Being a woman in the world

This is the promised second post about being a woman, you can read the first one here. I would like to repeat that I’m not aiming for any grand conclusion: I am simply sharing an odd assortment of stories for my own entertainment and maybe yours. When I’m feeling ambitious, I might hope to contribute to a better, less polarised conversation on the subject, but I don’t claim to be an authority beyond having spent a few decades as a live girl and woman.

Coming of age

Sometimes this blog feels like the couch I lie down on to rave and rant about my childhood. So every once in a while it is worth saying, for the record, that my parents are fantastic parents, they were great when I was a kid and they are still great, and anything I might have done differently is not meant as a statement about my general appreciation for how I was raised.

I mentioned before that the first 16 or so years of my upbringing could only be described as wonderfully “sex-positive”. Sexuality was never an awkward or taboo subject in our house, and my parents answered my questions honestly and with enthusiasm. I knew all about how babies were made and not made, STIs and prevention, and I was looking forward to the time when all this information would become relevant.

However, when that started to happen, my parents’ attitude changed dramatically. My mom apparently believed – though failed to mention up to this point – that in the eyes of men only virgins were eligible for marriage. When it became clear that I wasn’t planning to necessarily save myself for my future husband, she scrambled to make up for this neglected part of my education. At 16 though, I had my own ideas of how the world worked, and my mom’s frenzied attempts to convince me of the advantages of abstinence seemed incongruous with everything I already knew about the subject; so naturally I concluded that my parents’ only goal was to make my life miserable. Unfortunately some of the panic still stuck: later, long after I had made my own choice, I stressed incessantly about whether my ‘number’ was making me unmarriageable. My mom still thinks that Pink is very ‘generous’ to accept me despite the fact that I am overage and damaged goods. Pink’s opinion is ‘huh?’.

When my sister had yet to start seriously dating at the ripe old age of 20, my parents discussed what might ‘wrong’ with her in hushed, concerned voices. There was apparently a very narrow window in which it was considered appropriate for a girl to pick her future husband: somewhere between 18 and 18 and a half. (Of course there is nothing wrong with her. Not that being alright requires being coupled, but she is, to another sweet and ‘generous’ guy.)

My brother, in contrast, was reminded of the risk of unplanned pregnancy and STIs and was advised that a no-questions-asked box of condoms had been placed in the bathroom cabinet. After that, he was left alone to date or not date as he pleased. To be fair, my parents also paid for my contraception once I had come clean to them, and my sister’s.


Surprisingly – and this is probably a function of the time and place I grew up – consent was never a subject of conversation, in my family or in my school sex-ed classes. I knew that attacking a person on the street and forcibly having sex with them was a criminal offense called rape. But, from society’s and my family’s messages, I gleaned that consent for women – which is a totally different issue from consent for men – was supposed to work along these lines:

Withhold consent no matter what, until you establish that your boyfriend is going to marry you. Then agree on a date to do ‘it’ for the first time, and discuss the logistics. After that you’ll always want to have sex at all times, because sex is awesome, and it will always be with this one same person, so consent becomes a non-issue. If for any reason you happened to not feel like it, which won’t ever happen, but if it did, you should do it anyway because that’s how you keep a mate from straying.

When Pink was eight years old, his parents got him a book which explained how babies come about. He found the information disturbing, and ran to his mom crying “I didn’t want to know!” For the next 20 or so years, his primary reaction to the subject was running the other way. But it was he who taught me, well into my 30’s, about all the nuances of consent in a relationship. I had to be given explicit permission repeatedly for every different circumstance in which one might withhold or withdraw consent, before I started to believe that it was really ok.


Recently I have seen a wave of confessions on social media, aimed at raising awareness of how wide-spread sexual harassment of women is. In the wake of the infamous tape of the beloved president of the United States – in which he brags about sexually assaulting women, which clearly happened before he came to respect women more than anyone else – there has been a campaign claiming that almost all women have experienced ‘being grabbed by the pussy’. Unfortunately, I can corroborate this claim. One part of getting older that I much appreciate is having aged out of the target group of such pursuits.

Growing up in a major city, taking public transit to and from school every day, I can’t count on one hand how many times I was groped. I remember the first time quite clearly: I was traveling standing on a crowded streetcar, and I was uncomfortable with how much the man next to me was pressing against my hip. I thought there was something in his pocket. When I tried to move away, he started fondling my butt, at which point I realised what the thing in his pocket was. This happened to be my first interaction with that aspect of male anatomy- an unfortunate introduction I must say.

I was never severely traumatised by these incidents, and while each event was unpleasant, I found some of them strangely flattering. I wish I had not: it was not healthy, but I had very low self esteem as a teenager. Thankfully, in the last decade or so I have been “demoted” from groping to cat-calling, which is still annoying but less intrusive.

Self expression

One advantage of being female is the relative freedom one has to experiment with style and fashion. I have only very recently started developing a halfway decent taste for outfits and looks, since my mother-in-law passed an entire stylish wardrobe on to me. But hey, you don’t have to be good at something to have fun!

At age 12 I used to wear extra-large men’s T-shirts like dresses with a wide rubber band around my waist for a belt. At 13 I loved clothes that were at least three sizes bigger than me; my parents were pleased that they would last longer so they didn’t point out how ridiculous I looked. Around 15 I insisted that everything I wear be black, down to my underwear and socks. My mom indulged me, but she washed all my clothes in hot water, so they would soon turn an unappealing shade of dark gray. I then rediscovered men’s X-Large T-shirts, now worn as shirts. At 18 I experimented with collared shirts and ties, followed by wearing exclusively light blue for about a decade; many of my friends still refer to that colour by my name. As far as society and my immediate circles were concerned, this was all fine, and mostly unremarkable.

Compare Pink, who wants to wear his hair in a bob – when done well it looks lovely on him. Early on he didn’t know what the haircut he wanted was called, so he would go to various hairdressers and ask for hair ‘about this long’. This strategy yielded wild results: one time he ended up with what our friends referred to as ‘The Beatle’, and he was traumatised for months.

At some point it occurred to me that he was after a bob, and I thought I had thereby solved his problem: he would go to a stylist who had experience cutting female hair, ask for a bob, and finally get a cut he likes. Amazingly, it didn’t work at all: being male makes it physically impossible to get people to cut layers in your hair. There is no good reason for this, in my opinion layered cuts are universally flattering on long-haired people of any gender.

Pink now has a well-rehearsed spiel along these lines: “I would like a chin-length bob. I know a bob is a female haircut and I am male, I would still like a bob. Here is a picture of how I like to wear my hair. I would really like layers in it please.” This works about 50% of the time. (One day, when we stop moving, he’ll find a stylist who is willing to do it and stick with them forever after.)


Last time I talked about the professional aspects of working as a female in a male-dominated field; now I’ll only mention one way it has positively affected my personal life.

In high school I was never a popular girl by any stretch. I wasn’t an outcast either: I had a tight-knit group of close friends, and I looked forward to going to school most days. My romantic life, though, consisted mainly of pining after boys who were unavailable, unaware that I existed, or else disliked me. Then I entered a pure math undergraduate program with a one to five gender ratio: the best way to describe the experience is that I felt like I was suddenly coated in honey. One of the boys in my year actually licked me once. (Unsolicited, as a form of greeting. I think he was drunk.) I won’t deny that I enjoyed the attention and the confidence it brought, if not the licking.

It was also convenient to have a generous dating pool of lovely, nerdy guys readily available. Despite the easy access it is still difficult for people in this field to find romantic satisfaction, given the nomadic monk lifestyle that early-career academia requires, and the stress put on relationships by two-body problems. Nonetheless, I’ll venture that it’s easier as a female mathematician interested in men than vice versa, and I’m not alone in having taken advantage: most coupled heterosexual female mathematicians that I know are partnered with mathematicians.

I met Pink when we were both working on our PhDs, and regardless of how my mathematical career worked out, it would have been worth going through graduate school just for getting to know him. This is not a statement about my career, but about how much I benefit from my relationship with Pink. (I know, but no, I did not go to university OR graduate school to find a husband. It was only a spectacular side-effect.)

That’s all I can think of to say about womanhood. Otherwise it’s exactly like being a man, but you most likely get a period once a month. That part is quite a nuisance. But also you might get to – if you so choose – give birth to a brand new human being which is amazing, and doesn’t hurt at all.

Feel free to share random stories of your own, on gender and related issues!

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