An Excerpt from Jennifer’s up-coming 6th book:
There’s No Right Way To ‘Be A Girl’: What Real Women Do In Red Shoes
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me” ought to be in some kind of WRONGNESS Hall of Fame. You know, right alongside the idea that using a tampon somehow might make you not a virgin. Both. SO. VERY. WRONG. Not only can words hurt, they can cut you to the quick in ways that physical injuries never do. And thanks to social media, words have a permanence and a public reach that they’ve never had before. But even before Instagram or Facebook, words have always stung far longer than a slap or pinch.
Spoken or written, other people’s words etch themselves into our souls, shaping and reshaping the ways we understand who we “actually” are. Which means that even when you try to listen to and figure out your deepest self, it can be really hard to tell which inner voice is your own.
That confusion can get particularly mucky when trying to understand our own sexuality – our individual ways of “being female.” Recently, a young girl on the spectrum told me that she wasn’t a “girly girl.” I raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Really? But aren’t you a girl, Elizabeth?” She laughed and replied, “Of course!”
“Well, then,” I answered her. “Anything you do is being a girlie girl….because you are a girl….so any way you choose to ‘do’ girl is girlie — and wonderful!”
The world seems to think that girls and women on the spectrum have no interest in “looking girlie” in the “expected” ways…make-up, dresses, flirting. That is absolutely true for some girls. If you show up on this planet without a strong sense of “self” — of I am fill-in-the-blank — you may very well look at traditional “girl stuff” (or “boy stuff”) and think, why should that be assigned to me? As a group, neurotypical girls do, in general, feel more driven to blend in socially.
So, yes, it’s quite possible that your spectruminess — especially the part about not really thinking about or feeling super-affected by what other people want — might actually give you the freedom to step back and question gender rules in an unique way. Which is awesome. And important. For everyone.
That said, other spectrum women do happily wear high heels and lip gloss. And that’s ok, too. You see, some of us are very eager to get classic, traditional ideas of “being girlie” right – as much as our perfectionism drives us to get everything else “right,” too. Some of us enjoy “old-school glamour” because we’re more comfortable “following rules” — or because we like starting with those rules, playing around with them, and then inventing our own, fresh versions of the classics. That’s both smart and creative!
Spectrum girls like me are (oft-charming) mimics. We study. We copy witty expressions and learn how to perfect come-hither looks. We play characters…and sometimes, caricatures. We wear personas — not necessarily false or bad, but definitely, consciously learned. I mean, heck: when I was in college, I wrote my honors thesis on Barbie. Yep. The doll. I spent two years researching, studying, and writing a book about Barbie as a “didactic tool of postwar modern femininity in America.” Translation? I literally made an academic course out of learning the expectations of my own society and my own era. It made me feel safe…and it wasn’t as though I’d checked my brain (or sass) at the door. I liked the aesthetic — and, admittedly, the easier inclusion. And that’s okay, too. Again: there is no WRONG way to be a girl — including preferring more “classic” expressions of femininity!
The Evolution Of You:
How you “do female” is yours to invent, change, rework, and be proud of…without explanation to anyone else. You are free to make your own choices. You must also be responsible for your reactions to the consequences of those choices.
If you challenge the status quo, expect that you will make some people very uncomfortable. That’s not a threat — it’s a fact. When people feel confused, afraid, or uneasy, they can try to learn and grow….or they may just get mean. It’s sad, but true: some people will judge you based on what you are wearing. They’ll try to use your sexuality as a weapon against you. They’ll call names. They’ll mix up gender identity and sexual orientation. They’ll slander, using names like ‘butch’ or ‘dike.’ They’ll repackage something beautiful as shameful, something intensely personal as a topic for public discussion.
On the flip side, you have nothing—absolutely nothing—to be ashamed of if you want boys or girls to find you “traditionally” attractive…or if they do. Just know that the world isn’t always kind to those who “get it too right” either. When you “excel,” others (inaccurately) may well perceive you as a threat….and suddenly, you’re the target of their deepest anxieties and insecurities.
So, guess what? The lesson is that none of us can please all of the people all of the time. You have to be sure you’re choosing whatever you choose because it suits YOU, not based on hoped-for approval or fear of rejection. Genuinely ask yourself — are you choosing the ways you express “woman” because they feel comfortable and natural to you (great!)? Or because your heart is so starved for affection that sexual attention can feel “close enough”?
I’ll be honest. I’ve done both….
In the span of one performance weekend [as the femme fatale lead in my high school musical], I literally went from having almost no social life to feeling like the honeypot surrounded by awfully-hungry bees. Boys were everywhere. Calling, flirting. Walking me here or driving me there. There were party invitations every weekend. I wasn’t just not unwanted. I was being actively sought out and fought over. For a girl used to being on the edges of things, it felt like I was Alice through the looking glass, and I did NOT want to leave. Two years later, I discovered that I’d been included on a “Top 10 Hottest Girls in the Senior Class” list. Every young woman in the school agreed that it was a totally immature, sexist prank… and every one of us on the list was also secretly — sheepishly — thrilled to be included.
Since then, I’ve discovered that when you are put up on a pedestal, you can get knocked down fast. No one looks you in the eye as an equal when you’re up there. They look at you like an object. And every object is disposable. Which is why it annoys me to no end that the world now uses the word “hot” to mean “beautiful.” They are NOT the same thing. Neither are “wanted” and “liked.” Ladies: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to feel “sexy” as long as your idea of “sexiness” is grounded in what makes you feel awesome and comfortable and excited inside of your own unique body, whatever shape or size that body might be. It’s also normal and natural and OK for you to find other people sexy, too, and to have sexual desire. (It’s also completely fine if you really couldn’t be any less interested in sex…no matter what anyone else says.)
Not long ago, I participated in a global panel of “Top Aspie Mentors” who’d been featured in Dr. Tony Attwood’s Been There. Done That. Try This. What an honor! Several wonderful Aspie men — dressed in baseball caps, sweaters, sandals, Hawaiian T-shirts, and suits — were on the stage, as were two other bright, Aspie women. One wore all black and a cowboy hat, the other wore a loose-fitting pants suit. Then there was me, wearing a 1960’s-style black and white pointelle dress (which I’d bought for a previous event at my church) and my favorite “happy” wardrobe item — red patent leather heels.
We spoke for an hour; afterwards, an audience member came up to me and said, “You know what? I saw you walk in here with those red shoes and thought to myself, ‘Now there’s a confident woman!’” I beamed and thanked her (heck – I’ve fought hard to become that confident chick!). Yet soon afterwards, I learned that another person had taken great umbrage with my shoes, complaining (and even calling others to say) that they were a terrible distraction…a too-sexy, unprofessional attempt to draw attention to my person and away from the conversation.
I’ll admit. At first, I was embarrassed. Then hurt. Then flat out annoyed.
Let me ask you: why did no one comment on the ‘professionalism’ of the men’s clothing? Are red shoes less professional than a Hawaiian shirt? Or Teva sandals? Or than another woman’s ’10-gallon’ cowboy hat? No! We were ALL OKAY being US.
In our various ways, we “Top Mentors” were expressing ourselves as much through our clothing as through the deeply-sincere life experiences we shared onstage. Afterwards, the moderator even thanked me for the kindness and humility he felt my words carried to anyone listening….and I know I must’ve done something right from the achingly-beautiful letters I received from mothers, teachers, teens, and twenty-somethings who heard me speak. But you know what? I can’t recall a single thing I did say that day….sadly, what I most remember from a personal, professional pinnacle are my shoes…because again I saw that if a woman can’t be taken down by attacking the content of her work, the next (but totally irrelevant) target is her sexuality.
Hilary Clinton is an undeniably polarizing divisive, political figure. Still, I’ve gotta give her this: she’s a tough chick. And she hit the nail on the head on this one. “You may not agree with a woman,” she said, “but to criticize her appearance — as opposed to her ideas or actions — isn’t doing anyone any favors, least of all you. Insulting a woman’s looks when they have nothing to do with the issue at hand implies a lack of comprehension on your part, an inability to engage in high-level thinking. You may think whatever you want of her, but everyone else just thinks you’re an idiot.”
Rejecting or ignoring “traditionally girl” stuff can make people behave terribly. So can being “too successful” at it. But in both cases, the issue isn’t you — or me. It’s THEM.
Girls, you don’t have to attend every argument to which you are invited. At least, you certainly don’t have to engage on their terms and participate in your own takedown. You’re running your show. No one else. You. So be the power player. Instead of merely re-acting, think. Choose. ACT.
One month after the panel, I was at another conference when I learned about the insulting, truly-sad red shoe “back channel” talk. So I took a minute to think about what to do. And I did respond. Just not as expected. I promptly went back to my hotel room and changed INTO my red shoes. I also added some bright, 1950’s style red lipstick. And I walked out the door — holding my head AND red heels high. Because like Dorothy, the power of our own ruby slippers has been with us all along — and girls, I am NOT about to surrender my happy. None of us should.
When we respond to a name, a title, a cruel insult, or a loving nickname, we are agreeing that some part of the name fits. That it’s appropriate. That somehow, we recognize ourselves in the words we hear — “Too sexy.” “Too butch.” “Too girlie.” “Freakishly neuter.” “Prude.” “Slut.” No, we are none of those things. Whether you put on cargo pants and combat boots or red stilettos is no one else’s business, and it certainly has no bearing on the kind of human being you are.
Truth? This whole “how you show your femaleness” game isn’t even about sexual roles, morality, or behavior. It’s about obedience. About feeling constantly insecure. About jealousy and power. About distracting our energy from everything we really have to SAY and DO.
If what you wear — be it a Hawaiian shirt, a 10-gallon hat, or whatever’s on the cover of the latest Vogue — helps you feel centered and joyful and real, if it helps you find your voice and do good in the world, wear it.
Try on a million “costumes.” Pick pieces of this and that. Keep what feels right and leave the rest. And to the haters? Disagree with them. Or disregard them. You’re still figuring yourself out — we all are. You don’t owe anyone else comfort. Whomever “you” are today (it may change tomorrow), be her. Write a new character. Shake things up. Change the world. After all, well-behaved women rarely make history.
If you construct your version “femaleness” based on a world of conflicting directions, it’s only natural that you’ll feel conflicted. Yes, your sexuality does involve some things you can’t control or direct — like your life history, your feelings, other people’s reactions; it also includes a whole lot of things that you can control. You have the absolute right to say no to anything you are not comfortable with — and to say yes to the things you are comfortable with…to assert your desires and your preferences, to educate yourself, and to be safe.
The last time I checked, how you dress — how you look — has nothing to do with your value as a human or your sucessful “execution” of “femaleness.” However you package yourself, understand yourself, or present yourself, you know what? There is NO right way — and no wrong way — to be a girl.
I don’t care if you dress in trousers every day
and never ever put on a lick of make-up.
I don’t care if you love high heels and vintage perfume bottles.
I don’t care if you are attracted
to boys, girls, both, or nobody in particular.
What we wear isn’t what makes us women.
Whom we want to kiss isn’t what makes us women.
Tell me this, if you’d tell me what kind of woman you are…
Are you being kind to others? To yourself?
Are you thinking new ideas? Are you exploring?
Are you trying new things?
Are you showing courage and curiosity and generosity?
Good. Because those are the things real women do.
No matter what shoes they wear.