gives me chills.
Now anytime Natasha mentions taking a flat iron to my hair, I envision huge clumps of brown curly hair snapping off at the root, leaving gaping bald spots that would take years to grow out.
So yes, I am a little sensitive when it comes to my hair. Maybe it’s because all my life, I have been defined by my hair.
Which one is Jenny?
The curly haired one.
Not the tall one, the short one, the clumsy one, the athletic one, the skinny one, the pudgy one, the funny one, the smart one. But the curly haired one.
My grandfather used to tell people that I combed my hair with an eggbeater. And my grandmother could not comprehend the fact that I didn’t brush my hair.
“But grandma – you can only brush curly hair when it’s wet. I couldn’t possibly get a comb through my hair when it’s dry.”
No matter how many times I tried to explain this to her, she just didn’t understand, so one day, I brushed my hair out for her and took a picture of it. I looked exactly like Roseanne Rosannadanna. She no longer asks me why I don’t brush my hair.
The worst school photo of my life can be blamed on the lunch lady who helped the principal out on picture day. It was 4th Grade and I had a short afro, such was the style at the time. Okay, it wasn’t so much the style as it was my only option. These were the days before high quality hair gel and curl relaxing conditioners, so my mother’s solution was to keep cutting my hair short.
When it was my turn for a photo, I sat down, looked at the camera, and just as I was about to say, “Cheese,” the lunch lady swooped in with the free plastic comb we all received, and tried to rake it through my hair. After a few of the teeth snapped off, she just started pushing my hair around with her hands, and then dejectedly walked away. And that is why, in my 4th Grade class picture, it looks like someone slathered a gigantic pile of brown mashed potatoes on top of my head. That is also why my mother only ordered wallet size that year.
Then came 6th Grade, when everyone had beautiful feathered Farrah Fawcett hair. Damn you Farrah Fawcett! Damn you to hell! I spent hours in front of the mirror each morning, trying to part my hair in the middle and using a curling iron to make the curls go to the right and to the left like they were supposed to do. But anyone with naturally curly hair knows that you don’t tell your curls which way to go. They tell you. And you like it.
Particularly in that era of stick straight, long Marsha Brady hair, people would often ask me if I wished I had straight hair. I understood that the answer they were looking for was the affirmative, so I would just shrug my shoulders and nod my head yes. Of course I wanted straight hair. Wasn’t everyone supposed to want straight hair? Except for the people with straight hair, because they were all getting perms. But it was clear that they were just taking a short vacation in Curlyville. They could leave anytime they wanted, but I had to live there. Forever.
For as long as I can remember, people have tried to tell me what to do with my hair. My mom wanted spit curls. My girlfriends said barrettes. My hippie boyfriends wanted it long and wild. And now Nat wants it straight. Of course, the one time I was left to my own devices, I commanded my hairdresser to give me a tail, so perhaps it’s best that I always left my hair decisions to others.
But now, I have reached a point in life where I have come to understand and appreciate my hair. It has special needs, and as long as I respect its power, it will respect me right back. And thankfully, modern science has made huge strides in the gel and mousse department.

I finally understand that my curls, just like Samson’s locks, are the true source of all my power. Without them, I imagine I would have no personality whatsoever. I’d just become another face in the crowd, another body occupying a seat on the train. So now when people ask me if I ever wish I had straight hair, I can honestly say no. No, Nat-Delilah, I don’t.
A home for fleas
A hive for the buzzing bees
A nest for birds
There ain’t no words
For the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my

On Being a Woman: Prologue

I am woman. Hear me, Roy.
I can bring home the bacon. Fry it up in a pan.
…well, actually, raw bacon kind of grosses me out, so I really can’t fry it up in a pan. But I can pick it off my Bacon Double Cheeseburger Deluxe and put it in a pan, if you’re really that set on bacon.
But enough with the bacon talk. The question I really want to address is: What does it mean to be a woman? How do I define femininity? Does society define femaleness differently? And are control-top pantyhose really that controlling after all?
As I get older, these are the questions that plague me day and night. Since my health insurance only covers a limited amount of therapy, and because no one bought me The New Our Bodies, Ourselves for Christmas – even though it was the only item on my Amazon wish list – I have chosen to explore these topics right here on these pages.
Over the next couple weeks I will delve into the meaty issues that are on everyone’s mind right now, such as: Jenny’s insecurities, Jenny’s successes, Jenny’s failures, and Jenny’s regrettable fashion choices, all as they relate to her gender. For those of you brave enough to stick with me on this journey, I applaud you. Please note, however, that you must be at least this tall to get on the ride. Remember to secure your valuables, and keep arms and legs inside at all times.
See you next week!