People love to stare at gender non-conforming people. Like I’m a puzzle to figure out. Like the longer they gaze, the more about myself will be revealed to them. Like it’s my responsibility to reveal myself to them. I wonder how Medusa felt as she walked through the world, with the core of her femininity twisted into something that undid the beauty others saw in her. A woman who caught everyone’s eyes, but who everyone feared their eyes would meet.
A woman’s beauty has always seemed to fit into a much smaller box than it should. ‘Woman’ has always been synonymous with feminine, and feminine synonymous with beauty. The more beautiful you want to be, the more feminine you must be and the more woman you will become.
This is at least what my childhood self believed. A little girl who let the term ‘tomboy’ sit in her mouth with a sour taste. It was fine to describe me at the time but left no room to grow. Grown women aren’t tomboys — it’s a term adults give to little girls to explain away their behavior, to convince themselves (and others) that masculinity is something little girls will grow out of.
But like the tight fabric of the dresses that I pulled and stretched at, I outgrew the term ‘tomboy’ and was left with nowhere to go.
I was a teenager the first time I even heard the word ‘butch,’ and there would be many more years before I could untie the knots of shame and stigma that had coiled around the word.
The term ‘butch’ emerged in the 1930s, an abbreviation of the American term “butcher,” slang for tough or aggressive women. By the 1950s, it was a term quintessential to lesbian culture. But even today, it’s a word people still fear is wrong or offensive. I hear people say “she’s masc” far more than ever letting themselves say “she’s super butch.” Perhaps it’s the link to Queerness that we fear to brand women with.
Butch love and butch beauty lives in the anonymous. The idea that a masculine, man-hating lesbian with short hair and no makeup is an offensive stereotype means butches are never seen in any media. And yet, because the hate toward masculine women runs so deep, you don’t necessarily see us in real life either. Though there is a perception that butchness lives at the centre of Queer women’s expression, we find ourselves shifted to the outskirts instead.
When I sit in a space surrounded by women, I think of Medusa sitting in a hair salon. She walks in through the woman-shaped door, her snakes catching on the frame. In a room of mirrors, it becomes a game of looking at her without being caught. Heads may turn but eyes will avoid her gaze, leaving her alone in the space outside normalcy.
Walking into the hair salon is a declaration of oneself; asserting that you are here just like everyone else, to partake in a ritual steeped in femininity. Letting another woman take care of your hair puts your femininity in a vulnerable place, open for all to see. A dozen mirrors reflect the two of you together, taking care of each other the way women do. As hands touch hair, connection becomes easier. Words spill out as easily as locks of hair fall to the ground.
Medusa struggles to let someone hold her femininity in their hands. She fears opening herself up, showing the most sacred part of herself to a room that sees her snakes as a poor excuse for what a woman is supposed to have.
My snakes can make others uneasy, questioning if I belong with them. Walking into a hair salon, a women’s bathroom or any space where others are expecting a woman can leave me feeling like I’ve done something wrong. The thing that connects me to other women doesn’t look like everyone else’s.
So what makes me feel beautiful?
It feels beautiful to be seen and understood as a woman who’s not “trying to be a man.” In fact, I’m trying so hard to be a woman. I’m trying desperately to feel like I belong in this hair salon, but something about squeezing through the door and tapping my feet in the waiting area makes me feel like a guest in my own body. For someone to look at me and see my butchness is at the centre of my womanhood lets me relax into the body I love so deeply.
It feels beautiful to stand on the shoulders of all the gender non-conforming people who have come before me, who have lived beautiful lives and given their full hearts to their community. Just knowing that I might one day be the person that a little tomboy looks up to fills my heart with all the reassurance I need.
It feels beautiful to see another butch and let them see me. For butches to see each other is to see into each other, to understand each other, to bare souls. To be surrounded by the people who I find beautiful and who see me as beautiful in return. The people who let Medusa rest her head on their shoulders, who don’t fear how she looks because they have a head of snakes of their own. The people who look her in the eye without fear, and say you look beautiful.
This article is a part of The Ubyssey's 2023 creative non-fiction supplement, beauty.