Guest Post: What it is to be a Woman

Kate Adamson lives in Fife with her husband and loves pottering about in Edinburgh. She likes physics, knitting, empty museums, cake and weird facts. She blogs at and tweets as @KateLAdamson

It’s 1994 and I’m sitting in my sixth year studies physics class. Actually, I’m perching on a high stool and jiggling my foot, a habit I wouldn’t grow out of till I quit caffeine five years later.

Outside the classroom, a male classmate (who I have either a live or a dormant crush on, I can’t remember) is talking to a girl in the year below.

“So, are there any girls in your class?” she asks.
“Kate’s in this class,” he replies.
Her tone is sarcastic “No, I said girls.”

I pretend I can’t hear anything. So do my other classmates. But I’m burning up.

This episode still pops into my mind every now and again as part of that filmstrip of all-time humiliating moments that starts playing when my self-esteem starts wobbling. At the time it happened, I had almost waist-length hair, was wearing an ankle-length skirt (and DMs, but it was the mid-90s) and some degree of make-up (something else I’d grow out of pretty quickly). But I was still conscious enough of not feeling like “a proper girl” that i found stuff like that very difficult to challenge.

In the early 80s, I was a short-haired pudding-bowl-cut primary school pupil who would occasionally get called ‘son’ rather than ‘hen’ in the dinner queue. Recently, I spotted my late-primary-school haircut on several people in the Scott-and-Charlene’s wedding clip that was circulating on YouTube. It was one of those haircuts that looked better if you had cheekbones and earrings, both of which I lacked.

I grew my hair out for secondary school. But I found hair styling a bit of a mystery. I didn’t have enough pocket money to spend on clothes, and didn’t find discussing grooming to be particularly interesting.

At the same time, I was starting to develop a real interest in science. By the time I got to Standard Grade class, I was conscious that I was going to stand out as a girl in science. I huffily refused to go to the WISE (women in science) bus when it came round, reckoning that if I was the best in the class anyway, I didn’t need their help, and in fact was rather offended that it was offered. (Now, as someone who thoroughly enjoys women-in-science get-togethers, I see that I may have been missing the point.)

From schooldays through two physics degrees and into the workplace, I tried to assume a workplace persona that I thought of as minimally-female. I would dress up for going out (I have plenty of balldresses in my cupboard) but my day-to-day outfits were distinctly on the functional side. When a colleague in my first job told me drunkenly that he “didn’t really think of me as female” I simultaneously bristled a wee bit and thought “yep, actually that’s what I’m aiming at.”

But at the same time, I would look at colleagues who did show their girly side with a wee bit of jealousy. “How is she getting away with being giggly and wearing jewellery and colours and still getting a good physics degree? Is that even allowed?”

It took me a long time to realise what constraints I was putting on myself, and move from feeling “kind of neuter” to really loving being a woman.

This is one of the rare situations where I can genuinely say that reading someone’s blog post changed my life. In 2006 I read a post called ‘On Lipstick and Revolution’ by a favourite blogger Shannon at Peter’s Cross Station, in which she talked about butch and femme, and the different gender roles she (as a femme lesbian) had taken in her life: “theatre diva/crunchy hippie girl/punk-rock girl/motorcycle mama… sexy black-tights-wearing city girl/down-to-earth camping, canoe-paddle-wielding nature lover…” Suddenly a bright light went off in my head. Well, three really.

The first one: whatever type of woman I want to be, I’m still a woman. I own that identity. Nobody else can take that away from me.

The second one: I don’t actually have to choose between different manifestations of being female, and I don’t have to be consistent. When I go from work trouser-suit to belly-dancing outfit, that’s not a contradiction: it’s just another facet of my many feminine identities.

The third one: what’s the worst that happens if I try on being a bit more (conventionally) feminine occasionally? I wore pink shirts to work. I wore skirts (until I got the steel-toe boots job). The world didn’t end. I didn’t actually need that protective genderless armour to get respect in the workplace.

I feel like finally I’ve got to a place where I’m really happily and wholly female, with a definition that works for me. I don’t feel like a fraud in all-female groups any more. I still feel intimidated by perfectly-groomed fashionable people, but I no longer construe it as “I’m scared of her because she’s better at being a girl than I am”. It’s more like meeting a fearsome hipster or literary maven – being a bit overwhelmed at someone who is clearly a) much better at something that I am and b) cares far more about it than I do. But I’m less likely to take someone else’s perfectly-dressed presentation as an indictment on my inadequate womanhood.

Finally, at 34, I feel at home in my own gender.

8 responses

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  2. I think we’re trying to find the same respect v feminine balance if we work in traditionally male domains. But we each find that balance in a slightly different place. Occasionally I’be wondered if that’s part of why female-female interactions can be a bit awkward within predominantly male environments.

    • That’s a really interesting point Clare. Sometimes you get so used to interacting with men that it can be really strange to interact with a woman, especially when they are in a significantly different place along the feminine scale (or spectrum, or multi-dimensions, however we put it!)

  3. Brilliant post! As someone who has never been a girly girl I can really identify with this. I’d much rather take my son to football than my daughter to ballet and have become an honorary football ‘dad’. I certainly don’t fit with the girly clique at work and that can be hard at times. I agree with you, you just have to learn to be happy in your own skin.

    • Thanks Lisa! Sounds like you’ve found your own way forward as well. I look around at my brilliant group of female friends and think, phew, being a 30-something is nice, we all made it through and figured out who we are. (And we’re all off for a posh girly afternoon tea today, would you believe? I would have been terrified of that a few years ago!)

  4. I just love this post. Brilliant! I’m quite a girly girl (I really love pink for a start!) but I can’t wear heals, am not so good with make-up and am never in fashion. I have always feared those women who do being a girly girl really well. They’ve made me feel ugly and inadequate in some way. This post has made me think. Positively. Thank you! x

    • Thanks Emily! I just don’t think it helps anyone if we have an image of “the one true femininity” (or masculinity for that matter). There are so many brilliant, admirable ways to be female! And I don’t want to exclude the pink, girly versions from that either, even if I don’t choose them myself much of the time.

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