Fear can serve to protect us from dangerous situations, but it can also lead us to avoid things that could actually be good for us. As I've learned to challenge and overcome my fears, I've realized there were a lot of things I was afraid of doing due to gender norms. One of the biggest fears that I and many others have experienced is not getting others' approval, and when we defy gender norms, we confront this fear head-on.
First, I should acknowledge that there are many people who defy gender norms in far braver ways than I do. Many have a lot more to risk, and what's more, many people can't afford to take this risk because they're not in environments where gender non-conformity is accepted. Transgender people, for example, often understandably fear for their safety due to the discrimination and sometimes outright hatred they face; indeed, the lack of legal protections in place for transgender people across the country can make the world an incredibly dangerous place simply to be who you are.
As a feminine-presenting non-binary person who is typically read and treated as a woman, I don't face this level of pressure. But I do face expectations based on the role women are assigned in society, and I've learned a lot in the process of overcoming them.
So, here are a few things I used to fear doing because of gender roles. I still fear them sometimes now, but the difference is that I've learned not to take my fear as a reflection of objective reality, so I don't feel the need to listen to it. Overcoming them isn't easy, but it's definitely worth it.
1. Being Open About Sex
Like many people, I've had a fascination with sexuality since I was a kid — so much so that I majored in gender and sexuality studies in college. But due to the commonly-held perception that a woman who is openly sexual is "less respectable," it took me a while to start writing and openly talking about sex. As I have, though, I've realized other people are eager for frank conversations about this topic, and when they're not open to it, it's usually because of their own (understandable) hangups about sexuality. Occasionally, I'll have minor freakouts about the fact that anybody, including my parents, can read about my sex life online. But then I remember that's exactly why I'm doing it. I'm working toward a world where interest in sex is seen for what it is: Normal.
2. Traveling Alone
Travel is scary for a lot of people, but women in particular are taught to fear for their safety. This is understandable, given the prevalence of sexual assault, but men are rarely warned even though they're more often the victims of other crimes, like robbery and homicide. Obviously, street smarts and precautions are important when you travel. But, I realized, my avoidance of traveling alone altogether was more due to this "NEVER BE IN PUBLIC ALONE" message than actual safety risks.
I had a dream for a while of traveling nonstop while I work remotely, but I just couldn't overcome that mental block. One of my friends, a woman who frequently travels to South America by herself, advised me, "just get your ticket." I realized that if I waited to be free from fear, I'd probably be waiting forever. So, over the summer, I traveled to Spain with one friend, spent a day there alone, and realized I was fully capable of surviving. Shortly thereafter, I bought a ticket to Germany for September. I didn't feel emotionally prepared, but I did it anyway. Between not knowing German and not knowing many people there, I feel a little terrified. But the thrilling thing is that I'm not letting that terror control me.
3. Asserting My Boundaries
I've always had trouble saying "no" to people or going against what they wanted, and part of that is just being a perfectionist and a people-pleaser. But those traits are very related to being socialized as a woman. Between being interrupted and spoken over and being taught we exist to please men, women and people who read as women learn not to speak up out of fear that others won't like them. But what I've found is that people respect me more for saying, "That restaurant doesn't really look good to me — I'd prefer this one," or, "Please don't talk to me that way. It makes me uncomfortable." People generally don't like being solely responsible for group decisions, and they also don't generally like guessing what other people want. With someone who asserts their boundaries and voices their opinions, people know what they're working with. They're not in the dark. And if anyone were to have an issue with me making my preferences known, I now have the confidence to know that their behavior is unacceptable, not mine.
4. Having An Unconventional Look
When I imagined myself in the future, living the honest, outrageous life I truly wanted to live, I always fantasized about having blue hair. But I feared that people would judge me as less conventionally "pretty" due to this. I also feared that, due to stereotypes about hair color, people would take me less seriously than they took me as a brunette. In fact, I once had a shirt in middle school that read "brunettes have beauty and brains" (which I now view as a reflection of internalized misogyny). Last week, though, I took the plunge and got this glorious color job. Ironically, I've got the most unnatural hair and I finally feel like I look like my natural self. Now, I may not succeed in looking like the perfect, "classy" woman, but that's okay because I'm not even aiming for that. It's liberating to define my own beauty standards.
5. Being Seen
As an eating disorder survivor who deals with body dysmorphia and other self-esteem issues, the fear that lingers in me above all others is being seen, both visually and metaphorically. And I won't lie: When I look at photos of myself, the image I see doesn't make me happy. The difference is that now, I don't take that negative image as a reflection of reality. I take it as a reflection of dysmorphia.
The other day, I took part in a friend's photography project. Normally, she sends her subjects the photos and they choose which ones go on her website. But I won't be vetting mine. That would be giving my own perception too much power. I know that my disapproval of my own appearance is really a reflection of larger disapproval of myself, and I'll probably still feel that way for a while. I just don't have to let that feeling have a say in any of my decisions. By rejecting the influence of my own self-loathing thoughts, I'm nurturing and growing that voice deep down inside of me that doesn't believe them. And I know that the bigger that voice grows, the more I will love myself and the less power fear will have.