When I wished I was a man

For a woman to wish to be a man used to seem to me like a massive feminist betrayal. As if she were agreeing with all that sexist, Freudian crap about ‘penis envy’ and the truly oppressive idea that men are the humans and women merely a sub category, a second class version of men.

When I say woman, I mean an adult human female, emphasis on the adult. I’m talking about grown women. When you’re an adult and as you get older and accumulate years of experience – of life’s ups and downs, the losses and grief and the highs and moments of sheer joy too – you are given a special kind of understanding called hindsight. Even once you are given it, it can take years to be able to use it. But, as a young woman I had none of this on my mind when I thought how I’d rather be a man.

To be honest, I don’t think I ever thought it in the manner of the simple, black and white, sentence above. It was a far more amorphous idea. I can’t pinpoint where it came from, but I think of a number of things prompted it – some of them purely aesthetic. I recall watching a music video for a song called Green and Grey by a band called New Model Army. It remains a favourite. It’s about someone looking back on a youthful friendship and at how people follow different paths in life that can mean they drift apart.

The video was black and white, featuring the band – long haired men, dressed in black, wearing chunky silver jewellery. The lead singer was especially rugged and had a front tooth missing. It was an artily shot performance of the song, with views through rain-specked glass and reflections in puddles. It was serious and heartfelt and somewhat melancholy. It spoke to my teenage self and it made me want to be able to present myself to the world as these men did. No need for make up or smiles; perceived as hard and unassailable.

Not soft and ripe for the taking – as young women are too often viewed.

I admired the lead singer’s look beyond this video. I coveted his long leather coat. I felt glad of the gap between my front teeth, which I felt echoed his missing one. I wished away my growing breasts and loathed my new womanly curves. I wanted a strong, slim, muscular and masculine body.

I wore clothes that I hoped would hide my flesh, which I ignorantly thought of as fat. I understand now that it’s completely normal for a pubescent girl’s body fat to more than double. But I remember, aged about 12, bursting into tears when I couldn’t zip a denim skirt up over my newly fleshy belly. My mother shared my ignorance and suggested I ‘go on a little diet’ – as she was probably told to do by her mother before her. It was without malice, but it dented and shaped my body image. I also imagined how much better I’d feel if I did not have breasts. I wondered if they could be removed or at least reduced in size, even though I was barely a c-cup. If someone had offered me a ‘breast binder’, had such things been available at that time, I expect I would have embraced it – and might now be suffering the consequences.

I kept these feelings to myself, but tried to appear as masculine as possible and adopted a belligerent and often rather aggressive persona. I drew the line at cutting off my long hair. In any case, plenty of men I knew of had long hair. It wasn’t just New Model Army.

I can’t tell you exactly when I went from being happily ‘feminine’ – meaning a sometime wearer of skirts and make up – to someone who eschewed almost anything that could be considered stereotypically feminine or ‘girly’. There was no single incident and fortunately no terrible sexual trauma. Looking back, with hindsight, I see things that happened and the behaviour of certain individuals must have contributed. But I can’t easily point my finger at one single cause.

Luckily for me, it was the 1990s. I had Thelma & Louise, in their jeans and t-shirts with the arms ripped off, and Sarah Connor in Terminator 2 as style role models. There were also all-female bands like L7 and Lunachicks, who made noisy rock music and looked like me – long messy hair, big boots, trousers, leather jackets, sometimes wearing make up but often not. These women – whether fictional or real – showed me that just because I did not wear a frock and make up, and was determined not to take any shit, did not mean I was not a woman.

I’m relieved my wish to be seen as a man amounted to little more than not wearing make up and always wearing trousers. I dread to think of what I might have done to myself, if the nonsense of gender identity and its peddler social media had been around when I was young – but perhaps being heterosexual would have protected me from being pushed towards a life-changing mistake? The truth, of course, was always this: I did not actually want to BE a man. I merely wanted to look like one in order to avoid unwanted male attention and belittling sexist attitudes.

I can’t imagine times have changed that much in terms of young women today.

This piece was inspired by a news story I read a while back about university lecturers being given a list of ‘microinsults’ they should avoid while teaching. One of things they were told not to say was, “I wanted to be a boy when I was a child.”