Leah Berkenwald shares how the “Straightest Girl in the World” learned to stop worrying about gender and love real men with feelings and fashion-sense.
Growing up in Northampton, Mass., a liberal oasis of lesbian and queer culture, I grew up assuming it was likely, if not probable that I’d turn out to be gay. But as it happened, I was straight. I love men, masculinity, machismo, and body hair. I am charmed by swagger and temporarily paralyzed by a rippling deltoid. I salivate at each stray whiff of spicy-sweet cologne. My teenage bedroom sported a framed photograph of shirtless Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden in Fight Club. There was nothing I could do about it. I was simply born this way—the straightest girl in the world.
At the tail end of high school, I entered my first serious relationship with a popular, good-looking boy. Jack was very masculine. He was into hard rock and driving fast. Jack played violent computer games and liked to lead me by the hand when we walked together. He wore a black trench coat with combat boots. Our conversations often ended with a patronizing pat on my head and the words, “Silly girl.”
Even though I never truly agreed that having different political opinions made me a “silly girl,” I bought into the traditional gender dynamic we had going. I was the emotional one, the irrational one. He was the one who always wanted sex, and he was the one who decided what movie we were going to see. He dictated the terms of our relationship while I wrote bad poetry about it.
It may sound like a bad relationship, but I loved it. I enjoyed being the “silly girl.” There was something exciting and attractive about being his arm candy. It felt comfortable to let him make the decisions. Instead of considering my own sexual desires, I assumed I didn’t really have any, and basked in the awareness that he wanted me. I was, truly, the straightest girl in the world.
After high school, my Mr. Masculine shipped off to a military academy to learn how to play his war-based computer games in real life. I went on my own—traditionally feminine—route to a liberal arts college not too far from home. It was there that I met Travis.
I found certain things about Travis incredibly sexy. Not surprisingly, these were stereotypically masculine things. He was obsessed with nice cars. He liked to fix things around the house. He was so good with computers that at age 21 he was already employed by a major computer corporation. But as Travis and I got closer, I began to notice his more feminine attributes, things that confused me, and occasionally repulsed me. They were aberrant traits, flaws in his masculinity.
Travis didn’t just wear designer clothes, he considered fashion an interest on par with his love of fast cars. He put more effort into gelling his hair than I did into my entire hygiene-hair-makeup routine. Travis was very emotional; I saw him cry on many occasions. (I had only seen Jack cry once, the day we broke up.) However, what bothered me the most was the way Travis ran with his knees out in front of him and his arms bouncing, outstretched at either side. While other men ran with a tight, powerful gait, Travis flounced.
It was during my time with Travis that I began counting. Travis earned one point for moving heavy furniture into my apartment, but lost two popping his collar. He earned one for setting up my Wi-Fi, but lost one for calling his sunglasses an “accessory.” The fact that he always drove and paid when we went out earned him three or four points but those were cancelled out by the fact that he usually wanted to pick out my outfit. After a while I lost count, but knew one thing for sure: Travis was not, by definition, masculine.
Well, if Travis was not masculine, what was I, the straightest girl in the world, doing dating him?
So, You’re Dating a Metrosexual…
When I started dating Travis, the term “metrosexual” was hot, hot, hot. The trend-piece writers bubbled with excitement as it told us how lucky we were to be living in the moment when straight men were finally dressing well and using “product” in their hair, just like we always secretly hoped they would.
But did we all secretly hope that men would take an interest in fashion? It seems more likely that the fashion industry secretly hoped men would take an interest in fashion, not the women like myself who worshiped masculinity, in its most pure, rugged form.
“So,” I told myself. “So you’re dating a metrosexual.”
At first, still enchanted by the tight jeans and hair gel, I felt like a pioneer. I was a woman dating a “New Man.” I considered myself an open-minded person. I took one undergraduate course in gender and sexuality; I knew that gender was fluid. Why should it matter how masculine your partner is if you like him? But after a couple months of adding points for bravado and subtracting for his account at Banana Republic, I realized that it did matter. At least a little. It bothered me that people assumed my boyfriend was gay.
Another two years of dating introduced me to more guys on both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. I met Dan, the ballet dancer/football player who enjoyed watching sports and cross-dressing. I dated Frank, who worked in construction and drove a Jeep, but still asked me if his hair looked all right. I met Nick, who asked to be held but refused to talk about his feelings. After a while, I came to realize that there was some degree of femininity in all men, but I didn’t like it.
Later, when I fell head over heels for a guy named Steve, I found myself subtracting points when he, like all the others, exhibited feminine traits. Like Travis, Steve was into fashion. This time it was studded belts instead of Banana sweaters, and ironic T-shirts instead of designer jeans, but the principle was the same. My suspicions were validated on that embarrassing day when Steve met my family for the first time. He showed up wearing his skinny jeans, tight T-shirt, and a bandana tied in a peculiar fashion around his neck. Minus five. When my not-usually-so-insensitive brother told me that Steve “looked gay” after the game, I felt ashamed. On top of that, I felt ashamed for feeling ashamed. Right there, drowning in that pool of shame, I concluded that I, the straightest girl in the world, was dating a metrosexual, again.
I was wrong. Steve wasn’t a metrosexual; he was a hipster. It was 2007 and hipsterdom was just blossoming in the uber-hip neighborhoods of New York and San Francisco. If the “metrosexual” was a guy who embraced his feminine side, the “hipster” was a guy who wasn’t fussed about traditional expectations of gender. After I moved to Boston in 2009 and started hanging out in the hipster neighborhood of Allston Village where I saw more and more of my peers sporting skinny jeans, hoodies, and unisex hairstyles, gender roles began to feel less important.
Over the next four years, I realized that rugged, angular bodies, machismo and facial hair—the masculine qualities I found so attractive—could still be found in men who were emotional and cared about their appearance. And as I began to date men who were open about their feelings and who were not embarrassed or concerned with “looking gay,” a subtle shift began to take place in me. Somewhere down the line, I stopped counting. Feminine traits no longer felt like flaws. I also began to notice some of the “masculine” traits I so loved in my female friends, and even in myself.
It’s probably not a coincidence that during that time I became a card-carrying Feminist. I learned an awful lot about gender and sexuality and the quirky ways they intersect. I began to question and reevaluate my understanding of certain traits as masculine or feminine. Why is personal expression through clothing or hair considered feminine when tailors and barbers have provided artful services to men for centuries? Why is strength of will considered masculine when women have demonstrated immeasurable determination throughout history?
As my rigid perceptions began to relax, I noticed that that sexy, macho dude-swagger comes in all shapes and sizes and it can still exist no matter how often a man cries. Once I was able to strip away my social conditioning, I realized that I actually prefer my men short, sensitive, and adorable. This discovery has been liberating, but unfortunately that doesn’t always mean it’s easy to date the guys society has deemed not-quite-masculine-enough.
Somehow, for reasons I recognize as ridiculously stupid, I worry that dating a man who appears not-quite-masculine-enough will reflect poorly on my own gender identity as a feminine woman. Because if one partner is feminine, the other must be masculine to compensate, right? And, of course, because being a woman with masculine traits is just as bad as being a man with feminine traits, right? Ugh.
I throw up in my mouth a little when I think about the heteronormative, gender-binaried drivel that formed the basis of my understanding of boy-girl dating for so long. I hate that it still catches me from time to time when I’m feeling insecure.
What I (the girl formerly known as the straightest girl in the world) have learned is that to truly love men is to love the whole man—both the masculine and feminine traits that mix and overlap and conflict and co-exist in that complex way that makes each of us who we are. It also means learning to love the masculine parts of my self. And, most importantly, I have learned that “straight” is a word fraught with assumptions and stereotypes; it keeps us in neatly-labeled boy/girl boxes that are much, much too small for our whole, beautiful selves.