June 2, 201718 min read

Being a woman means different things to different people. I interviewed and photographed 5 women of different ages, races, gender identities, ability, and passions, asking them questions about their identities as women.

Interview #1: Name: Laura Panek. Occupation: Biology teacher

Being a biology teacher, how do you feel about genetics vs. gender identity as a spectrum?

“I really don’t care. In my classroom, I don’t want to project my life experience on anybody else, so I’m fully aware that there’s a huge amount of variation in what people feel and I feel that social norms have played a huge role in determining what is feminine and what is masculine, not genetics. I think if you look across societies if you were to remove social normalization, I don’t think you’d see anything we recognize right now as what is feminine and masculine. I think we’d see much more variance and overlap without all the cultural normalization.”


What does it mean to you to be a woman?

“At the point in my life I’m at right now, a lot of that is tied into being a mother, because I’m 12 years into being a mother, so if you asked me that question pre-children I’d have a different answer than if you asked me that question after children. Right now, a lot of it is being responsible for the nurturing and care and support of my children, and that takes up a lot of my primary time and energy. Before I had kids, being a woman… There probably weren’t as many positive feelings about it, just because of not having the actual experience of becoming a mother. That was really fulfilling to me, I feel that it’s something I’m good at and I haven’t felt really good at many things in my life. But being honest, being a woman in the time and place I was before I had children probably meant more keeping my head down, trying to not get noticed.”

So building off of that, and how you said you didn’t feel like you were good at a lot of things, you know that there’s toxic masculinity, do you think toxic femininity is real?

“I would say that toxic femininity would be the idea that to be a fully valued woman you would have to have children; like you aren’t a “full women” if you haven’t had the experience of being pregnant, giving birth, and raising children in that traditional way. I would consider presenting that experience as being a requirement for being a woman toxic.”

So a lot of that ties into sexism, the idea that women have to stay home with the family and whatnot. Do you think you experience any internalized sexism?

“Yes. I absolutely do. Growing up, my mother stayed home, so if you talk about implicit bias, I have a strong implicit bias that women are supposed to be the nurturing person in the home, that they do the cooking and cleaning, the executive functioning for the family, the organizing, that that’s the role they have. I also take on that role in my family, since my husband works a tremendous amount, so it’s hard for me to separate out if [I take on that role] because my husband works a lot or because I feel this is the natural role for me. It’s not a very rewarding thing to do, I don’t enjoy cleaning and grocery shopping and shuttling my kids around, but I suspect it was just the assumption that I was going to do all this [that got me in this role].”

What struggles do you face as a woman?

“Now? I can tell you very clearly, it’s struggling to balance the demands of my children and my job [as a biology teacher] with the needs of keeping myself a functioning human. That’s very challenging. I don’t like being in the position where I feel like I’m letting somebody down, so I would say balancing being a good teacher and being a good mother to my children, that’s what’s hardest.”

Interview #2: Name: Maya Radhakrishnan. Occupation: Student

Would you consider yourself feminine, masculine, neither, somewhere in the middle?

“I would say I’m pretty feminine in my presentation, personality wise I’m more in the middle because I don’t have a lot of stereotypically feminine traits or masculine traits. And this isn’t to say that all men are masculine and all women are feminine, but we do have the issue of attaching those traits to those genders. The concept of gender itself is weird because there’s no clear definition for it, which is causing a lot of problems for me.”

What kind of problems?

If you tell someone you’re outside of the binary, or not a certain gender, people say, “wow! That’s so cool and edgy” and I feel like it isn’t. It was just a topic I never really questioned before and when I did [begin to question] and suddenly didn’t understand it, no one was there to provide me with a solid explanation, so I stopped going along with everyone else’s ideas. In the end, I identify as non-binary or agender, but it was more of just looking at the multiple choice options for a gender, or lack thereof, and picking one.”

Do you think, being perceived as female, you experience sexism?

“I mean, when you live in a predominantly male society you’re bound to encounter it. For me, it’s mainly when my parents tell me I have to dress nicely. Like, for men it’s just “wear pants and a button down”, but for me, it’s, “you need good shoes, not heels, a dress, etc. etc.”

Does your race ever intersect with your gender?

“I know within the LGBT+ community, there’s a default focus on white people. If you’re trying to learn about nonbinary people or try to find photos of people presenting androgynously, it’s 90% white people. It does impact me in the sense that I think “if I’m already black, Indian, and female –assumedly — do I really wanna make people think I’m more extra by saying I don’t identify in the binary? And there’s also thought of which issue do I focus on? There’s sexism, racism, and classism with me so I never know which one to devote my time to.”

Does your femininity intersect with your mental illness and Aspergers?

“I know that girls are much less frequently diagnosed with autism and Aspergers, or less recognized. For a long time, it was considered to be a male-only disease. There’s also the idea that women are supposed to be social and friendly and having Aspergers, I’m not too good at that which makes things really hard. If you’re applying for a job or something, there’s the expectation of how you should act and I’m even less likely to do that, so I’m less likely to be considered for the job.”

Interview #3: Name: Rachel Dietz. Occupation: Student

How do you feel when people call you a woman?

“When someone calls me a woman, two different feelings pop up. One being strong, independent, that I partially represent a whole group of people, and two being that I have to be delicate and pretty, as that’s what society expects from me.”


Building off of the societal expectations, do you think toxic femininity is real?

“Yeah. I definitely see it when women will tear each other down and gossip about each other because that’s what we’re told we do.”

How do you feel about the phrase “I’m not like other girls”?

“My younger self used that a lot because I wanted to seem cool. I hate it because it throws other women under the bus. Everyone has the right to act however they want as long as it doesn’t offend other people.”

What struggles do you face as a woman?

“People assume men are stronger than me or know more about the outdoors, which is offensive to me, and it can be very annoying if I’m in a group of mixed genders and people are assigning jobs and a man will automatically take the leadership role that they aren’t best fit for. I’m very athletic, I do a lot of hiking, biking, and play soccer, and it’s harder to get into that stuff because the atmosphere is very male-dominated and feels very judgemental.”


Has your gender identity ever had an impact on your passion for music?

“I play three different instruments. The first I played was the piano because my mom wanted me to play it because she viewed it as more elegant and ladylike. I wanted to play guitar because when I was younger I saw it as a cooler, harder instrument. I ended up playing cello in fifth grade when most of the other girls played violin or viola and I think it was because I wanted to be different.”


Interview #4. Name: Ashley Jones. Occupation: Student

What does it mean to you to be a woman?

“Being a woman is very powerful to me. We’re different people if that makes sense — we’re kind of magical. We’ve overcome a lot for sure. We got the right to vote when it was really hard. Some of us can literally create life, which I think is really amazing.”

How does femininity positively or negatively manifest itself in you?

“I feel like if I wanna look nice one day, like wear makeup, people always comment on it, ask who I’m doing it for, and for me, it’s just because I want to, so that’s definitely negative.”


Do you think toxic femininity is real?

“I think it is because women are supposed to take care of the kids and clean the house and look good, but sometimes we need a break. Not all girls wanna dress feminine. Girls are held to a certain standard and if you break it, you’re seen as not a real woman.”

What struggles do you face as a woman?

“Keeping up with the status quo and standards.”

How does that intersect with being black?

“I’m not looked down upon, but I’m not seen as the superior woman in the world. I feel like white women are seen as a higher status and they get more respect from men and other women. We have to work a lot harder to be recognized.”

Interview #5: Name: Claire Dietz. Occupation: Student

How does femininity manifest itself in you?

“There’s pride in being female, for me. There’s a sort of comradery with other women.”

Do you think toxic femininity is real?

“Yeah. I think it’s real in the way that girls are pressured into loving pink, wearing dresses, having long hair, and always being saved by the man. There’s also the fact that those things are seen as feminine and therefore weak, so some women will reject them simply to be seen as strong, which is definitely toxic. Especially if they like those things.”

What struggles do you face as a woman?

“I get perceived as really materialistic as well. People think all I care about is having a boyfriend, that I can’t have a guy as strictly a friend, that everything I read is about romance, and I can’t be an intellectual.”


What are the positive and negative things about being a female dancer?

“Dancing is very stereotypically female. It’s the first thing little girls are put into, whether they want to be or not; I know I felt a lot of pressure to dance growing up. The costumes are either innocent in a way, or really sexual, there isn’t an in between. Sometimes they’re both which is really disturbing. There are costumes for eight year-olds that are basically bras. It’s also really hard to find guy dancers. I’ve met maybe four boys in the eight years I’ve danced because there’s a stigma around men in dance. None were in ballet or lyrical, they were all in tap because that’s the only one that was considered tolerable for them.”

The costumes are either innocent in a way, or really sexual, there isn’t an in between. Sometimes they’re both which is really disturbing. There are costumes for eight-year-olds that are basically bras. It’s also really hard to find guy dancers. I’ve met maybe four boys in the eight years I’ve danced because there’s a stigma around men in dance. None were in ballet or lyrical, they were all in tap because that’s the only one that was considered tolerable for them.”


In the end, women all have different experiences and stories to share; there are a lot of different things that make up being a woman. It’s important to remember that femininity isn’t a bad thing, and it’s time we stop seeing it as such.

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Celia Lipton

Poet, musician, LGBT+, dog enthusiast, among other things

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