Same Outfit, Different Appearance
Earlier in this series on Gender Identity, I wrote: “For quite some time, people couldn’t tell if I was a boy or a girl, and now, even on days when I’m wearing the exact same clothes that I was then, no one questions that I’m a woman. How did I get here from there?”* I would like to explore that phenomenon a bit in this post. Why is it that I can wear the exact same clothes I that I had worn years ago, and yet there are no longer any questions about my gender?
Of course there are some easy cues – my hair is longer, and I wear earrings. However, from some angles you can’t tell what the length of my hair is, as I’m often wearing a hat with a ponytail. And usually my earrings are small and not noticeable. Even from a distance, people can consistently tell that I’m a woman although I might be wearing hiking clothes or some other tomboyish outfit. I suspect that this is due to a factor that is hard to describe in one word. I think it’s because I carry a different air or atmosphere – an attitude or mindset – about me that goes deeper than perfume.
The way that I used to carry myself – my posture, eye contact (or the lack thereof), mannerisms, conversation (tone of voice along with my choice of words), was not welcoming to men. I was guarded, wary, and easily triggered. Often, I was a living image of the Heisman Trophy – one arm extended, the other carefully cradling the football. At the same time, I would wonder why men were not asking me out, or taking the time to get to know me better. Well, who would want to crawl over and through all that barbed wire, landmines, moats and traps? It takes courage to ask someone out, and I had put up many layers that were getting in the way.
I thought I was brave, yet in reality I was fearful. I didn’t want to take risks, I wanted guarantees. I assumed that the “right guy” would be the one to prove he could see through my defenses and find the real me. It took a long time for me to see that my defenses were over-the-top, and that I could trust the Lord to be my Shield, my Shepard – He would have my back. When I leaned more on Jesus and became more open, (which took years), it made a great difference.
Approachability is not the same as attractiveness. One can be approachable, yet not attractive. And one can be quite attractive, yet not approachable.
Karl Bonhoeffer, the father of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once described first meeting Paula von Hase at at meeting at the house of physicist Oscar Meyer:
“There I met a young, fair, blue-eyed girl whose bearing was so free and natural, and whose expression was so open and confident, that as soon as she entered the room she took me captive. This moment when I first laid eyes upon my future wife remains in my memory with an almost mystical force.”
~ Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
In reading this, there is very little description of Paula von Hase’s appearance – we read that she was “fair” with “blue eyes.” I’m pretty sure that would accurately describe a good number of women across Germany. Yet we do get a good impression of how approachable Paula von Hase was to Karl Bonhoeffer – her “bearing” and “expression” were captivating. She was “free and natural…open and confident.” Much different than the closed and cautious air I was exhibiting for many years.
[As an aside: Karl Bonhoeffer’s reaction also reminds me of what Alice Von Hildebrand said about what the response of a man to a woman and vice verse is:
“…the proper response of a man to a woman is enchantment, and that of a woman, ‘when seeing a man worthy of being called a man’ is admiration.”
(See the last post on this blog: https://sswh.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/inside-the-outside/) His first impression lasted through many trials. Their marriage by all accounts was happy and lasted through WWII and the loss of several children and other family members who fought against the Nazi regime.]
On the flip side, someone can be quite attractive and yet be intimidating or carry a cold shoulder. Google, “intimidating” and choose images. You’ll see a good variety of examples – I found it telling that what came up in this search were mostly faces rather than animals or objects.
I think that approachableness is a combination of several things – I’d like to focus on two that I’ve not already covered in other posts on this blog: Actions and Mindset.
Sometimes subtle, sometimes not – I liked the definition of the term, “bearing” that Karl Bonhoeffer used in the quote above. This is from the Apple dictionary:
1 [ in sing. ] a person’s way of standing or moving: a man of precise military bearing.
• the way one behaves or conducts oneself: she has the bearing of a First Lady.
For me, it was easy to read my posture as a huge “back away” billboard, as I used how I moved and rested to physically create space for myself and to put men in particular off. Again, some of this was comical, as during this time I was close to 100 lbs. and under 5 and a half feet tall. At one single’s group, I would carry a book bag with my Bible and note pad in it. I choose a folding chair early and grabbed the one next to it to set in front of me, using it as a desk for my Bible. My feet would rest on the legs of the chair in front, and I was “dug in” to listen and learn. Very attentive, but not very inviting for anyone else to sit next to me and start a conversation.
Think about how you might set yourself up with a book and/or headphones or a pillow and blanket on a plane for a long flight when you hoped to get some quiet rest. That was me in almost any social situation. Looking back now, I realize that I would accessorize for disassociation, distance, and defense. At the time I wasn’t conscious about it.
After starting to put the pieces together, one day I prayed that one of the men in the singles group would sit down next to me. I used a tote bag instead of the backpack, and didn’t spin a seat around to use as a desk. I took time to chat with people in the group, and then simply sat down. I remember feeling rather vulnerable, as silly as that may seem. Within a minute, though, one of the guys in the group – actually the tallest and one of the nicest fellows there – strode across the room and said out loud for all to hear, “Well, I’m going to sit down here next to Dee!” He said it in a tone that implied that everyone else was giving him the cold shoulder, and he felt that the only welcoming place in the room was there next to me.
It was as though the Lord was going out of His way to make sure that I understood that He had heard and was answering my prayer. (And that cracked me up.) My billboard that had read “go way” had turned completely around into, “Howdy! Why not stop and sit a spell?” That was a turn for the better!
Even with an attractive appearance and welcoming posture, one can easily exhibit a closed off mindset. My conversation usually revealed a tendency to shut down around men, while being open towards women. I would use harsh, cutting jokes to insult men, and used sarcasm as an offensive and defensive weapon. Again, I was frustrated for years that none of the men around me were making an effort to take the time to get to know the real me. I now see that I had set up terrible obstacles for them to maneuver before they could have a chance to be my friend. It was not fair, and unrealistic to expect of any man.
During a counseling session on this topic, I was challenged to look for opportunities to compliment the men around me. Any man – not just the fellows I was hoping to get to know better in my singles group. I had become so tuned out to men that it was hard! I had never thought of this before, and I’m sorry to say that my mind drew a blank at first. It was a huge blind spot in my life, and obviously needed quite a bit of work.
Fortunately I worked in a field with plenty of opportunities to encourage people. In my sessions with male clients, instead of going for a sarcastic one-liner, I would look for ways to sincerely compliment whatever aspect of the fellow’s character that stood out as they worked to meet their goals. I still kept my ironic sense of humor, which many men would warm up to, but I made an effort to look at the men differently, and to think deeper about what it was that I admired in them. Some were concerned about being able to provide for their families, or how to spend quality time playing with their kids who were too young to understand their injuries. Some showed tremendous resiliency after being in accidents that completely turned the course of their lives around. Some were standing up for injustices in the community around them, others cared for their wives with a deep, sacrificial love that I didn’t know could exist outside of a Nicholas Sparks novel.
And the Lord gently and lavishly encouraged me along the way.
Be more attractive!
Well-meaning women often gave me shallow advice, at times in an attempt to make themselves more comfortable by associating with people who looked and acted just like them. I would hear things like: “Make an effort – try some makeup – put on a dress – wear some perfume” etc. But those suggestions were like telling someone with anorexia to eat more – not hitting the mark by a long shot.
Over the years I learned more about the deeper changes that truly make one more attractive – how to create an open and welcoming space around myself, and how to drop the chip on my shoulder and instead carry an air that a new acquaintance described as “imaginative” and “fun-loving.” Life is better this way – the energy that used to go into keeping my guard up can now be channeled into listening and learning more about other people.
One day on my way into work after getting my hair cut and styled, I complained to the Lord that I was tired of women always noticing and complimenting a new hairdo, and never hearing a compliment from a guy. So, I asked Him to have a guy notice and say something nice about my hair for a change.
Later that afternoon while working with a fellow, in the middle of his exercise routine he said, “I like your new haircut. My wife wears her hair that way.” Another direct answer to prayer. And not only was he complimenting me, he also complimented his wife, and set what he said in the right context of respecting his relationship with her. It was humbling to see God working so directly.
Years later, the same client came in. He had a surgical procedure done that had caused him to temporarily lose his voice, and came in with his wife, who was a pleasure to meet. They had come through a scary medical situation, and I was very glad to see he was on the mend. As he was working on an exercise machine that I was using to test his endurance, he waved me over. “I like your hair,” he mouthed, and shot me a grin, with his wife smiling beside him. I thanked him and had to turn away quickly as tears came to my eyes. It was such a joy to see how they had been sustained through this tough time, and how the Lord also was reminding me of His sustaining love and care for me. He is the God who hears and answers prayer.
In this series I hope that I’ve been able to shed a bit of light on some of the complex underlying issues that were a part of my own experiences with and expressions of gender identity, and some of the multiple things that came together that made a difference. If you’ve been reading these articles through I hope that you will think about getting to know a person beyond whatever their appearance may be, and then you might have the opportunity to find out what their appearance means to them. Jesus always looks at us from the inside out – getting closer to Him helps me to see people the way He does. Getting closer to Him means spending time with Him in prayer, in worship, in reading His word, and serving others. When we invest in our relationship with Christ, we’ll be much better equipped to invest in living alongside and loving others.