Gender Trauma

  • Empowered Womanhood,  Gender,  Gender Trauma

    Breaking the Ice Ceiling

    As we exit Women’s History Month, I wanted to first share an article (linked below) that impacted me greatly when I found it in 2018. At that time I was very hard on myself, pushing myself to be “as good as the guys”, always trying to prove I belonged in male-dominated spaces.

    While I’ve never done anything quite as intense as these ladies’ Antarctic expedition, I resonate with every word from their story. Being a woman in the outdoors is truly a different experience. There is greater weight to your limitations culturally and socially: they can get attributed to your entire gender, reinforcing ideas of being “weaker”. Things are changing now, but as an adolescent climbing the bigger mountains I would count the women we passed, because there were so few of them. I could often count them on just one hand.

    Even still today, when seeing other women on the trail is common, on long-distance backpack trips I usually only see other women for the first four, maybe five days. Anything beyond that and it’s stepping into a man’s world. Male backpackers sometimes comment on how it’s surprising to see me so far from a trailhead. Even today when I backpack solo, people sometimes stop me in disbelief, asking how I’m so brave.

    On one such solo trip, an older man took it upon himself to interrogate me in the parking lot about how much water I was bringing (plenty) and then warned me that I would probably have a difficult time further up the trail in the snow. However, when I got there it was only a small flat patch about 50 feet long, and easy walking. I had been singled out and my competencies grossly underestimated, because of assumptions that were made just by looking at me.

    A stranger hit on me during a life-or-death situation ice climbing a treacherously steep glacier at 10,000 feet altitude. I’ve been taught I should feel flattered by this – because apparently the male gaze determines my worth.

    Sledding down a steep snowy slope with my male best friend, I was having the time of my life – at first. We were chatting and hooting and hollering from a distance with a couple of men who were there adventuring as well. When we walked up closer however, one of the men’s demeanor suddenly changed. After exclaiming “Oh! You’re a girl!” his tone changed to mimic how you might talk to a child and he called me “sweetheart”. Apparently my bulky snow gear and hat had hidden my womanly figure and long hair, allowing normal human interaction between us until my gender was discovered. When my best friend spoke up saying “She’s not your sweetheart”, the man became irate, cursed at us, and marched away over the crest of the hill, friend in tow. The wilderness should be a place where all is natural and in balance as it was intended to be. But for women this is often not the case.

    I’ve heard men I’m close with make hurtful jabs at other women on the trail: “She sure is gutsy to do this alone!” “She’s probably meeting her husband”. “Maybe someday you’ll take up needlepoint instead.” These are actual comments I’ve heard over the years from men who know me well. At a young age it became clear to me the summit could only be reached by breaking through an ice ceiling.

    The way I was received as a woman climber and backpacker taught me to view myself as an anomaly. Women were generally weak and helpless but I was somehow an exception. I was still, of course, a class below the men but allowed to be there nonetheless. It became increasingly difficult to love my womanhood while believing the traits I loved most about myself were manly, and rare happenstance for a woman.

    There is more equal representation in the backcountry now than ever before, thanks to ground-breaking women who have mountaineered before us. But the fact that I’ve witnessed the shift even just in my own lifetime speaks to how a woman’s experience in the outdoors community is unique from that of a man’s. Eliminating the discrimination we face still has a long ways to go. I’m thrilled by the history-making women in this article and by all women everywhere who are unapologetically blazing trails in whatever form that takes for them. Every day we ascend new heights!

    https://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/north-face-2018/in-her-element/1999/

  • Empowered Womanhood,  Gender Trauma,  Religious Trauma,  Spirituality

    Sacred Feminine

    I notice I celebrate my womanhood a little more each year than the year before. I’m becoming more comfortable in my femininity. I’m cherishing the ways I’m “traditionally feminine” but also the ways I just don’t fit in. I’m growing to love my body and accept it. I’m learning sacredness. I’m apologizing less, disagreeing more, and rarely ending my statements in question marks these days. I’m bolder, more opinionated; discovering I was never as nonchalant and indecisive as I was led to believe – rather I was oppressed, suppressed, and cornered into submission. Infrequently now do I spend the energy defending my choices and beliefs. I don’t really give a shit about who I’m “supposed to be” anymore. I am who I am and other people’s reactions have nothing to do with me. It was damn hard getting here, but now that I am, the possibilities seem endless. I feel powerful. I’m grateful for the brave womxn who have gone before me, laboring to carve out the path that I more easily climb up now. I’m proud of women everywhere and I’m proud of myself.”

    I wrote the above paragraph about a year into exploring empowered womanhood after escaping patriarchal evangelicalism. It’s exciting to see the subtle differences in how I talk about my femininity in 2020 versus in 2019 (posted a few days ago – see “Caricatured and Erased”). The tone is direct and fierce. I have less questions and uncertainties. I focus less on the sorrow of oppression and more on the beauty of design. I’m unapologetic about my journey.

    However, in 2020 I still had a long way to go. Much further than I would have expected at the time of writing.

    I had no idea that six months later when my partner expressed an interest in having children it would trigger in me overwhelming panic, and anger toward the church mothers who raised me to believe women were valued only for our ability to serve men and give them children. I didn’t realize how trapped I still felt by institutions that preached self-neglect to women under the guise of “selflessness”. I hadn’t fully grasped how scared I still felt of my own biology – constantly waiting for the day my female body or female mind would turn on me, transforming my into an anxious, subservient puppet – a hollow vessel, a fragile vase.

    I had no way of knowing I would struggle in 2021 with the most intense trauma-induced gender dysphoria I had ever experienced, leading to an official medical diagnosis, or that the dysphoria would make mensuration so triggering that the sight of blood each month would tempt me to end my life.

    I couldn’t have planned for the confusion that would come knowing I didn’t want to be a man, but hated being a woman – so much so, I would feel urges to escape myself even if that might bring me dangerously close to self-harm. I didn’t know how many more days there were ahead of me where I would feel dirty, broken, weak, corrupt, defective… Everything the church wanted me to feel.

    In 2020 I had overcome so much and I’m proud of that version of me. But I wasn’t aware how much self-loathing still lurked deep inside me and how much farther I felt from God’s favor than men were. That is, not until my progressive church at the time explored God’s gender and pronouns. During a visualization exercise, I broke down into tears seeing God as a woman. She looked like me. I was truly made in her image. Woman are powerful and mighty and sacred. Sophia – the biblical name for the Holy Spirit – was here and she was majestic. It was still hard to connect to God as Mother because of all the trauma I had with human mothers. But it was a start.

    After being diagnosed with gender dysphoria in 2021 I embarked on an EMDR therapy journey in early 2022 specifically focused on gender trauma and the mother wound.

    I can’t recommend it highly enough.

    Even my name feels new. I could never connect with the meaning of Sarah as “mother of many nations”. But now I feel empowered as a life bringer whether physically, spiritually or emotionally. I am a portal between the spiritual and physical realms – both spiritually, and physically.

    I still have fears and insecurities around my gender and sometimes I’m unsure of what I want for my life and my future. But things are different – I feel good. Not good in spite of my womanhood, but good because of it.

    I am the sacred feminine. I am the image of God. I posses the gift of divine motherhood in all its forms.

    When I wrote the first paragraph in 2020 I truly felt every word. But now in 2022 there is new depth to the concept of celebrating my femininity that makes my insights then feel shallow in comparison. At that time I couldn’t imagine healing beyond what I had already achieved. I certainly never thought I could get here. In fact, I didn’t know it was even possible to feel this way.

    Will I look back again sometime in the future and see how far I still had to go today, in 2022? Absolutely. But I’m celebrating and honoring each element of the goddess within as I uncover her and lift her up. I am her and she is me – the sacred feminine.

  • Empowered Womanhood,  Gender,  Gender Trauma,  Religious Trauma

    Healing My Ancestors

    I can’t count the times I was told as a child I had an amazing mother. The comments always bothered me, but it wasn’t because I had a terrible mother. My mom really loves her children and gives herself to us. It wouldn’t be until I was in therapy at 30 years old that I would realize it was because these comments always pointed to her being a good mom because of what she did and never who she was.

    People would praise her for making us meals and washing our clothes and setting herself aside. No one said anything about her being passionate or talented, or powerful, brave, wise or confident in herself. It wasn’t that she didn’t have good qualities, its just that as a woman in the evangelical church – no one sees them.

    Growing up, I received a loud message that whether or not a woman is “good” – especially if she has children – is based entirely on what she does and not who she is. No one seems to care about the latter: who a woman sees herself to be doesn’t matter because the most important and all-consuming part of her is being a wife and mother. Rarely did anyone see or know who was beneath the label. I think often the mother herself wasn’t sure, after years of this erasure.

    I grew up watching my mother live in a box and it made me afraid to grow up. My mom was always contained in a box metaphorically and physically, because while the world was my dad’s oyster, the house was her domain.

    I was free to tag along with my dad as long as I was a child, but my freedom came with a ticking time bomb that little boys didn’t have.

    My mom’s life consisted almost entirely of household work – she didn’t have much time to do anything fun. Granted, I’m not sure how much of it was necessary and how much was her refusing help or creating work to do to feel useful – because that is where her identity lies. As an evangelical mom, that’s the only place your identity lies. It wasn’t my dad’s fault, he tried to help and encouraged her to get out and do what she loved, but I don’t think she knew what that was. How could she? Her entire life had been filled with caring for others.

    I never saw my mom have a hobby or passion. She didn’t really have any friends or any aspirations that she talked about openly or pursued. She isn’t a bad person, but the church made sure she was hardly a person at all – beneath the role she played there’s no substance. I don’t know who she is. She’s just a wife and mother. I can’t find anyone underneath the title or the duties.

    I was afraid to get to close to my mother because the limits she lived under felt contagious. She made comments occasionally about me needing to learn to be a good wife and mother someday, and I was scared about which parts of me I would have to give up to do that.

    When I participated in less traditionally feminine activities like adventuring outdoors, she was a worry wart, putting limitations on my freedom, wanting me to hold myself back to be supposedly safer. Even when there was no real risk. I wondered if safety was a facade. No one seemed to worry about the boys being able to handle themselves.

    If I ever voiced frustration, I was always told me that’s just how moms are, they worry, they take care of their kids, they are selfless (void of self) – and that’s it. They can’t help it.

    I didn’t want to become a mom. Why would I? What was presented to me was the antithesis of everything that makes me, me. I don’t blame this all on my own mother. She is the victim of overbearing sexism – being raised in a large Catholic family to be a second mother to her seven brothers. She was never given the same freedoms they were, and often blamed for their misbehavior. She was raised by a woman who experienced an even higher level of abuse and restriction; a woman who didn’t know how else to exist in the world, raised a woman who wouldn’t either. Somehow the cycle broke with me – leaving me feeling lonely, confused, and like an anomaly.

    Most of my life I have felt very uncomfortable with my heritage. I have no role model of a powerful healthy woman. I can’t proudly say “I am my mother’s daughter”. I can’t look back at a lineage of women who created me and want to be anything like them. Admittedly, I am ashamed of my ancestry. Sometimes even my very DNA feels contaminated. I’m blazing a new trail completely on my own. I don’t know how to do this, and I cannot be proud of where I came from.

    I feel like an orphan.

    But… maybe that’s not the full story. I come from a long line of injured women who submitted to survive. I wonder who they could have been if dealt a different hand.

    Maybe I can heal my ancestors. Maybe they would be so happy and hopeful to know that generations down the line their own flesh and blood would be independent and powerful like me. Maybe it’s redemptive.

    It’s a common story arc for the hero to rise up from an unlikely place or family or bloodline. That’s partly what makes them special. Maybe I’m the hero of my mother’s story and our motherly line. I’m still writing chapters, and my daughters will write chapters, and their daughters’ daughters. We will be the authors of our own stories – starting with me.

    I know I’m lucky to be born into a time where there are more opportunities for women. I know I’m better equipped with resources available to me – ones my mother and her mother and her mother’s mother never had. I carry the weight of generations of oppression and abuse, but I have education at my fingertips and communities to turn to, to learn what to do with it and how to heal it.

    Maybe when I save myself, I save those who came before me and whose trauma is wired into my DNA. Maybe as I heal my body, that trauma loses its grip on our family line.

    I am healing my ancestors – starting with me.

  • Empowered Womanhood,  Gender Trauma,  Religious Trauma

    Mountain Woman

    There’s a reason I take a lot of photo shoots in the wilderness of myself wearing long, flowing dresses, and it might not be what you expect.

    Growing up I was always told that boys are tough and strong and like to get dirty, and little girls are pretty and quiet and fragile. Growing into a woman, I quickly became aware of pressures to look, act and talk a certain way – to fit into the design being handed to me. For most of my life, typically “feminine” things felt uninteresting at best and suffocating at worse. I have distinct early memories of being a small child helping my dad outside with yard work and watching my mom bustle around inside behind the steamy kitchen windows, cooking a giant pot of stew or pulling bread out of the oven. It sounds like a beautiful memory, but for me it was traumatic.

    The fundamentalist community I was raised in kept a strict divide between men’s and women’s roles. Even at 5 years old I was acutely aware that while I was interested in the things my dad was doing, my body would grow up to look like my mother’s and therefore at some point in the future I would be forced to model myself after her, whether that was the life I wanted or not.

    Growing older felt like a ticking time bomb. I didn’t know at what age I would be expected to be a woman and need to give up the things I loved about myself. I wondered if even someday I might betray myself and make the drastic change voluntarily.

    As a little girl growing up without any brothers, I wondered on occasion if all the quality time I got with my dad was because there wasn’t a son to spend time with. My dad never did anything to make me feel that way, but the culture he raised me in did. I was deeply attached to my dad and felt a strong connection with him. I wanted to grow up to be just like him. We were kindred spirits who understood each other. Some of my first steps were taken on the trail with him and my first word after mama and dadda was “back-back” (backpack).

    That’s how formative the wilderness was to me. From time to time my worries about my gender were reinforced a bit when I saw my female friends becoming more and more restricted as we grew older. My family wasn’t doing that, at least not yet, but I thought I was probably just lucky, not inherently safe.

    Around 8 or 9 years old, I watched a good friend of mine harshly warned by her father to stop climbing on driftwood at the beach with me, because she was a lady. Her family forced her to wear dresses all of the time instead of just at church like my family. That was a good excuse to keep her from moving her body and running free like normal children.

    Around middle school age I was told it was good that even though I was outdoorsy, I could still “clean up nice” and be ladylike. I think the person meant it as a compliment toward my well-rounded traits, but the message I received was loud and clear: being an outdoorsy adventurous type wasn’t a womanly thing to do, but I could get away with it because I was still able to fit the mold the rest of the time.

    At Thanksgiving and other gatherings, the men would walk around the yard looking at the garden and fruit trees while my mom and aunts and any other females deemed old enough to be subjected to restrictive roles had to prepare the meal and clean up after. From a young age I wondered why we didn’t all pitch in together and then all relax together.

    When I had my first period, my mom told me I probably wouldn’t be able to do as many hiking and camping trips anymore. I was terrified but also stubborn and vowed to myself that would never happen to me.

    I’ve been called disgusting for coming home from backpack trips with unshaven legs and greasy hair. I’ve been warned that bears would eat me if I was menstruating in the woods (that’s a lie, but all I had to counter it was my gut instinct).

    Over and over I was shoved into a smaller and smaller box of who I was allowed to be as a female. While little boys were given more opportunities as they grew older, I lived in a steadily shrinking cage. I grew up angry at both men and women. No one was safe. Men were degrading and patronizing and held all the power and women would not stand up for me – instead they were often the ones enforcing the patriarchal ideals in more up-close and personal ways. In that sense, women were more of a threat to me than the men and I avoided female-only settings most of the time.

    I rarely felt in tune with femininity. Womanhood was an unsettling part of me I tolerated on good days and recoiled from on bad days. At best my gender was a neutral thing that added no value and at worse it was an infection, or a tattoo I couldn’t remove.

    For me, climbing mountains and exploring the back-country was my escape. It was the one place that as a woman I was allowed to be different than the mold. I had the freedom to explore myself as I explored the forest. I became stronger inwardly as my body grew stronger climbing snowy slopes. On the trail I was allowed to dress for utility instead of etiquette. In the great outdoors, I didn’t need to meet society’s beauty standards; I was accepted there as I was. No one was around I needed to impress or might accidentally displease just by existing as I am – it was only me and the mountain, and often my loving dad who believed in me and only unintentionally passed on some of the sexist mindsets.

    As a child I didn’t have any female role models in the outdoors. It was a man’s world. In today’s outdoor scene that is mostly inclusive to women, its hard for many people to believe that I saw that change happen in my own lifetime. But as a child only 20 years ago, I would often count the other women and girls on the longer treks and bigger mountains because there were so few of us.

    For so long, my masculine and feminine sides have been separated by a wide chasm inside of me. I don’t fit the church’s – or even society’s – ideals for a woman. I present feminine but I don’t often feel “womanly”. I love my masculinity but don’t identify with maleness. Often over the years, when wearing makeup or a pretty dress it felt like I was putting on a mask and the real mountain-climbing, skateboarding, dare-devil me was trapped on the inside.

    But a few years ago, I got an idea. I wanted to see those two separate worlds collide. I wanted to see the two halves of me become one. So I rolled up a long red dress and stuck it in my backpack one day and when I got up to the ridge top meadow, I slipped it on and asked my supportive dad to take pictures of me. I was afraid I might be doing the wrong thing. I wondered if I was contaminating my safe space with reminders of the threat of traditional womanhood. I wondered if I wouldn’t feel fierce and badass in the mountains if I was wearing a dress. I was wrong.

    I felt like a warrior princess. I felt strong and beautiful and like I could be any kind of woman I wanted to be. I was still the same me I’ve always been. I am not defined by other people’s ideas of me. For the first time, a flicker of pride toward my womanhood burned in my heart.

    The mountains have always represented more to me than recreation or even adventure. They represent my strength and what I’m capable of. They remind me I am powerful, a conqueror. I am embodied; grounded and secure, inherently good in my physical form. I take up space in the world. I am spirit, at one with the Source. I cannot be held down, I cannot be contained. I can do anything I set out to do.

    I’m tackling the hard work of undoing years of damage that fundamentalism caused me. I’m asserting that women are magical and fierce; a force to be reckoned with. I am declaring I can be beautiful AND strong. I can love getting dirty and ALSO look damn sexy in a red dress. I can be cute and childlike and playful, AND I can lead backpacking expeditions and handle myself well in the face of danger. I can take care of others and keep them safe without neglecting myself. I can be an explorer and a wilderness goddess. I can be a mountain woman, a photographer, a strong leader; someone who paints and writes and runs and climbs trees and who skillfully steers a canoe through rapids. I can be gentle and sweet and kind and also outspoken and opinionated and confident and I can sure as hell stand up for myself. I can set boundaries on how people treat me and I can make my voice heard. I can command attention.

    After a lifetime of hiking and climbing in the high country, I was 28 years old the first time I wore a dress in that space; creating an avenue to see these truths embodied. I’m experiencing my masculine and feminine sides combining and colliding in messy and inspirational ways, and I like it! I used to feel good in spite of being female but I’m retraining my brain. My femininity is good.

    I still have a long ways to go; I’m still questioning a lot and learning how to feel content and safe in my body. But I do know that I am a beautiful, powerful soul and nobody else gets to tell me who I am. I am a mountain woman.

  • Empowered Womanhood,  Gender Trauma,  Religious Trauma

    Caricatured and Erased

    I didn’t know Women’s History month existed until 2019. I was isolated in a patriarchal fundamentalist religious community until 2011 and joined an egalitarian Pentecostal ministry until 2017, but the latter community still didn’t recognize or talk about patriarchy being a problem. Women in that ministry still usually assumed traditional roles and while there wasn’t any requirement to, the overall community culture encouraged it. Women almost always stepped down from their careers as pastors to become mothers.

    I hadn’t experienced a space where women were intentionally celebrated and the oppression we face specifically addressed until I moved a few hours away to a very progressive city after escaping my abusive marriage. I attended a women’s march for the first time with a handful of my friends and I was flabbergasted. I saw so many different kinds of women, so many different ways of being and living as a woman. I wouldn’t realize or start to address how much gender trauma I really had until later that year, but below is what I wrote as my first attempt at putting to words my experiences as a woman in the world. Many of the ideas I write here are ones I’ve encountered a lot since then, but at the time this was me putting to paper things I had never heard someone else say before.

    “This International Woman’s Day, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a woman. Women are expected to be so many things; to fit conflicting ideals. We’re always either too much or too little. We are supposed to be strong but not too abrasive, submissive but not weak, pretty but not vain. We are supposed to be interested in makeup and fashion but if we like those things too much we are shallow. If we have curves we are told we are fat and undesirable, and if we are slender we are told we are fake and not real women. We are praised for being “tough” and doing everything a man can do; and we are warned that men don’t like tomboys. We are supposed to be nurturing and want children, but also we should have a successful career and not let motherhood “hold us back”. We are made fun of for being virgins and shamed for being sluts. We are criticized for taking too many selfies and yet pictures of women are plastered all over the internet and on billboards to sell things. Women are condemned for “selling their bodies” and yet the media is constantly sexualizing and then selling our bodies to make a profit through marketing. Women are caricatured and erased at the same time. Womanhood is distorted over and over again until I am left wondering who is hidden behind all the labels and roles. Who would I be if all these other voices hadn’t pervaded my own? Even though I might not totally know the answer, I know that I must be powerful or I wouldn’t be threatening enough to oppress. I am proud of being a woman, even if I’m still figuring out what that means. I love that I’m a woman even though it’s sometimes been a heavy burden to bear in this patriarchal world. And instead of figuring out who I am supposed to be as a woman, I am defining my womanhood by who I am. Happy Woman’s Day to all my sisters! I’m in solidarity with you as we lead into a better world.”