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4 min

Lessons in low femme

Combining lip gloss and plumbing skills

When I came out to my mother, she said, “That’s great. I’m glad you finally realized what was obvious to the rest of us. Now maybe I can get a hand with these bricks.”

She was building a retaining wall in her backyard and not about to be slowed down by a process about my sexuality.

My mom is a Danish socialist feminist who raised me to wear gender-neutral clothes, short hair and sensible clogs. Coupled with my rye bread and liver pâté lunches, one might have called me a bit of a playground eccentric. I think I was just a dyke in the making.

Taller than the boys until grade 10, I spent my girlhood wishing, longing for even an ounce of femininity.

If I had only been a tomboy as my mother wanted. Just think of all the cool stuff we could have built together. Instead I had to be belligerent; always bugging her for a pink bike, a cute bedspread and the freedom to wear my lip gloss without getting lectures on Betty Friedan.

By my mid-20s, I finally had the confidence and money to throw myself into a cosmetics-counter-inspired world of product fetishism and glorious girliness. To this day, my mother wonders what I’m doing with my massive collection of glosses and perfume and shadows and lotions.

“You’re a bright feminist lesbian environmentalist scholar, Mette,” she tells me. “What on earth do you need all that stuff for?” her nose wrinkles.

To her, a love of product is in direct correlation to low self-esteem and unresolved identity issues. She hasn’t bought a lipstick since her divorce.

The truth is, she’s wrong. I’ve never been a tree-climber, a worm-eater, a schoolyard fighter or a toad-toucher. I’ve always been able to fix my bike, pay my rent and still have time left over to read the paper and learn a new vocabulary word every day.

I was brought up to be self-subsistent. My dad’s office workaholism combined with my mom’s carpentry skills taught me to rely on myself. I kept my virginity into my 20s (and still managed to have a very satisfying sex life).

A couple of years ago, I decided to learn high-maintenance behaviour in an effort to become the kind of girl who would attract the kind of suitor I was after.

I was tired of being asked to fix the plumbing under the sink or being the one they called with their weird medical questions (I have this bump, do you think you could take a look at it?).

I knew there was a kind of woman out there who would never be asked to help move heavy furniture, never be asked to make dinner, never be taken for granted. I’m ready to admit now that I was jealous.

Out of a combination of envy and science-experiment-style zeal over the idea that I could perhaps become this kind of specimen, I subscribed to Cosmopolitan. I watched Sex And The City. I rented everything Reese Witherspoon starred in.

When I was ready, I got blonde highlights. Even at home in my jammies, I drank martinis; I kept the black currant flavoured vodka in my icebox, alongside my fancy glasses, just as they taught me. It was everything my mother loathed and I was sure it was the new me.

Instead of buying the Oxford English Dictionary, compact version — the one I had drooled over for about a decade — I put my savings toward a new wardrobe. It was the first time I ever walked into a new-clothing store and bought what I wanted. It felt great.

The sheer realization that there are stores that have more than one of everything was phenomenal; that if I liked a pair of pants but they didn’t fit, I could ask for another size and a nice girl with a high-pitched voice would bring it right to my dressing room. Yes, this was different from the thrift shops I was used to.

I went from soap to body wash, from drugstore cream to a whole collection of department store multifunctioning moisturizers.

I splurged on a monthly pedicure and I kept my leg hair to a minimum (relatively; we Danes are a hairy seafaring folk).

I could have gone on tricking myself forever. But then my friend’s toilet clogged, reminding me that the front I put up is just a well-crafted façade.

So what if I had just manicured myself with my new opalescent pink polish? A flood is a flood and I know how to handle a toilet snake. I also know all of the components of the flushing unit and have done this operation so many times that I practically sleepwalk through it.

Being high femme was a big emotional conundrum. It was everything I wanted — to have doors held for me, dinners made for me, massages and makeup and constant attention. The trouble was that it wasn’t me. At least not completely.

Like my highly capable, high femme friend told me, “Mette, you’re femme-inine, but you’re not femme. There’s a big difference and I don’t see you sporting these babies,” she patted her sparkly heels.

Now I look at my shelves and shelves of products and I can still hear my mother’s judgment in the back of my head. What do I need all this stuff for?

I’m still not able to give her an adequate answer except to say it’s who I am. Maybe it feels wrong but it’s not.

There are no absolutes on the gender spectrum. I need to smell great. I need to have shiny lips and it doesn’t detract from my abilities. I’m still the one folks call to help fix the side window of their car when it gets broken into. I’ll gladly settle for low femme.