Defeating Black Girl Gender Expression Barriers

Since I was a child, I have tended to dress and act in more traditionally masculine ways rather than feminine. During this time, I would keep to myself and also prefer to express myself in more “masculine” ways such as choosing clothing and toys that were targeted at boys and interacting more with boys socially.

My high school feminism class taught by Ileana Jiménez, 2018. (photo courtesy: Ileana Jiménez)

However, as my feminist teacher, Ileana Jiménez, said one autumn day during our high school feminist theory class, my more “masculine” behavior was “a rejection of traditionally feminine norms set by society and also your natural inclination towards masculine behavior.” At first, it seemed that I’d had an epiphany, I had felt enlightened because, for the first time, I had looked at my gender expression in a different manner. Previously I had seen my gender expression to be unfeminine. But now I saw gender expression through a new lens; a lens that criticized societal norms. I thought more about it after conversations with my mother. 

On one hand, it seemed true that my fear of pink and rejection of all things sparkly was due to social constructs and the baggage that comes with looking and behaving in a more feminine manner. On the other hand, some decisions were unconscious, such as choosing a mostly male friend group, which was a decision made based on my interests. I also preferred the comfort of the color blue; preferred playing with Legos; and enjoyed reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid over Dork Diaries. In terms of style, I chose jeans over dresses and skirts. In one instance, during a playdate, while my friend used the restroom, I was asked by a parent: “Do you wear boy clothes and hang out with boys because you want to be one?”

A young Amouri questioning gender expression and identity. (illustration credit: Amouri Edwards)

While I am not opposed to being seen as having masculine traits, it seemed that in this instance, this person was using gender norms to define my character. I felt alienated as if I were not feminine enough for her daughter to play with. While I may have been seen as “masculine,” it didn’t change the fact that society and my community tried to suppress my desire to express my gender in a way that differed from societal norms.

“they won’t recognize immediately

the slut I have warned you against’ becoming”

Women and girls are subject to suppression in everyday life as I’ve learned through my high school feminism class. As Jamaica Kincaid states in her short story “Girl,” girls are given a barrage of messages such as: “how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against’ becoming.” I interpret this excerpt as an example of the various “girl-codes” passed on to young girls, which teaches them to be ashamed of body expression and sexuality.

Drawing from my own experience, as a young girl, I was told to cross my legs by my father, in fear that I’d be sexually objectified by strangers, especially when I was on the train. Constantly annoyed by this directive, I always wondered why I had to cross my legs when the man next to me could “man spread“? His legs would be gaping open and his arms would be clasped, a symbol of his dominance compared to my submissive and docile state.

In another example, once when in an older uncle’s car, I was whistling, until I was abruptly interrupted by him as he sneered, “stop whistling, it’s un-lady-like.” I still don’t understand why whistling is unladylike. I felt that I was being restricted from being who I was and am. To suppress one’s self-expression is a restriction of identity. I should be able to be as free as Audre Lorde in her “Love Poem,” making “sky flow honey out of my hips, rigid mountains spread over a valley carved out by the mouth of rain.” Lorde is a key figure of freedom of expression; which is very clear in that poem, as she feels no need to conform as a Black lesbian feminist warrior poet.

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What I have learned from reading Lorde, is that It is important to appreciate one’s body, sexuality, and gender. What I didn’t know as a child was that being denied to express oneself freely in one’s body could lead to a lack of self-care and self-love. As Lorde states, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” and with that comes self-expression. These words resonate with me, as in my life I often feel the need to conform to societal norms, which in some ways is a form of a lack of self-care and self-love. It’s not surprising that being “butch” and “tomboyish” is ostracized in our society, thus why being yourself is an “act of political warfare.” To break gender barriers is a critique of and a resistance against these destructive norms, and those who adhere to the master’s tools of domination don’t approve. I prefer to approve of myself instead. 


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