Were you a tomboy? Or a tomgirl? It's time to start confronting gender stereotypes in Hong Kong
The minute we are born, we are labeled—name, ethnicity, and gender, along with all the attached assumptions. Girls wear pink, boys wear blue. Asians are good at math and Latinos have a hot temper. As we grow older, the labels continue to accumulate: beautiful/ugly, straight/gay, fat/thin, feminine/masculine. These stereotypes are all derived from an attempt to define us by our appearances—and often by our gender—and often lead us to feel ashamed of our bodies. Not only can these appearance-based gender stereotypes be damaging to our mental health, but these stereotypes also limit our ability to understand each other and build healthy relationships.
Short hair, don’t care
I have had long hair for most of my life, all thirty-three years of it. The style has slightly changed through puberty and adulthood, but essentially remained the same. The shortest I had ever cut my hair was shoulder length and it felt scandalous at the time!
After a year of going back and forth on whether I could pull off short hair, I decided to go for it. I got a swept back long pixie cut. Let me tell you I have never felt better. It felt like I was finally myself. In fact, I received more compliments in the 30 days after my haircut than in the last 30 years. I felt so happy with my new haircut, but then something started to happen. First, one of my students nonchalantly asked me, “So, are you a boy or a girl?” Her question caught me off guard. Just from a haircut this girl was questioning my gender.
Later, it got worse. Every time I went to the bathroom, I started noticing that women were staring at me. I mean, like, proper follow me into the stall steady stares, and they didn’t look like they were mesmerised by my beauty. It was clear that they were confused and shocked by me being in the women’s bathroom. One woman with her child went as far as to go back outside to make sure she was in the correct bathroom. I was quite taken aback by the whole situation as it was never my intention when I cut my hair to be interpreted as a man. I didn’t even consider the possibility of it.
I felt upset by their stares and I started to wonder why it was so unsettling for me. I concluded that the reason was two-fold. First, I am proud of being female, so it was alarming to have my womanhood questioned by strangers just because I didn’t look stereotypically feminine. Many transwomen struggle with similar identity issues and it is just as true for them as it is for me that womanhood is not defined by clothes, hairstyles, or body type. A good friend told me, “The fact that you feel like a woman is enough.” I think she nailed it. If I feel like a woman, who is to say that I am not (no matter how short my hair is)?
Which takes me to the second reason I was vexed. By staring at me they were questioning my right to be in the women’s bathroom. They were—without words—saying that I didn’t belong. It felt like they were kicking me out of the women’s club. Men’s clothes, strong physique, and now short hair: three strikes you’re out.
The entire affair made me wonder about other people’s experiences of confronting gender stereotypes. So I started asking around.
Aileen Wong: Feel good in your own body
Aileen struggled with being comfortable in her own skin and it was through building muscle that she learned how to love her body. “I’ve had a complex about my body image my whole life. When I was in school, I wasn’t skinny. My body was square, and I hated it. I remember looking in the mirror and wishing that I could remove my fat with surgery. I would look at all the women on TV and in magazines and they all had tiny waists, no body fat, and no muscles. I idealized this kind of body, but it felt unattainable to me.
“I didn’t like my body until I started to build some muscle. I became strong and I realized that this is who I am. So much so that I quit my architecture career and became a personal trainer to help other people learn to love their bodies. I am strong and that is where my power is even though the typical physical gender stereotypes for women are lean, fragile, and skinny. But I love my huge biceps and I am proud of my body.”
Roly Subia : Macho macho man
Roly was 24 years old when he and his wife decided that he would stay at home and take care of their daughter so that his wife could pursue her career. “When my daughter was born, my wife and I had just moved to the US. She was making a bigger salary and I needed to improve my English. We also needed someone to look after our daughter, and who could be better than her dad? I spent the day raising our child and then took classes at night at the community college.
“I cooked and cleaned, and raised our child because it was what our family needed. I grew up in Latin America where there is a big ‘macho’ gender stereotype, where men are supposed to be the head of the household and women are meant to be submissive and take care of the house and kids. I never believed in this. In a marriage, there are two equal partners, no one is superior to the other. Each partner brings valuable qualities to the relationship. I didn’t really struggle with not conforming to stereotypical gender roles, because I knew I was doing what was needed to take care of my family. So it wasn’t a weakness for me at all, quite the contrary, it was a strength.”
Maisie Fairweather: No baby on board
Maisie is in a long-term relationship and has consciously decided not to have children. “Babies. If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me, ‘You’ll change your mind one day,’ I’d probably be a millionaire by now. I’ve been told this my entire life and, even though I am now 30 years old, I’m still being told I don’t know my own mind. It’s insulting to imply that I haven’t fully considered such a big decision. Would people say the same thing to a man my age?
“It’s always the same set of questions: ‘When are you going to settle down? When will you two start a family? Has he put a ring on it yet?’ Often followed by the observation, ‘You’re not getting any younger!’ On the outside, I laugh, but inside, I’m angry. Angry at the female gender stereotype of being a mother. Angry that my worth is defined by my ability to have and raise children.
“Despite the social pressure, I am resolute. Just because I have a uterus, doesn’t mean I have to use it. I’m childless by choice and I shouldn’t have to justify that. I know my mind and I know my worth. I have made my peace and look forward to a day when ‘You’ll change your mind one day,’ instead becomes ‘You know your own mind, good for you!’”
It takes self awareness to know yourself; to know who you really are, and then have the strength to become this person without fear of what others might think. Aileen, Roly, and Maisie looked inward and pursued what was true for them. What is true to you?