I have only seen my father, Nikki, in a suit twice in my life, once at my sister’s wedding and once at my own. It’s strange to see her wear it – my father came out as transgender in her 60s. She is usually dressed in pretty floral tops and slacks, and always has on a blonde wig and a full face of makeup. Her fingernails are often painted a pale pink and she has an enviable collection of jewellery. At Sam’s birthday a few months ago the magician we’d hired asked how Nikki was related to the family. I stepped forward and introduced her as my “parent”, the best way I’ve found to acknowledge my father while respecting her gender identity. Without hesitation, the magician said, “Good to meet you, love.”
It was confronting and painful to watch Nikki come out and then go through a kind of adolescence in her sixties. She wore tight red PVC dresses and long platinum blonde wigs. She put photos of herself online posed provocatively in lacy underwear. I understand that many trans people who come out later in life have a second adolescence like this to explore their gender identity, and I don’t begrudge that to anyone. To see how the way they feel on the inside can be expressed on the outside. To find the edges of themselves.
I ask Nikki about when she first knew she was trans. “I was about eight years old and I liked putting on my mum’s fur coat,” she says. She tells me she would also read her mother’s magazines which “were full of lovely-looking 1950s women”. My father grew up in Ravensbourne in the 1950s, which is now a lower-decile suburb in Ōtepoti. Her own father was a butcher, and her mother an elegant woman who ruled their household. My father didn’t yet know what being transgender was. She didn’t know how she was different.
When I ask Nikki about why it took her so long to come out, she says, “The main things in my life back then were the pressures on me to do well at school from my mum. My dad, although a lovely kind person who worked hard to support us, was not the role model my mum wanted for me. I suppose what I am trying to say is that often your identity is subsumed under other pressures. I think that has been the pattern in my life.”
During my recovery I watched the Netflix special Nanette by comedian Hannah Gadsby, which is a deeply funny, political and heart-breaking account of Gadsby’s experience of being ‘not normal’. As a woman and lesbian who lives in a larger body and has a traditional masculine appearance, Gadsby reports that people often see her as being ‘incorrectly female’, and that she is persecuted for her otherness. With unflinching directness, Gadsby talks of being beaten by a man because she was a ‘lady faggot’, of being sexually abused as a child, and of being raped by two men in her twenties. And worse than these assaults? The shame and self-hatred she carries.
Nikki and I last argued about womanhood when she proudly showed me an airbrushed photo of herself. We were in my parents’ study in their house in Ōtautahi, which is also the house I grew up in. I’d flown down for work and was staying the night with my parents. She handed me a colour printout of the photo and the blonde ingénue staring back at me looked to be in her early twenties. She had smooth skin and strawberry lips, her face cheeky and inviting. I was marking my students’ creative writing assignments at the time, my hair dragged back in a ponytail, wearing a baggy t-shirt and track pants. “Stop buying into this beauty bullshit,” I said, suddenly angry. I pointed to my greasy-haired, no-makeup appearance. “Am I less of a woman?” I asked. Dad looked crestfallen. “But you’re always beautiful,” she said.
Arguing with my father that day, I felt possessive of womanhood. I felt she was getting it all wrong. But Nikki never got the chance to live as a woman in her 20s – to party and wear short dresses and sleep with strangers as I did, or to express her youth in other ways. To feel erotic and feminine and powerful. She never had the chance to learn that feeling desired and valuable can come from other parts of ourselves; that those feelings have nothing to do with how we look, even though we are told otherwise. At age thirty Dad was still searching the local library to find out who she was.
Late one evening, a few weeks after surgery, I finally understood that my uterus was gone. A huge wave of panic swelled in my stomach as I realised I couldn’t get it back. Where was it? Was it in some biological waste disposal unit? I imagined my uterus scrabbling at the sides of a plastic bin in the dark.
The next day, at my request, the gynaecologist sent me a picture of my uterus taken by the technician who did the biopsy. I clicked on the email attachment and the image filled my screen. An organ against a tan background. In the photo my uterus looks like it’s dancing: blueish fallopian tubes undulate from the reddish mass of the womb. Even though the image was taken from above, my uterus appears as though it’s standing, balanced on the thick white plug of my cervix. I immediately loved this strange and beautiful animal. Even though it’s gone, it will always be part of the first forty years of my womanhood, and I’m grateful that for a time it was inside me.
That afternoon I send an email to update my father on my recovery. The subject line: “Today we are both women without a uterus”.
This book is a conversation with myself about my own womanhood. Because, in the end, I lied to my gynaecologist when I told him I knew what made up my womanhood. Until I had a hysterectomy I had not seriously thought about what womanhood meant. I couldn’t answer the question, ‘What is my womanhood?’ without leaning on cisgender biological descriptions or framing womanhood in opposition to maleness. I felt like all my answers were the hollow recitations of what I had been taught and told. I knew my womanhood was warm and life-giving, but like sunlight cutting shapes across a wall, I could not reach out my hand and grasp it.
To write this book I pulled on the thread of my womanhood to see how it unravelled. And how quickly it did. The act of looking showed me the stitches: Western society’s beauty standards, the male gaze, a fear of ageing, hair politics, care work, my grandmother, life stage transitions, orca whales and tramping. All the people whose works I explored – Darcey Steinke, Alok Vaid-Menon, Megan Jayne Crabbe, Maggie Nelson, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Judith Butler, Barbara Brookes, Natalie Wynn, Ani Mikaere, Atul Gawande and many more – offered up ideas about gender, ageing and society in a way that opened a door to the next idea. I kept on walking through those doors. The result is what I am calling my ‘coming-of-middle-age’ story. I have tried to understand which parts of womanhood are mine, which have been given to me, and out of the two, which I want to keep.
The goal of this book is to help other women, in some small way, think about their own womanhood, and beyond the offer of my own experience, anyone should be able to read through my reference list if they want.
Because the book is written as an unpicking of my womanhood, it has a particular focus on what it means to be middle-aged. I couldn’t have written this book before now because as a younger woman I was in thrall to society’s ideal womanhood. I wanted nothing more than to be that perfect woman, because being perfect meant being safe. And as a conventionally attractive, educated, Pākehā woman I could often get close to (and benefit from) that ideal. I was one of the ‘good’ ones and was praised for how dedicated I was in my self-devastation. Like many women in emotionally abusive relationships, I protected and defended my abuser.
My failure to meet society’s ideal womanhood has brought me here. Since entering my forties I have become fatter, dimplier and more wrinkled. I have greying hair and thicker arms. My face has relaxed; time has shaped my features. I can no longer reproduce because I have no uterus. I would also like to think that I am better at being myself. This natural and normal ageing process has made me increasingly invisible and irrelevant in societal terms, and I expect that to continue. But entering middle age has given me a clearer understanding of gender norms. It let me see how much of my self-worth and identity were wedded to being that hungry and quiet young woman. Failure was my salvation, because it made me work to see the mechanics of my womanhood. In seeing, choice became possible.
This book is also the work and product of a particular zeitgeist, that of the first decades of the twenty-first century and the necessary earthquakes of the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, LGBTQIA+ rights, and intersectional and trans-inclusive feminism. I’m not an expert in any of these topics – I am simply a person trying to understand what it is to live well in these places. There are no lack of experts though, and I hope this book honours their voices. I hope that it will start conversations for women, both in the gentle room of ourselves and with each other.
Taken from the memoir published today, Notes on Womanhood by Sarah Jane Barnett (Otago University Press, $30), available in bookstores nationwide.