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The perfectly formed female came to stand for the woman who had decided not to be a rocket scientist

He had found a poster child for his cause: a girlfriend who looked like a boy.

I seemed desperate for a man... but determined to drive all men away by the way I carried myself.

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Femininity and Rocket Science            November 1, 2000

What kind of guys does a butch girl date?

by Anne E. Johnson


Email to a FriendCrushed Rose is my favorite color of lipstick; it highlights my green eyes.

Seems like a fairly ordinary comment by a thirty-two-year-old woman, doesn't it? Still, many people from my recent past would be amazed. I used to be butch, you see. I shaved my head, but not my legs. Just forget dresses. No makeup whatsoever, and no clothing that did not hide my generous breasts and hips.

Now I wear lipstick and have smooth legs, although my head-hair remains short enough to alarm various strains of conservative. I even enjoy wearing tops that show off my anatomy. Sometimes I ponder the changes that led to and from that stressful time of denying my gender. Surely I'm not the only educated, intelligent, young modern woman to be thoroughly baffled by society's conflicting expectations of her.

While I was taught in my girlhood that I was as capable as any man of becoming a football player or a rocket scientist, nobody explained how to factor in the image of flawless, fragile feminine beauty set forth by Madison Avenue and Hollywood. To my eyes, these messages were irreconcilable. In my young imagination, the perfectly formed and painted female came to stand for the woman who had decided not to be a rocket scientist. I definitely wanted to be a rocket scientist.

My answer to this apparent dilemma was to turn from anything considered 'feminine' by society, lest my intellectual individuality be crushed by a Barbie Doll tintype. More than anything else, I longed to seem threatening to proponents of that acceptable image. I did not want to look like a woman. And someone who does not resemble a woman will, by default, resemble a man. That is just what happened in my presentation of myself, little by little. By the end of my transformation, I was getting shooed out of ladies' restrooms.

One obvious problem with this lifestyle was that it became really tough to get dates. It's hardly surprising that I ended up with a man who identified himself as a hard-core feminist. Although that label meant nothing to me, his outlook validated my position, and helped to block out the fact that most of society found me unattractive. (I relished how society found me scary, but 'unattractive' was more than I cared to think about.)

And so, for three years I was with a man who loved my hairy legs and hated lipstick and dresses. He had found a poster child for his cause: a girlfriend who looked like a boy. One of our favorite pastimes was walking down the street holding hands, baiting homophobes into idiotic comments. Although we certainly felt love for each other, our relationship was, in a way, a political statement. We were even an interracial couple. Better still, his parents were conservative Catholics, and therefore appalled to think of our unwed intimacy.

This suited me perfectly since I was obsessed with showing strict independence from societal norms. I equated my extremely anti-feminine attitude with strength of character; it did not occur to me that I could prove my independence in less extreme ways.

The great irony of the situation was that we had a lousy sex life. For all that I enjoyed our shocking public hugs and hand holding, I found that in the bedroom I was simply not attracted to this man. Worse, my defiance against conventional femininity became so entrenched in my psyche that I started to resent being a woman at all. To put it delicately, this did not help lovemaking either.

When we broke up because he felt constrained by our monogamous relationship, I was as devastated and frightened as any woman when her man leaves her alone. (I failed to notice that particular irony at the time.) Typical of my nature, my reaction was extreme: I swore off dating completely for several years, and declared loudly that I was meant to be un-partnered. Yeah, right.

Often in life the clearest messages come from the most unexpected sources. When at last I started dating, I took up briefly with a brilliant but abusive lout who told me, point blank and with a ruthless snarl, exactly what I needed to hear. He said that I seemed on the one hand desperate for a man, and on the other determined to drive all men away by my manner of dress and the way I carried myself. Our dating stopped abruptly at that moment, but his words stayed with me. How odd to be grateful to such a creep.

He was right, though. I spent a lot of time rethinking my image and exactly what it was I feared. Turns out there was evidence all around that what makes smart women beautiful is the way their intelligence glows from within their feminine selves. As to image, I finally realized that there is a huge spectrum - ranging from boy to Barbie doll - within which a woman can choose her look. And the sexual norms of society, while they should constantly be questioned, must never be denied entirely. That's a good way to end up celibate, believe me.

My enlightenment seems to have been the real thing. I recently found a wonderful man who adores my bosom as much as my brains; he finds me doubly erotic if I wear a tight sweater while quoting Socrates in the original Greek. Aaah, ain't love grand!

Old thought processes die hard, though. A while back, after we made love, my new boyfriend was admiring my legs. Unaware of the angst-ridden, macho past of his beloved rocket scientist, he said something intended as a joke: 'I don't make many demands, but I sure hope you'll never stop shaving.'

Immediately I turned on the poor guy and bit his head off. It seems I can still be pretty frightening when I feel Barbie breathing down the back of my neck.

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