How I Found My Place as a Female in Today’s World, Part 1: Growing Up with a Repressed Femininity

This is part one of my three-part series on my struggles finding my identity as a female and how I eventually found my place as a female in this world.

Hazy image of a female

Note from Celes: This series is for all females out there. If you are a male, you are more than welcome to read, extrapolate my views to your experience living as a male, and share your insights.

Have you ever felt you have masculine qualities that impede your femininity? Have you ever felt you are a lesser female than others because of your strong personality? Have you ever felt you are not feminine enough and tried to increase your femininity through varying actions like improving your physical appearance, downplaying your natural personality, or even–dumbing yourself down?

The above statements used to describe me.

Growing up, I was not your typical dainty girl with long tresses, long dresses, and a sweet smile. Quite the opposite. I was quite androgynous-looking, with short hair, ugly glasses, and very plain clothes. I was a girl through and through, but much of my femininity was repressed. I never got in touch with my sweet and soft side until later in my adult years; I didn’t even know I had a sweet and soft side until after I met my fiance.

A large part of this repression was due to my mom. Being quite androgynous herself, my mom raised me in a highly androgynous manner. There were many things she did and said which caused me to shirk my natural femininity. (This repression would be something I had to work my way out of after my childhood years.)

Coerced Into Having Short Hair

For example, when I was a kid, my mom would repeatedly force me into getting a short haircut–one that is no different from a boy’s cut. She would drag me to the hair salon ever so often to get my hair cut short. She herself has donned a short haircut since I was young and insisted that I did the same as her. Her rationale? “It’s more cooling in Singapore’s hot weather.”

As a young kid, I would cry tragically on the salon chair because I didn’t want to have my hair cut like a boy’s. My mom would ignore my cries and pain as she chatted with the hairdresser, remarking how I was a wimp because my brother would always obediently receive his haircuts.

Of course, there was a serious fallacy in her comparison–my brother, being a boy, obviously had no reason to be upset about getting his hair cut short. I’m a girl and there was no reason to keep dragging me to the salon to chop my hair off every few months. It almost felt as if my mom was raising me to be a boy rather than a girl.

As these coerced haircuts stained my childhood years, I toughened up and eventually stopped crying during these salon visits. Instead, I switched to glaring angrily at my mom each time. These incidences were probably why I had so much repressed anger later in my adult years.

Back view of a Bald Female

Beginning of Menstruation

Then when I turned 12, I hit puberty. I began to menstruate, as with any normal female.

While menstruation is a perfectly normal occurrence indicating the healthy development of a female’s sexual reproductive system, my mom made me feel like I had become a lesser being for now joining half the world in discharging blood every month.

For example, she often described my menstrual blood as “dirty”, even though it is simply clean blood from the uterus–no different than blood from an open wound. There were times when she would take my underwear (but not my brother’s), wave it in the air, and go, “Eee!”, as though it was filthy garbage. At that time, I didn’t understand why she would do that. All she did was leave me feeling subjugated and inferior about my own underwear and menstruation. I would often have nightmares growing up that I was menstruating and trying to conceal my menstruation from people around me.

Another example is our family temple visits. My family is Buddhist, so we often visited the temple together during important festivals like Chinese New Year. Whenever I had my period, my mom would deny me from entering the top levels of the temple; my dad and brother on the other hand would be allowed to proceed as per normal. Her rationale was that by having my period, I was “unclean”, and hence not fit for the higher (also holier) levels of the temple.

While this was probably a temple regulation and not something she made up, it made me feel inferior about being a girl. I felt condemned for a bodily occurrence I have no control over and there was nothing I could do to change this conviction.

Visible Nipples

Then when I was 12 or 13, there was a time when we visited my grandmother (who has since passed away a few years ago). At that time, my grandmother was staying with my aunt, whose household comprised of four kids, her husband and her.

During our visit, we could see that her eldest daughter, my cousin, was starting to grow breasts. This is perfectly logical since she is a couple of years younger than me–at the age where puberty begins. The “problem”, though, was that she wasn’t wearing any bra–the shape of her nipples were clearly visible under her top. My aunt was probably so busy with her three other kids that she didn’t realize it was time to buy some bras for her daughter.

Unlike the liberal Western culture, in traditional Asian culture, females who do not wear bras are perceived as dissolute and whorish. Showing nipples, even under a top, is highly suggestive and like an open invitation for sex.

So after the visit, while we were waiting for the lift, my mom made a condescending remark about my cousin’s nipples. I don’t even remember what exactly she said actually; it was something about how my cousin’s showing of nipples was disgusting and shameful and that I should always wear a bra and not end up like her. While it was just an offhand remark, my mom exuded such a strong sense of belittlement and insult that that comment stuck with me. Her remark made me feel further oppressed as a female, that the female nipples–a perfectly normal body part necessary for feeding and nourishment of our offspring–would be deemed as disgusting and not viewable by the human eye.

Increasing My Attractiveness Through Clothing and Makeup

University was when I began to pay attention to my wardrobe and looks, especially since we don’t wear uniforms in campus. I had a couple of classmates in junior college who were very image-conscious; hanging out with them made me conscious about my appearance and think more about how I could improve my looks.

So I began to shop for nice, fashionable clothes to wear in campus. Going to campus wasn’t just about studying anymore; it was also about looking good and presenting a good image as well.

However, my dressing would come under the scrutiny of my mom as well. She would stare at me if I ever wore clothes which revealed a little skin, such as spaghetti tops, tube tops, and mini-skirts, when these are not far from the regular attire of any fashion-conscious teenager. She would also stare at me if I ever wore clothes which embraced my femininity, such as dresses, togas, and skirts, when these are perfectly normal and nice clothes that fit me nicely.

It was the same with makeup. As with my attention to dressing, I began to put on makeup. However, whenever I was putting on makeup, my mom would stare at my reflection in the mirror.

While she never said anything during her stares (be it when I was wearing the aforementioned clothes or putting makeup), it almost felt as if she was thinking that I was being a slut because I was increasing my attractiveness through clothing and makeup. It was as if she felt that I was soliciting for male attention even if I was just trying to look good, and this would be uncalled for because it would be seen as being non-virtuous and unchaste.

Effects on My Gender Identity

Girl facing down

The femininity-oppressing treatments didn’t just end there. There were other things which my mom did that made me feel unacknowledged as a woman, such as continually flicking away relatives’ compliments about my looks (“What’s the point of being pretty? As long as my kids are hardworking and don’t bring me any trouble, I’d be happy.”), barring me from having a boyfriend until I graduated from university, and refusing to acknowledge my boyfriend (now fiance) as my boyfriend (she kept referring to him as my “friend”, even after multiple attempts to correct her).

Her continual oppression of my femininity was akin to the repeated punching of a deployed airbag back into its compartment, where my mom was the person punching and the airbag was my femininity. I felt like a little flower hiding in its bud–wanting to bloom but couldn’t–because my mom was like a prowling tiger, ever ready to rip my soft petals to shreds if she ever saw them.

Little flower

Because my mom would either give negative feedback to or not acknowledge my femininity, she gave me little incentive to be female. I subsequently built up traits such as resilience, independence, intelligence, sharp-mindedness, and assertiveness–all traits which are often male-associated. I also developed a hard edge because I was tired of repeatedly being torn up by my mom whenever I showed signs of femininity and vulnerability. I wanted to be impenetrable so that I could never be hurt by my mom or anyone again.

All these, coupled with growing up around an elder brother of two years and being brought up in an abrasive household, turned me into a woman with a stoic exterior and repressed femininity. I would be in my late teens when I started to bring out my femininity, starting with my physical image.

Read part two, where I share my stumbling journey in finding my female identity in my 20s: Part 2: The Dichotomy Between Masculinity and Femininity

Any thoughts about this new series? Please share them in the comments section below. :)

This is part one of my three-part series on my struggles finding my identity as a female and how I eventually found my place as a female in this world.

Images: Hazy image of a female, Back view of bald female, Girl facing down, Little flower



Email This Post Email This Post



« [Sign Ups Closed] Do You Eat When Stressed? — Join “How To Stop Stress Eating” Course! [Starts Jul 28]
 
How I Found My Place as a Female in Today’s World, Part 2: The Dichotomy Between Masculinity and Femininity »

  • Jb

    O_O Your mum sounds terrible. :(

    • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

      Hey Jb! I hope readers reading this article don’t think this way though. While my mom might have seemed terrible in the way she tried to raise me, ultimately she comes from the best intentions. It’s just that some of those intents might have came out the wrong way and resulted in negative subconscious beliefs which I later had to work through and overcome.

      My point of sharing these experiences is to paint a detailed picture of how I came to have a repressed femininity, not to cast blame on my mom. I love her and she is an awesome person, and I would always want the best for her as she would for me too.

      • Sharon

        My mum did the same with me!

        Cut my hair short all the way till I finish secondary school. And she kept calling my husband, then-boyfriend my “friend” even after we have been dating for 8 years.

        She’s quite controlling and our relationship had suffered alot. I could go on and on but let’s just stop at me saying .. I can totally understand how you felt.

        • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

          Hi Sharon, I’m so sorry to hear that! And that’s kinda “funny” that your mom also called your husband, then-boyfriend, your “friend” as well!

          In fact I just had a conversation with my friend yesterday and she says that her mother also referred to her ex-boyfriends as her “friend” (she is married now). I was very intrigued to know she had similar experiences as me. Perhaps it’s something to do with humility in that generation; that since it’s just a boyfriend and the relationship is not set in stone (until marriage), people tend to conceal such relations by simply referring to as “friend”?

  • Neha

    celes…

    reading ur story brought me the hoorofic memories of my childhood.. My mother was exactly the same.. now i m married,, and my husband is a nice man.. who doesnt stops me from doing anything.. As a result I feel more confident in myself and in my looks too.. People who know me from earlier are stunned as to how beautiful I look now as opposed to my childhood. I was not unfortunate in looks , but it was d way I was being raised. Now wen i look back at my photographs I wonder y my hair were short ? Y was i being raised like dis?

    My mother still tries to control my life but now as I am married I don’t pay much attention to her as I am not under her roof. She kind of mocks my clothes choices and my way of living but I have a supportive husband who knows what we want in life and tells me not to get in the pressure of family or society.

    I am a regular reader of ur blog but first time commenting.
    I wish u all the best and gud luck in life celes

    • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

      Hi Neha, thanks so much for sharing. I’m so glad you have found a nice husband who lets you be who you are and supports you in what you want in life. :)

      I’m sorry to hear that you mom still tries to control your life. My mom doesn’t really try to do that anymore, especially since I’m now engaged–she has sort of entrusted me to my fiance to take care of me now.

      While I don’t know your mom or how she is like, I believe that just like my mom, your mom is merely trying to express her care for you through exerting her control. It’s just that she doesn’t know any other way to do so. Forgive her for repressing your femininity when you are young; be the bigger person and open your heart to let her in. I hope both of you can foster a better relationship in time to come.

      You didn’t mention if your mom has anger issues, but if she does, this piece might help: http://personalexcellence.co/blog/angry-family/

      • Neha

        Thnx celes.. Yes I have read dis anger article. And I have long forgiven her, but the scars on my heart will definitely take time to heal.

  • http://hackmyheart.com/ Calae

    I have a similar problem as described here, but caused in almost completely the opposite way: my mom places so much value in how my sister and I present ourselves that I have struggled to allow myself this level of femininity. I feel like I’m less important if I “doll myself up,” and as if I’m not allowed to have my own sets of beliefs, opinions, and feelings because sharing them often gets me labeled as “feminist” or “overly emotional” or some other dismissive notion.

    I want to look good and dress well, but honestly I’m 21 years old and have no idea how it’s done. I resign myself to (usually) wearing comfortable clothing over what looks good, and find even when I do want to dress more nicely, I don’t have enough clothes to continue doing so for more than a few days. Of course, all it takes is my mom being embarrassed of me because I’m not wearing makeup to go out the door, and I go back to questioning why I’m even trying to dress nicely anyway.

    This is still an active struggle for me. By dressing well, am I “inviting” unwanted compliments, and possibly harassment? By “dressing down,” am I just hurting myself by not looking my best? When I dress well, am I really dressing up for me, or for the benefit of others? Should I be offended when people tell me what I could do to “look better,” whether my mom or my friends, male or female?

    I’m very eager to read the rest of this series, Celes! Based on what you said at the beginning of this article, I think I will have a lot to learn, even if our upbringing (especially in this regard) was quite different!

  • Hui

    Holy crap! I completely understand and my mom is from Singapore too!!! She never cut my hair when I started growing it longer, but she would comment after every haircut that it needed to be shorter. She also kept asking me if I was sure I was going to marry my now-husband until she paid for the invitations. -_-

    Looking forward to your next article! And sending extra hugs for our repressed childhoods.

    • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

      Thank you so much Hui! :) I actually thought it was funny that your mom regarding whether you were intending to marry your husband because that just sounds so much like something my mom would say (she never said that about my fiance though; she fully recognizes that he is going to marry me and she has already unofficially entrusted me in his hands).

      Many hugs to you. :))

  • Jen Smith

    Thanks for sharing, Celes. How difficult, but it’s great that you have come through it and can see clearly what happened. I am reading “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom” by Dr Christiane Northrup and a lot of it is about this very topic – I highly recommend it, it has been very empowering for me.

    Jen x

  • http://mindflight.me/ Ffion

    Oh wow… that is just… sick. :( So sorry you had to go through all that.
    I’m sure your mom had your best intentions at heart and I wouldn’t be surprised if she had plenty of her own issues regarding her femininity/sexuality, but this just sounds really terrible.

    Shaming women for being women is just so twisted and still such a huge problem in our society. I can’t understand how in such an advanced world so many people can still be so bloody backward.

    I had more of the opposite thing, most of my childhood I wanted to be a boy ^^ At 16 I chopped off all my hair really short and LOVED it. My Dad was very unimpressed though. But at least he accepts my decision. Last week I cut my hair short again (it’s now shorter than my boyfriend’s) and again, I LOVE it. I don’t feel any less feminine for it, but I do feel way more open and self-confident with short hair for some reason.

    It’s up to us how we want to dress and style ourselves, no one else has the right to make that choice for us.

    • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

      Hi Ffion, thanks so much for sharing your experience! That’s so interesting that you wanted to be a boy when you were young, and I love that you are able to embrace a short hairstyle and not feel that it takes away your femininity!! I’m not sure if I’m able to do that–long hair is definitely my hairstyle of preference–but your example is mind-opening for me.

      To be fair to my mom, I realized later on that many of the impositions she placed on me was nothing specific to her as much as they were a result of superstitions and beliefs of the older Asian generation. My own take is that she never intended to make me less feminine and was merely behaving in response to conditioning she underwent when she was younger.

      For example, the traditional Asian generation (i.e. many of my peers’ parents) actually do regard menstrual blood as dirty and female panties are bad luck. Physical contact between females and males are also seen as unacceptable unless it’s between husband/wife/partners (in fact there is a Chinese idiom that says that). I also believe it was important in their generation that females are chaste, virtuous, etc. by not soliciting for male attention, being demure, seclusive, etc.

      • http://mindflight.me/ Ffion

        I don’t know why, I’ve always had a thing for short hair but for many years was scared to try it as I thought girls were just supposed to have long hair.

        Then I started training karate regularly and long hair was just a massive pain to wash and dry multiple times a day, so after working up some courage and having countless tantrums at my long hair for not doing what I wanted, it got the chop.

        For me, the experience was liberating. My first short haircut was a disaster, but I loved the lightness I suddenly felt on my head, the convenience of it drying in less than five minutes and not constantly having strands of hair in my eyes. I didn’t care what I looked like, but I LOVED how I felt. And for some reason after that I became a way more confident and outgoing person. I was suddenly just way more satisfied and almost felt as though removing my hair gave me a clearer view of the world. (As weird as that sounds.)

        In between I grew my hair quite a bit longer again and liked how I looked, but recently it got annoying again and kept getting in my eyes and I suffer from hayfever so the extra irritation was horrible. My boyfriend asked me why I didn’t cut it short again and I was like… WHY DIDN’T I THINK OF THAT?! And off it came. I think it may be even shorter than my first short hairstyle, but it has a better shape and doesn’t look too boyish. And again I’m loving the feeling. I do not feel less of a woman with short hair. I actually feel more myself, more real somehow. I find that immensely empowering. And to me, that’s what counts. Not what other people think.

        I’m sure your mom was victim to her own upbringing there, but I still find it saddening that one would put one’s child through something they so obviously find distressing. :( However, other times… other customs I guess. I hope some of these idiotic customs, especially pertaining to one’s gender and sexuality ease up in the future.

        I was reading a book a while ago, I think written sometime during the 70s I think and it actually described homosexuality as a psychological disorder… I’m glad we’re so much further along than that nowadays regarding gender and sexuality… however it seems there’s still a long way to go…

  • Catherine & Bob

    Dear Celes,

    I was moved by your post. Indeed, I told Bob a few weeks ago how beautifully feminine you were becoming since you have met Ken, your future husband.

    Mothers can be ever so destructive… and often because they have been through a difficult time themselves, because of their own mother… or because of men… A vicious circle.

    Celes, enjoy your life fully with Ken and catch up with childhood joy when becoming a future happy mother yourself, giving your children boundless love and what you have achieved: beauty inside out, a sharp intelligence, and a fighting spirit to elevate human beings to a higher level.

    However, beware, some people seriously do not want these “genes” to be passed on.
    With pray for you both with much love.

    Catherine & Bob

    • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

      Hi Catherine, thanks so much for your beautiful words!!! Mothers and fathers can be highly influential to their kids, more than they know, and I’m just glad that both you and Bob are such highly conscious individuals, ever sharing the best wisdom to Emilie and Tom. They are definitely in the best hands.

      I have been showing Ken your (and Bob’s) comments about “little Celeses” and “little Kens” running around, and he has been having a good laugh about them and asking me when I want to have those “little Celeses” and “little Kens”. Personally I don’t know if I want to have kids yet and if so, when; I suppose I will be thinking those questions and giving them more thought when I get married! I think I’ve not entered the phase when I’m ready to have kids yet, but/if I do, I will know. And I’ll have inspiring references like my own parents and you and Bob to refer to.

      Much love you Catherine, and just want to let you know that I love reading every single one of your comments on the blog. ♥

  • Julie Beille-Foltz

    Love your insighful analysis.

    It helps to put another light on events one has experienced in its life. You speak about you but it gives me so much reading it….

    Life is a journey and it’s so interesting embarking on it.

    • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

      Thanks Julie, I’m glad that this piece is giving you so much! Thanks so much for sharing your kind words. I look forward to having you read the rest of the series. :)

  • JadePenguin

    Woah! That’s some really harsh upbringing! Sorry you had to go through that but as you said, it was probably your mum following ancient outdated traditions she probably went through herself. And perhaps the experience really made you think about your gender identity.

    I myself was never very feminine (not in the traditional sense anyway). My stepfather used to say I’m basically a man (which I took as a compliment cuz I didn’t like him and was happy to piss him off). I also had much pressure from my first two exes to be feminine. Yet I felt that I wouldn’t be taken seriously by guys at my uni (which was technical and very male-dominated).

    I’ve since loosened up and don’t mind wearing a dress/skirt or being cute and feminine. Although I don’t do it often and my being cute is mostly pretend play; wearing skirts is special occasions only (too impractical). I do have feminine traits I always had like empathy or nurturing (I like taking care of plants and my friends). I’d say I’m an androgyne and happy with that (getting the best of both genders!)

    • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

      Hi Jade, I’m sorry to hear that you had pressure by your first two exes to be feminine. That’s not fair to you; no one should have to be forced to be feminine or masculine. My story was about repressed femininity, but if the story was flipped and my mom *forced* me to exaggerate my femininity (in a capacity I didn’t want to), I wouldn’t have liked that either.

      I love that you are embracing the best out of both gender spectra. I say that is the spirit! :) This is something I will be alluding to in part three of the series.

  • Bob

    Hi Celes,
    I sympathise from a male point of view, my mother forced me to wear shorts as part of my school uniform until I left the school at the age of eleven. I loathed her for this. There was only one other boy who also had shorts all the year round as well. We suffered in freezing cold winters while other boys had long trousers, so luckily wasn’t completely on my own.
    Now looking back, our parents pass down ideas from generation to generation until someone questions them and asks why. Then if the decide to pull out the bad roots heathy shoots can take root.

  • A.G.

    This is a very interesting article and I wholeheartedly agree with the idea of embracing femininity, but one thing stood out to me.

    Have you come across the concept of socialisation? It is the idea that through upbringing we enforce gender roles onto children. Girls are often praised for being attractive and boys for being strong or clever, which reinforces these attributes as admirable. Although a lot of what your mother did was wrong, I have to say I agree with one thing she said: “What’s the point of being pretty? As long as my kids are hardworking and don’t bring me any trouble, I’d be happy.” She was reminding you that attitude is more valuable than looks.

    In the rest of your series, perhaps you could explore some of the more noble and powerful aspects of femininity, such as compassion, empathy, intuition, etc.

    • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

      Hi A.G., I won’t go as far as to say as a lot of what my mother did was “wrong”, because there isn’t really a “right” or “wrong”–simply just something she did, what she felt was most appropriate for her to do based on her personal upbringing and experiences. Right or wrong is very subjective and up to one’s interpretation; for what it’s worth, her and many of her peers/relatives probably would think that the way she raised me and what she did was “right”. Myself, I simply see them as neutral experiences to learn from.

      While I agree with you that attitude is valuable if not more valuable than appearances (much of PE is about building the right mindset and beliefs anyway), that doesn’t mean one has to respond with “What’s the point of being pretty? ….” to compliments. There’s always the option of gracefully accepting the compliment rather than flicking or rejecting it; to flick or reject a compliment seems more like resistance, or fear, against that compliment or being good in the area the person is complimenting in. Just because someone (anyone) looks good doesn’t mean the person can’t have a good attitude; simultaneously, accepting a compliment about your appearance doesn’t mean that you don’t have a good attitude or brain.

      The remaining part of my series will be about my experience breaking out of my repressed femininity, and the last part will likely be a guide to help females find their own femininity in this world.

      One of the biggest things I want to bring out with this series is that actually femininity and masculinity are ultimately subjective traits; one doesn’t have to necessarily embody X or Y traits just to be regarded as feminine (or masculine for that matter). It’s up to us on how we want to embody those traits and how we carry them that determines how masculine or feminine we come across.

      Another big thing I want to enforce (towards the end of the series, in my concluding parts) is that everyone actually comprises of both masculine and feminine traits and there’s no point of intentionally gravitating towards a certain direction just because we are born male or female. It’s about embracing the traits that work best for us and which we wish to develop further to become a fuller, better, person.

  • Jinni

    Hi Celes! While I totally get your situation, I don’t think what happened to you was bad or reduced your femininity in any way! In my case, it was my dad who subconsciously raised me as a guy – we would garden together and play cricket, and I grew up with cousin brothers as a kid, so I spent most of my childhood in 2 messy plaits, grubby knees and football jerseys and I LOVED IT! I don’t think that has affected my feminine side in any way (although I bond more with guys than girls and love my beer :D) and i think growing up with the boys was so great because it helped me become tougher (you know how brutal young boys can be, right?) and I dont get all the bitchy girl-talk or the mind games and that’s only made my life simpler if anything.

    PS. Even I had short hair when i was 9. Against my will, ofcourse. But there’s this theory in my family (don’t know how true it is) that keeping the hair short allows more protein for the body to grow and short hair is better for growing kids (kids can get messy and short hair is less of a hindrance while playing) and easier to maintain too. At 18, I have long hair today and I don’t really miss having long hair when I was 9. If anything, it was better coz there was no headache of oiling it and shampooing it and tying it up all the time! So chill :D

    • http://personalexcellence.co/ Celestine Chua

      Hey Jinni! I don’t think that way anymore (that I lack femininity etc.); it was merely something I felt in the past which I have addressed since then. Now I’m just relating the story so others can perhaps learn from my experience. :) Part three will share how I eventually overcame this issue!

      You have a great point that you didn’t have to deal with the girl-gossip-deal, because that can really be quite draining and pointless. And I love how you embrace your masculine side (playing with your cousins etc.); I myself really enjoyed playing video games (having been introduced to it by my brother)!

  • Mindy Melbourne

    I love your blog, Celes. It is so honest, beautiful and compelling to read. Thank you.