Here is a young woman who made a video called “How I knew I was non binary.”
Since this is the title of the video, I think it’s reasonable to assume that the things she talks about in her video are the reasons why she knew she was non binary. This is what she talks about in her video:
- In fifth grade, a girl called her legs “gross” because she hadn’t shaved them, and she didn’t understand why her legs were gross. She hadn’t even reached puberty yet.
- In middle school there was strong policing of gender by her peers and she felt depressed. She knew it was ridiculous to try and fit in by being as girly as she could, however, this is what she did.
- A girl she knew put on lip gloss to kiss a boy she had a crush on but she didn’t like wearing that kind of lip gloss. (However in the video she has lipstick on, so….?)
- She got up early in the morning to style her hair and do her makeup because she felt she had to do this to fit in. She considers compliments about her hair to be signs of “fitting in.” However, she didn’t feel like herself while doing this.
- One day, she cut her hair short and wore androgynous clothes, and her mother expressed her disapproval because people might think she’s a boy. She thought it was okay if people thought she was a boy.
- She remembers being happier and more extroverted when she was young enough that people hadn’t started policing her appearance.
- In senior high school, she wanted to throw out all her girls’ clothes and buy all boys’ clothes, but she was dating a jerk boyfriend and wanted his approval, so she “pretended to be a girl.”
- She felt validated while reading Tumblr posts about non binary.
Wow! Based on this information, being non binary means being a whole, unique person with a distinct personality who doesn’t meet the shallow, limiting criteria for behavior set by middle school kids. According to this explanation, I’m non binary and so are every person I’ve ever gotten along with, because we’ve also never met the dumb expectations of the popular clique. But I don’t call myself non binary, because I don’t think that’s a useful way to describe what’s happening here.
Non binary identity is an attempt to identify outside of your actual sex in order to avoid having sex-related stereotypes placed on you by other people. It’s not just a synonym for androgynous, which would make some sense, but instead it’s supposed to imply that the sex of your body doesn’t exist and you are neither male nor female (despite not actually having an intersex condition.) Actually, if non binary was a synonym for intersex, that would probably make more sense—if you didn’t have the usual sex characteristics that males and females come with 99% of the time, then “non binary” could describe that. But non binary is not about physical sex characteristics, it’s about the social gender role.
In this video, the young woman talks mostly about having her appearance policed by other people, (her peers and her mother,) and them wanting her to meet their current definition of how girls and women should look. This is a totally normal experience that girls go through as they’re growing up. Depending on how much sexism there is among the people they grow up around, girl children are taught to varying degrees that girls have to look a certain way in order to be acceptable. If a girl is lucky, and her family and peers are not sexist, then she’ll be allowed to be herself. But if her family and peers are sexist, as many people are, then they’ll teach her that she absolutely must look feminine or else she’s a failure as a human being. That’s what happened with the woman in this video. Her peers were very sexist, and it sounds like her mother was too, and that led to her feeling like she needed to style her hair and wear makeup in order to be acceptable, even though she didn’t feel like herself when engaging in these behaviours.
There are lots of reasons why kids and teens are sexist. They learn it from their families, their religions and the media, and a few developmental characteristics makes them very keen on enforcing the rules they’ve learned. Kids and teens are unsure of themselves and very concerned about fitting in. Since they are immature they haven’t developed the ability to find their self-worth from within, and they try to find it through superficial signs of acceptance from their peers. They don’t have well developed social skills and so they engage in bullying and other anti-social behaviours. Boys learn that they have to behave in domineering and aggressive ways in order to be acceptable as boys, and they enforce this on each other. Girls learn that they have to be pretty and pleasing to boys, and they enforce this on other girls. These sexist attitudes come directly from patriarchy, which all children are socialized into.
Lesbian and bisexual women are very likely not to fit the feminine gender role, since it’s entirely based on heterosexuality. However, there are also straight women who don’t fit into femininity. There are plenty of straight women who don’t feel comfortable being limited in life to wife and mother and having her whole existence center around pleasing her man. The reason why there has been a feminist movement going on for decades now is because large numbers of women don’t identify with the sexist expectations placed on us and the limited role reserved for us in patriarchy.
This particular “non binary” woman is attracted to men and eager for their approval, and she is struggling to find a balance between pleasing men and staying true to herself. Surely this is a common experience among all women who are attracted to men, especially when they are in high school.
When I see young women who are going through the normal experience of having their appearance policed by high school peers and believing this makes them literally not female, I realize that navigating a sexist, heteronormative high school social environment is just as difficult as ever and yet we are farther away from helping girls navigate it than we used to be. All these same things happened to me when I was in school. The girls around me had arbitrary, silly, nonsensical, strongly-held beliefs that I was supposed to wear certain clothes, listen to certain music, and say certain things, and if I messed up it was their job to punish me for my transgression. It was terrifying and confusing for me because no one ever explained to me ahead of time what the rules were, and I never knew I was breaking one until the punishment came. Completely random things, like a zipper being in the wrong spot on a pair of pants, or a jacket being “too shiny,” were cause for belittling people.
When I was in high school there was a different word for those of us who didn’t understand the social rules and couldn’t follow them. We called ourselves “outsiders.” We may have gotten this word from the excellent young adult book The Outsiders, actually. Whatever vocabulary young people are given to explain their experiences is the vocabulary they will use. In the 1990s, nobody was telling us that if we didn’t fit in with the popular clique then our biological sex didn’t exist and we had to take on a “gender identity.” The experience of not fitting it hasn’t changed a bit, but the way we conceive of our differences has changed into something totally nonsensical.
There are a few things that I would tell my younger self, to help her navigate the strange and scary world of middle and high school, based on my adult knowledge of the world. The first thing I’d tell her is that social skills aren’t what she thinks they are. I used to think that social skills meant being “cool” and popular, and knowing how to do and say the right things to not get made fun of. Now that I’m an adult, I know that I had good social skills all along, but my peers did not. I knew how to treat people with respect, honour differences, appreciate a person for her personality rather than her appearance, and be kind to my friends. The kids at my school who were bullies were the ones with poor social skills. They didn’t know how to get along with other people, they were shallow and superficial and mean. They needed to be taught better how to interact with their peers.
The second thing I’d tell my younger self is that it was good that I didn’t meet the dumb criteria set by the girls at school. It was good that I wasn’t so shallow that I thought clothing had to only be the latest styles by designer brands, and it was good that I didn’t make rude, snappy comebacks and put people down, because that doesn’t make you cool, it makes you an asshole, and it was good that I had interests in arts and culture and the humanities, even though this made me “nerdy” when I was young. All the things about me that the bullies didn’t like were the things that would make me the person I am, make me proud of myself as an adult, and save my life over and over. My interest in the arts has always been the thing that keeps me from being suicidal. It’s been the main thing that makes sense to me in life and the thing that makes me feel the joy of human existence. It was good that nobody managed to bully that wonderful blessing out of me.
I would then explain to my younger self that superficial approval from my peers in the form of them liking my clothes or hair didn’t actually consist of a meaningful friendship. Further, the people who are really shallow and superficial were not even capable of meaningful friendship. The deep friendships I had with a small number of other nerdy girls were worth thousands of times more than the superficial approval from shallow assholes that I kept craving.
I would also explain to my younger self that the reason I didn’t think I needed an expensive salon haircut and a push-up bra starting at age 13 is because I was a feminist who resisted being a sex object for men and who saw herself as a fully human person. This was a positive thing about me. One of the reasons I found a lot of my female peers’ behavior baffling is because I was a lesbian and I didn’t think the same way they did. I didn’t have this sophisticated understanding back then, but I had an instinct that being overly sexualized and dressed up was not for me, and didn’t make much sense for anybody. Those girls who were 13-going-on-20 were groomed by a sexist culture and they were entering dangerous territory. Some of them were hurt while trying to please boys in these shallow ways.
High school girls who don’t fit in with the popular clique don’t need a gender identity label, they need to be taught how to navigate bullying and sexism. They need to understand that this sort of bullying has been happening for a long time, at least several decades, and maybe since time immemorial, and their mothers dealt with it too. They need to understand what positive values and good social skills are and identify bullies and sexism as the problems. They need to understand that their natural personalities are not a problem and don’t cancel out their womanhood in any way, because women do in fact have a variety of personalities. Girls and women who resist sexist expectations are normal girls and women, and if they need to be given any sort of label, a really useful label would be feminist. Girls who take on a gender identity label are not exempt from sexist expectations, because they are still female and sexist expectations are enforced based on sex, not internally-felt identities.
The main thing the feminist movement has taught me is that trying to identify your way out of oppression by claiming to be “not like the other girls” doesn’t work as a strategy. The strategy that will work to end sexism and female oppression is the strategy of making structural changes to society so that women are freed from being sex objects for men. As long as women are oppressed based on our sex, we will be targeted for misogyny, regardless of how we feel we identify. The more steps we make toward the goal of ending patriarchy, the fewer girls there will be who feel extreme discomfort when they’re expected to meet the demands of femininity, which is literally the social role created to keep us subordinate to men.