Periodical femininity

Due to a friend currently processing some gender identity issues, I’ve been thinking a bit about my own presentation lately. I can count among my many working privileges the benefits of being cisgendered and more-or-less heterosexual; I’m comfortable in the pre-fab box, so to speak.

I have a lot of luxuries due to this privilege. It doesn’t really matter how I dress; my biological status is fairly unambiguous; I’ll always be read as female. The vast majority of the time, my sole concession to actively presenting female consists of wearing fitted t-shirts over my jeans. I like the way they look; I like that they are comfortable and supportive; and I like that there’s no faffing about with buttons or zips or any of the myriad fastenings and designs that end up being complicated and fidgety and distracting with regard to my figure. I’m vain, don’t get me wrong, but I balance my vanity against effort, and the desire to avoid unnecessary effort and discomfort usually wins in the end. I have things to do. I have to concentrate. And I don’t have a job where my superiors insist on button-down shirts, so I take full advantage of that.

Jeans and t-shirts dominate my wardrobe choices.

As I pondered this issue – the issues of gender identity, conformity, socially constructed femininity, in a nutshell – I remembered an article in some women’s magazine I read in my teens. I don’t remember if it was Dolly or Girlfriend or Cosmo or Cleo. I suspect Cosmo, based on the implied audience for the article, and the fact that I never really read Cleo, even as a teenager.

Let me be clear: I don’t expect good sense from these magazines, although I’m not sure if I did back in my more impressionable adolescence. Even back then, though, I remember getting pretty cross about this article, which was attempting to provide a “male view” of long-term (presumed: heterosexual) relationships (and whose bright idea was this? Because all male views of relationships are identical, so you only bother to ask one guy how he sees things and then say “This is how guys think about relationships”?).

It opened with how it didn’t matter what you looked like (O rly?) as long as you were “taking care of yourself”, i.e. it was upsetting when women (1) gained weight, (2) wore tracksuit pants around the house and (3) didn’t wear makeup.

I’m not even going to touch the weight gain issue. There’s eight or nine blog posts – or perhaps an entire blog – in that alone. As I sat there, my fifteen year old butt clad in jeans and my adolescent face smelling of Panoxyl rather than foundation… what?

No, seriously, what?

In what universe is wearing comfortable pants and not covering your face with gunk a sign that you are not taking care of yourself?

Are we supposed to be dressing up all the time? Did this guy have any idea how much work that was? How uncomfortable it could be? How expensive it could be? Seriously, did he think we had nothing better to do with our time?

As for makeup: how is not wearing makeup “not taking care of yourself”? This reminds me of an episode of Malcolm in the Middle I once saw; the leading woman in the show worked in a supermarket. Customers had complained she looked “slovenly” because she didn’t wear makeup (or enough makeup – I don’t remember it well), despite her being neat and clean. When she finally was wearing enough makeup for her bosses to stop complaining, she was propositioned outside the store by a man who thought she was a prostitute. She then dragged him back inside as evidence to her employer. As problematic as this might be in other areas, the demonstration that one person’s “nice makeup” is normalised to “ridiculous” or from “neat and clean” to “slovenly” depending on a particular individual’s personal preference or expectation of what women should look like at any given time is… pretty funny, because it’s so true that it almost hurts.

Seriously, what’s so wrong with my face? Who am I supposed to be impressing with this thing? The people I need to impress with it are already impressed and are unlikely to backpedal on this issue. Sure, if I have a breakout, I may dig up the foundation, because I feel selfconscious – but feeling selfconscious about one giant cystic pimple dominating your chin is different from feeling selfconscious about your entire face.

The gendered level of pressure regarding this sort of thing is readily apparent. It’s not that men aren’t pressured to conform to certain stereotypes (quite the contrary), but I can hardly convince Husband that it’s normal to use cleanser every day (rather than just when you’re breaking out). Apparently that’s odd. Most males of my acquaintance cleanse with tap water.

So we end up trapped at opposing ends of this rather ridiculous arbitrary continuum where I’m supposed to spend extraordinary amounts of effort on the appearance of my face (I mentioned previously that I like skincare, and that’s true, but come on, there’s a limit) in order to confirm my femininity, and Husband is supposed to spend none at all, except in case of breakouts, and that’s the manly option.

No prizes for noticing that the manly option involves zero effort and expense (although I should probably acknowledge the whole face shaving issue, which is mostly a blackbox to me).

At fifteen, when I read that article, I’d already realised that what seemed to be normalised in pop culture – in magazines and teen romance novels – wasn’t really normal in my world, for me or my friends. It was like the “football players/cheerleaders” trope in American teen movies – it was just not part of our lives in our own high school. Likewise, I couldn’t have been less interested in make-up if I actively tried. The first time I really wore make-up was to my year eleven formal, and I paid someone else to do it, and took it off halfway through the formal. The same thing happened the following year.

Since then, I have had actual fun with makeup. Theatre had a lot to do with that. I spent a few years very much enjoying playing with eyeliner and eyeshadow and foundation and lipstick and so on, and I had a great time. I suspect I overdid it. Well, theatre, you know. Every now and then, I decide I would like to get glammed up. I ditch the jeans and I get a bit femme. It’s fun, but it’s only fun because it’s optional. I have a weakness for pretty dresses, but I’ve had to stop buying them because I almost never wear them – only to big family events and conference dinners, or the very occasional “date” with Husband. For funsies.

All of which comes back to the issue wherein I’m privileged, and I don’t have to tell anyone how to read me, or try to manipulate my appearance to the point where they will read me as I wish to be read. I can dip my toes in the water of culturally-sanctioned femininity when the mood hits me, and the rest of the time I can just run on autopilot. Others like to dress up more, or less, or never, and that’s fine too, but it’s unsettling to know there are people out there who think I am “not taking care of myself” because I like comfortable clothes and almost never wear makeup.

I have known guys who use the phrase “woman in comfortable shoes” as a homophobic slur, which sends up multiple red flags of catastrophic stupid.

I’m not sure where this is going, except for the fact that it always surprises me to find out that there are women who genuinely feel obligated to get femme all the time, regardless of whether they want to or not, and who feel as though it is an absolute social necessity and there’s something radically hardline feminist about not wanting to spend the time and money, or experience the discomfort. And all this leaves me wondering – from the safe comfort of my privilege – about the difficulties transwomen face if they don’t want to get super femme but want to present as women and be read in that way.


DOG QUEST: Teaching survival skills, or, “It’s a human’s human’s human’s human’s world.”

…with apologies to James Brown.

I’m currently feverishly promoting this article. If it’s too long for you (it is long, but it’s not dense – very readable), the tl;dr version is this:

Dominance theory is dead. It does not work. It is fail. Application of dominance theory results in traumatised dogs, dog “aggression”, injured humans and a certain amount of stress.

First, I will briefly explain what dominance theory is (for more detail, please do read the linked article. It is very important). Then I will explain how this has applied to my own experience, my own dogs, and the training philosophies I have picked up along the way.

If you have ever heard anyone talk about how you must be “alpha” with a dog – that’s dominance theory. If you’ve ever had anyone tell you that you need to roll over and lie on your dog – that’s dominance theory. If any behaviour that occurs is interpreted in light of canine aggression and a desire to move up in the hierarchy – that’s dominance theory. It’s based on flawed interpretations of wolf pack structure and, believe it or not, Nazi justification of eugenics programmes (the latter came as some surprise to me).

If you have these ideas about dog training and behaviour lurking around in your head, don’t feel too bad. They are almost universal, and pop up in everything from poorly-researched documentaries to romantic werewolf literature (of which I read a great deal. Shh). We pretty much all grew up with these ideas of alphas and omegas and dominance. The best you can do is to replace this all-pervading pile of horse-puckey with good information, and reassess how you interact with your dog.

Dominance theory promotes the idea that there are leaders and followers in a pack, and that this is what dogs look for, and if you don’t nip it in the bud quick smart, your dog will think you are a follower and will try to be leader.

Firstly, wolf packs don’t work like that. Wolf packs are nuclear family units: mum, dad, and various generations of pups who stick around until they grow up and sod off to find their own mate (sound familiar?).

Secondly, dogs aren’t wolves, and haven’t been for a very, very long time. Dogs have been bred by humans to be tame and easily domesticated, and to look to humans for leadership and companionship. They are not the same. Behavioural observations drawn from one group can not be readily applied to the other. That’s a little like saying we behave like chimps (with some caveats); it’s not that we don’t have any behaviours in common, but their expression is wildly different.

I went to the Dog Lovers Show in Melbourne at the start of May (and I need to post about that, it was largely a very positive experience), and sat in with a behaviourist giving a presentation about dogs and kids. She said that the best way to understand dogs was to describe them as toddlers (intelligent, affectionate, playful, self-motivated, largely amoral) with mouths full of knives (what big teeth you have, little Abby-dog).

The comparison of kids to dogs is a common one, and there’s a whole blog post in that too, but I’m going to point out what I personally feel is the absolute crucial functional difference between raising a dog and raising a kid, and why I’ve given this post the title that I have.

When you raise a kid, you are – ultimately – guiding a little fellow human towards independence and autonomy. You are protecting them and loving them, yes, but you are also teaching them how to interact safely with the world and make their own decisions. One day, they will talk back, and one day soon, they will argue, and then, they will start making their own decisions, and eventually, they will make all their own decisions and you will be left biting your nails and watching the end result of all your parenting (not that it ever really ends, or so I’m told, but there’s a letting-go-point and I understand that this is nerve-wracking).

When you raise a dog, this never happens. There is no letting-go-point. Dogs cannot ever be autonomous or independent, no matter how intelligent they are or how well trained. They’ll be able to do certain things – work out where they are allowed to poop, for example, or operate those toys that deliver treats, or herd sheep – but they’ll never be able to feed themselves, or refill their water bucket, or contribute to financial decisions which help pay for their food. They will never be self-sufficient. Dogs are companions and friends and an absolute delight and treasure; but they are pets, and they are completely dependent on us.

Dogs have to live in a human world, and if they live solely as dogs, they are not safe. For example, biting and mouthing is one of the ways in which dogs communicate. They nip, they herd, they push, they pull, they demand attention, they nag, they play. Biting and mouthing are not automatically warnings, or aggressive behaviours. They certainly can be, but it’s far from certain.

If dogs are not trained out of these behaviours, someone will get hurt, and ultimately, it will be the dog who pays the price.

The same can apply to containment. Dogs will naturally wander about, establish territory, interact with other dogs, and explore – but they live in a human world, a world full of cars and trucks, bigger dogs, pounds and council regulations. Again, the dog will ultimately be the one to pay the price.

This is why I don’t call what I teach my dogs “tricks”. I call them “survival skills” (or, sometimes, fun games). Recall – getting your dog to return to you – is definitely a survival skill. Holding positions like sit, drop and stand may seem more like tricks, but not only are they good for discipline (and fun to learn. Dogs love to learn, especially if there are rewards like treats, and praise, and playing), they are good for veterinary examination. I teach my dogs that they have to let the vet play with their feet and their ears and examine them, and while they are still pretty wriggly at the vet, they’re well-behaved overall. Drop is also good for making big dogs less threatening to small children – I’ve had kids who were very scared of Amos come over and give him a pat once I got him into a drop.

It’s not that tricks aren’t fun to learn – but none of these things are idle. We don’t teach dogs “heel” and “sit” and “drop” because we want to show off or dominate our dogs; we teach them because it makes it safer and easier for dogs to interact with humans in a human world.

Achieving a good level of obedience is not about being a bully in the way that dominance theory espouses. Dogs need boundaries to their behaviour because they live in our world, not theirs, and unlike children, they will never be able to live in their own world. We’ve bred them for ours. This is where dominance theory is so seductive to people: it’s a simple might-makes-right solution to a complex problem (and simple solutions to complex problems are almost universally wrong). We accept the first premise – that we need to teach dogs to obey certain commands that we give them – and perhaps the second premise – that in order for that obedience to take place, a dog must respect us – and then we go bananas with it, because that respect is as much about trust as anything else. Dogs are self-interested. They have to trust that you won’t hurt them, that your decisions are best, and perhaps that sometimes obedience results in cheese (Amos’s favourite thing in all the land), while disobedience results in dogs being put outside and ignored and not getting any attention (let alone any cheese).

The attitude espoused by dominance theory – that we must physically bully our dogs into obedience – is harmful. Training is one thing. Reward. Praise. Repeat. Occasionally passive punishment (ignore dog! possibly combined with sharp words – “Bad puppy!” is still very effective with Amos) helps for things like jumping and mouthing. I used to believe otherwise (I used to think I knew everything), but now I know better. The science is not behind dominance theory.

I have a few great examples.

Amos has, on two occasions, behaved in a way I might describe as “a challenge.” In both cases, I told him to go outside, and he didn’t want to. His posture got very stiff, and he stared at me, and he growled when I touched his collar. This is un-Amos-like behaviour, and the Cesar Milans of the world would probably say that he was challenging me for dominance. Bullshit. In both cases, there were special circumstances. The first time was shortly after we got Abby – he’d been sick, there was a new dog around, and he was stressed. The second time, he was not feeling well. He was stressed, he was shitty, and he didn’t want to go outside, and he’d had enough.

I’m not saying it’s acceptable behaviour – it absolutely is not! – but it’s not a challenge, and it’s not aggression. In fact, when I told him off, and persisted in touching the collar, he backed down. He continued to growl and grumble, but he got up and went to the door. He was protesting. He was, in fact, trying to see what he could get away with – pushing the boundaries – and all it got him was being told off, put outside, and ignored. At no point did he attempt to mouth, or bite, or cause me any damage.

[side note: this is one point where the difference between dogs and kids would come into play. With a kid, depending on their age or developmental stage and what the behaviour was, I would ideally explain why those boundaries existed. I can’t do that with a dog]

I have had people tell me that my dog was “being dominant” when he licked me (or anyone else). This is such extraordinarily stinky bullshit that I do not even know where to start. Licking is affection, greeting and excitement. I ran into some difficulty when my dad kept telling Amos off for licking him, and Amos started licking him more – because all Amos knew was that dad was cross with him, so he licked him to say, “Do not be cross with the puppy! Be friends!” and the cycle was a bit confusing for everyone.

I have had people tell me to hit my dog.

There was a time when I would have listened, and thus, when I would not have the trust from my dog that I have now.

Dog behaviour is fascinating and complex. You want the trust and respect of your dog. You do not ever want their fear. If fear makes people stupid, imagine what it does to dogs who can’t reason through their emotions.

Please… read the article.