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Femininity hurts

July 30, 2009

I’ve run into yet another unsuspected example recently of how, as Twisty succinctly put it, “Femininity is learned behavior that fucks women up.” This example definitely falls into the physically painful category.

I finally twigged to what is seeming to be a major perpetuating factor in my knotted hamstrings and inner thigh muscles: keeping my legs too close together to be mechanically sound. I first noticed this when sitting; it’s hard to ignore when your muscles start screaming every time you hold your legs in a “proper” (i.e., socially mandated) position. Applying some mindfulness and consideration of body mechanics while moving around, it became horribly obvious that I’ve been spending most of my time tottering around trying to keep my balance–not having a stable base to work from–with the painful muscles compensating like mad. (Yep, very much like wearing high heels, without the added calf muscle insanity and immediate pain feedback.) I would not be at all surprised if balancing a ribcage wider than my hips–over a narrow, frequently rocking base–has aggravated this instability.

Is it any wonder that women are, by all accounts I’ve run across, far more prone to problems with our inner thigh muscles? We apparently also have more hamstring tightness, and the lower back pain that cascades from that, but almost every report of inner thigh pain outside poorly conditioned male weekend athletes comes from a woman. More blatant strain of already stressed muscles frequently makes itself known when we’re turning ourselves into pretzels in bed, so that’s a convenient thing to blame. (Not to mention the popularity of pointing to women’s sexuality and general body design as a snake’s nest of problems, to begin with.) If the muscles were not already strained, with restricted range of motion, they would not be so prone to injury. For that matter, who says it’s necessary or desirable to act like a human pretzel on a regular basis, especially if it keeps injuring people? Again, it takes about two seconds’ reflection to figure out that this is not mechanically sound, and it’s easy to avoid.

Men aren’t trained to keep their legs close enough together that their balance is unstable–and the leg muscles are not allowed to move as they are intended–nor, for centuries now, to totter around in crippling shoes. Our legs do not somehow magically stay closer together in every body position any more than men’s do. One would think that, on average, having a wider pelvis would mean that the legs would also be spaced more widely. It takes a lot of effort to keep them pulled toward the center, even if we don’t notice it after a while.

This mechanically unsound posture also increases susceptibility to knee injuries. I am restraining myself from going off on the frequent perception of women’s inherent “deformities” (here’s just one example; lack of emphasis on muscle development and weird encouraged stances aside, someone does at least get points for mentioning the damage caused by heels) and inherent muscle weakness as the sole reason we get an awful lot of ACL tears. Says the woman with two ACL reconstructions. Encouraged weakness aside*, moving from an unstable base does not enhance joint stability, and tight muscles pull on joints painfully. Having a knee buckle from tight thigh muscles at the wrong moment can lead to serious damage, as I know too well.

Not surprisingly, this learned unstable stance seems to be contributing to a much larger cascade of musculoskeletal problems. Another similar contributor: mostly unconsciously hunching my shoulders in an attempt to appear less conspicuous, much more severely over the past five years–since I’ve been living where not many people are built like me. Being built like a 5’8″ linebacker is definitely not feminine here–there are enough of us adult human sized** NDN women back home that I don’t get honest-to-goodness stared at on the street. I have, indeed, experienced much less pain since I started paying attention to how I was holding my shoulders. Folding, spindling, and mutilating them is not going to make me look smaller and less threatening, and it didn’t cut down on the stares and reflexive “sirring”. Besides its just being based on a ridiculous and damaging set of assumptions, in the first place.

It distresses me that I am having loads of musculoskeletal pain brought on by learning to use unnaturally restricted movenents, and then I go out and see how most women here in Greater London have been trained to walk. I am hurting, and my usual mode of locomotion is not knock-kneed mincing, with as little shoulder and other upper body motion as possible. (I still get startled by the exaggerated pendulum-like arm movement required to maintain balance.) You don’t need heels for that to hurt, over time. My gait has made other women walking in front of me after dark glance back with fear and suspicion, it comes across as so unfeminine by the standards to which they’ve been trained. Sometimes I want to cry.

I firmly remember the posture segments of the wétiko training pushed on me once I started school. A lot of people took umbrage at my standing too straight, and responded in a less hostile manner when I showed less physical confidence. Part of this came from still socially accepted racism, but minority girls are at the absolute bottom of the hierarchy. Girls raised to be uppity are the worst. I didn’t know I needed to show submission. I got outright called on sitting with my legs the way they naturally wanted to arrange themselves, on many occasions. Apparently, I looked too comfortable a lot of the time. This had its effect even before the media barrage did most of its work. I still suck at performing Western femininity, but am sufferering physical pain from what I did absorb. Then there’s the emotional and spiritual pain. What of girls/women who are better performers? Joint hypermobility does make me more susceptible to screwing my muscles up, but these encouraged postures and movements are not good for anybody.

What has very possibly amazed/upset me the most about what I’ve found since I’ve been paying more attention to my body and how I hold and use it, is how little I had noticed before. Finding out that unhappy, abused muscles–rather than osteoarthritis and other actual joint/spinal damage–were causing a lot of pain was quite the revelation, in itself. I honestly could not tell that my muscles were tight, until I learned (a) to pay a modicum of attention to them, and (b) how a healthy muscle felt. I still have to pause and think through how a body movement works, mechanically, and it continues to amaze me that I did not learn to do this before. Most of it is just so obvious, once you pay attention.

This is an excellent example of humans’ physical wellbeing, not to mention happiness, taking a back seat to social constructs: femininity, in this case. What’s required in order to completely ignore signals of distress from your body? How can you not notice that your muscles are spasming, and your gait is dangerously unstable? The same kind of encouraged mental distance and disconnection that allows a person to starve herself and deliberately rip out her body hair–and gain a feeling of accomplishment. It takes a disconnection between body and self, a serious distortion in self-image–and not in the watered-down pop psych sense. Your perceptions of self and what you are seeing in the mirror may as well be coming from different dimensions, and our society demands that the body must change. Denial and control of your body is presented as the main form of control available to you.

It’s a particularly nasty twist on–and logical result of–the Cartesian mind/body split, further filtered through wétiko, and used as a bludgeon. A woman’s body is not important, except as it is used to attract men. If you truly feel like your body is important, you will not abuse it in this way. You will certainly not be so numbed that you don’t even notice anymore that it is being abused. If you love yourself, you will not knowingly harm yourself. (Here’s an excellent related video, which gave me food for thought.)

Performing femininity as a wétiko society dictates requires that you abuse and neglect yourself–in body, mind, and spirit. It requires that you render yourself suitable for consumption. This is just another illustration. Femininity hurts.

* I thought I’d mostly missed out on the “weakness is only to be expected” theme, and thought I was in pretty good shape. Then I caught myself considering my upper body strength “pretty good for a woman”, rather than questioning how great it really was for an individual human built to be strong as the average team of oxen. How good a shape were my thigh muscles really in when I tore knee ligaments?

** Before someone takes exception, I am pointing out that “adult human sized” does not equate with “tiny, if you’re female”. Adult humans come in different sizes, exaggerated by factors such as restricted food intake and an encouraged lack of strengthening exercise–part and parcel of femininity performance. Some of us adult humans get to hear that we’re a completely inappropriate size on a regular basis, and I call bullshit once again.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2009 4:41 pm

    Susan Brownmiller wrote quite an extensive deconstruction of femininity in her book (aptly titled) Femininity. You may want to check it out.

    • urocyon permalink
      July 30, 2009 6:32 pm

      Thanks for the pointer. 🙂 I’ll add that one near the top of the list.

  2. August 22, 2009 4:59 am

    Hah. I think we are the same size (I’m also 5’8″ and extremely muscular and broad-shouldered — I’ve done lots and lots of weightlifting), and I also get mistaken for a man sometimes, not just because of my body type but also my posture and gait. One of my friends told me he could always see me coming from a long way off, because I would be the only person with long, flowing hair, a skirt, *AND* a long, purposeful stride.

    My height doesn’t usually make me seem more masculine, though — few men are shorter than I am, and many are taller. There are also lots of women my height, or close enough to it, that it really doesn’t stand out. This might also be a function of the degree to which the male norm is seen as normal for all people — even though 5’8″ is, actually, rather tall for a woman (the average American woman is 5’4″; her male counterpart is 5’9″), it’s considered a middling height in either sex. Part of this might be because I am white, too — the white, Western ideal of beauty is very tall, thin and willowy. My objective height is not that tall, and my overall appearance gives less impression of height because I’m so stocky.

    I don’t get the inner-thigh pain, probably because I don’t try to keep my legs close together.

    And, yes, Brownmiller’s Femininity is quite good. Another book that deals with the crippling effects of femininity (besides the classic, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which I read recently and loved, but which is ridiculously long) is Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. There were several things that bothered me about that book, but I did think it described how femininity distorts women’s bodies really well.

  3. Annie permalink
    December 1, 2009 7:08 pm

    This was very interesting to read, although I actually have a very different and sad problem with inner thighs (warning: too much info ahead); I intentionally tried to keep them slightly more apart than “expected” to (though whether that’s enough I have no idea) because the thighs of most women I know simply don’t touch each other while mine do, and still do even after I started exercising. That aside one of the things I noticed about exercising was the way my growing thigh muscles seemed to put extra weight on my knees, and I was wondering if that was normal, so this post was extremely enlightening to me. Thanks for that.

    • December 1, 2009 11:35 pm

      Annie, I do notice a lot more weight on my knees, too, because over my years of weightlifting I’ve added so much mass. I’d say that’s pretty normal for women who are beginning to add muscle, so I wouldn’t worry unless it starts to give you problems, like pain or mobility issues.

      I can also relate to what you say about thighs touching each other! I have been a fairly wide range of different sizes, from very thin to very heavy and muscular, and my thighs have always rubbed together, even when I was sixty or seventy pounds lighter. I think it probably has to do with how one’s body stores fat — even when I have very little fat on me, there’s always *some* at the tops of my thighs. Never seems to go away. It bothered me when I was younger, but not so much anymore.

    • urocyon permalink
      December 2, 2009 12:30 pm

      Interesting–thanks for commenting. 🙂 I hadn’t thought of the opposite causing problems, but that makes sense. Keeping them farther apart than they want to be wouldn’t be mechanically sound either.

      My thighs have always tended to touch, too, just from being muscular and set pretty close together–though not so much now that I’m trying to space the legs better. It can get irritating in the summer.

      Good observation, Lindsay, on increased muscle mass adding weight over your knees! I guess you’d get accustomed to the different feel. Something to look forward to, when I manage to get more muscle back. 😉

  4. February 16, 2010 3:42 am

    I’m not sure exactly how I hold my thighs because I haven’t focused a lot of attention there and I have general proprioceptive difficulties/deficits/differences/lacks/whatever. Now that I’ve read this post, I will likely be paying more attention to where my thighs are, if only out of curiosity.

    I have thighs that rub together at any weight. I don’t like the sensation of my skin touching my skin so I wear knee-length bloomers (custom made, with drawstring waist so I can adjust the pressure) all the time. I don’t like the constriction of trousers. so I wear dresses (yes, even when I’m hiking through the woods and up hills. I’m very “tomboy” in my dresses, which are usually sturdy denim or some other kind of cotton.) My dresses are long enough (preferred length is about three inches above the ankle – longest length that is still safe and comfortable on my bicycle) that I don’t have to worry about people looking up my skirt when I sit and full enough that I can sit cross-legged on the floor if I wish to without my skirt binding me or riding up.

    While I dislike most of the “standards of femininity” and cringe when I remember all the times my aunt told me to do something or not do something because I am a “young lady”, I am glad that I turned out female in the culture in which I live because I have so much greater leeway in choice of clothing without being “treated like a freak” because I’ve “transgressed” simply in an effort to seek the greatest comfort possible.

    I’ve never been mistaken for male (so far) except for in one photo where my hair was pulled back, I was wearing sunglasses and shooting headphones and holding a high-powered rifle. The main reason I was mistaken for male, though, was that the photo did not show my chest which is abnormally large and a source of displeasure for me. When I’ve saved enough money, found a window of time, and built up my courage for surgery, I intend to fix that problem.

    I tend not to speak much about my future surgery plans, though, since I’ve learned that it makes both women and men very upset to think that I might not want the “blessings” I was “endowed” with. (For reference, they are H cups (DDDDD cups) and very heavy and painful and make it difficult to find clothing that fits properly without being altered.)


  1. Reversing the Damage, Part 2 « Urocyon’s Meanderings

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