A Vaguely Female Type Thing


Allison Torneros


For quite a long time in my early twenties, I refused to identify as female and wouldn’t allow people to refer to me as female, or as a woman, girl, lady, whatever. Recently, for some unknown reason (perhaps because I’ve been reflecting on related topics of late), this fact came back to me.

It’s not to say I thought I  wasn’t female, or that I thought I was anything else. I was, I insisted, a ‘vaguely female-type-thing’. I’m still not entirely sure what this was an expression of; it certainly wasn’t an outright rejection of the female gender itself. Perhaps it was more a reflection of my confusion about what being female really meant, what the expectations and conventions were and whether I agreed with what I found to be held as true by others. More particularly, it may have been connected to how that was perceived by others in relation to  me, and especially those close to me at the time. It may also have been linked to aspects of sexuality; it certainly emerged at the time of a particularly…let’s say ‘problematic’, relationship with someone whose own sexuality I’m still not sure of. (I’ve no idea if he is either.)

Given that it was a time when I was still pretty aggressive and obnoxious, I’m sure most people thought I was either taking the piss or trying to provoke an argument (again). But in reality it was quite a sincere statement about an undefined uncertainty. This was probably located in confusion about what I wanted as well as what it was okay for me to want, specifically as a female. This was most likely in relation to life goals generally; career, relationships etc. By this time my idea of what I might want to consider as a career was gaining some clarity (the ‘how’ being slightly less straight forward), whilst my experience of intimate relationships was deteriorating, and I was finding interesting ways to distract myself from the latter. So my sense of identity was a little out of kilter.

Growing up, I gained an overwhelming belief that I should not accept any limitations placed on me by dint of my gender and that I could and should  be anything I wanted to be. In more recent years, as with many other aspects of my upbringing, I realise that what I received were, in fact, mixed messages. The conflicting aspect of these messages came from two different sources. Firstly, my parents have very different aspirations for my sister and me. Primarily, my Mum wants us to be happy; over and above anything else she wants us to be ourselves and to be happy, regardless of how or why. Of course my Dad wants our happiness too, but he sees the route to this as being categorically prescribed through convention and achievement; good education, stable relationship, respectable career, stick to the rules, plan everything, and avoid anything risky, unusual or potentially painful.

Secondly, the way I see it, there was a discrepancy between some of what my Dad articulated and some of the messages he gave off subconsciously, that we picked up by osmosis. Looking back there were many inconsistencies. In particular, I grew up understanding it was important to be informed and have an opinion (and most importantly, to be right), but mostly I felt painfully, knot-inducingly unheard.

My Dad assesses many important (and unimportant) things on the basis of the skill and effort that has gone into them and the level of the achievement that is gained by this. Whilst moderately liberal in some ways, he holds onto some quite traditional views, which although he doesn’t mean them to be, are sometimes expressed indirectly in ways which give quite judgmental, limiting and prescriptive messages. For me these frequently have the effect of inducing somewhat self-flagellating episodes of self-criticism, self-doubt and a reluctance to make decisions based on my own inclinations and desires. The further effects of this in the past have included an inability to discern what it was I actually wanted at all. Of course there have been many other factors at play in these situations, but this backdrop certainly hasn’t helped. These conflicting notions formed a powerful contradiction within me which I’ve only perceived and explored more recently, but which was partly expressed, I think, through the ambiguity in that chosen label in my twenties.

Well over 10 years later I’m still pretty confused about what it means to be female, the difference now being that I believe I’m in good company on that score, and that I’m equally confused about what it means to be a human being. So the gendered aspect of my overall perplexity is somewhat diminished, though it’s still significant for me. The other difference is that I generally tend to feel a bit more okay about my various confusions and am usually able to take them as the signal of the starting point for a journey rather than as an indication of failure, or as a barrier to some unknown goal, the genesis of resentment and anger.

So how can we take these journeys? It seems to me that the more opportunities and routes of expression we have for the various aspects of ourselves – aspiration, inclination, sexuality, gender, all of our passions – the better. For me, risk taking is an essential part of this…it’s a cliché that keeping on doing the same things will only get you the same result, but it is nonetheless true. This presents me with a challenge in terms of my inner contradictions. My nature is that of a risk taker, but I was raised by a powerfully risk averse figure who formed my learned behaviour, and that is hard to break out of. I also love and care deeply about him, and do not want to cause him disappointment or heart ache. Perhaps secret subversion is the key? It certainly has been at times, but I don’t think that’s healthy for positive self-image or identity either. So honesty and bravery are perhaps a better course. Those have certainly featured at times too, and continue to be a work in progress. This phrase has become somewhat of a mantra in recent months and years. Maybe a carefully plotted line between the two, occasionally straying a little wider than intended in one direction or the other as life’s messiness intervenes?

In the end, a significant factor in my moving beyond being a Vaguely-Female-Type-Thing, whilst still in my twenties, was the transition to a much happier and sexually healthier relationship which accompanied another transition into a more stable and assured self-identity. This continues to be a work in progress, and has not been a linear process, not least of which because that relationship ended a long time ago. What it showed me, however, is what it is possible to hope for. Hope and possibility are so important for human existence; we can only survive and grow if we insist on seeing them, even (or especially) in our darkest moments. In the presence of hope and possibility, we never stop looking for the opportunities to take a risk, or for the routes to connection and expression. That Vaguely-Female-Type-Thing does visit occasionally still, but I understand enough of what she tells me to find a path and start walking.


 (Art: Allison Torneros)

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