In the Blog
On Femme Competition
Illustration by Shelby McLeod
Identifying as femme has never made navigating my community easy, in spite of this being the only label that has ever felt entirely right. Being a femme has often meant attending queer events only to be read as a tagalong straight friend, having to prove and reassert my queerness, and continually fighting for visibility.
I cannot speak about femme invisibility without addressing the intersections between femmephobia and other oppressions like racism, ableism, transphobia, and fatphobia. As a cisgender, able-bodied, white woman with thin privilege, I don’t encounter nearly as much erasure and violence as transfeminine folks, fat femmes, disabled femmes, and femmes of colour do. I must acknowledge how my privilege allows me to conform to Western beauty standards and be exempt from broader scrutiny other marginalized, feminine people face. I can only speak to my own experiences of invisibility and the pain that a sense of estrangement from my femme community has given me.
Reflecting upon the beginning of my current relationship, I can distinctly remember feeling lucky. Not just grateful for the excitement of a new love, but lucky in that I was genuinely a little surprised to be dating them. Finding a masculine partner with intersectional politics who is also honest, affirming and emotionally available can be difficult. At first, my insecurity made me question whether or not I was good enough for them. Having been out for years, it was abundantly clear to me by the time I met my partner that white, thin, able-bodied masculine folks are prioritized in queer and trans spaces. It’s hard enough as a femme to carve out physical space in your own community, let alone feel and believe that you are desirable or valid or “queer enough” to attain your dream partner.
This feeling of being unseen, excluded and dismissed pervades the existence of nearly every queer femme I know. The fear of being ignored by the very people you are interested in attracting is damaging to one’s self-image and definitely doesn’t make finding partners easy. The frustration of having to fight for legitimacy in the eyes of your community is only compounded by the unspoken pressure to compete with other femmes for masculine attention. For years I have regarded other queer femmes with a vague wariness, a curiosity and an admiration that has often been overtaken by fear and jealousy. Convinced they possess something essential that I lack, I often resent the threat they represent in my mind and distance myself from the very people who may relate to my experiences.
The tendency to view other feminine folks as threatening becomes especially complicated when you date non-monogamously. When there is an expectation your partner will develop feelings for other people, the instinct to compete to maintain their attention is that much greater. My partner is particularly attracted to femmes – a fact I struggle with each time they mention being into someone. The person they want to pursue might not even be feminine, and yet I am always thinking about what “the other femme” might be like. Is she smarter than me? Will her seemingly perfect body make my own disordered thinking and self-loathing flare up? Is she a force in her community, always giving and inspiring?
When I am struggling with these feelings, it can be helpful to reflect on the role sexism plays in pitting me against my fellow femmes. Being the target of a media culture that strives to convince women that desirability is tied up with value is not without its poisoning effects. It is natural to regard other women with jealousy and suspicion when we believe they possess the apparently worth-affirming qualities we fear we lack. The misogyny in corporate media makes it remarkably easy to view ourselves and other femmes as consumable and interchangeable.
In speaking to some femme-identified folks about the ways in which they stack themselves up against other femmes, many forms of comparison came up. One friend discussed her tendency to project notions of happiness, health and security onto others and, in turn, view herself as a “disaster”. Often when we struggle with mental health and are outwardly vulnerable in that battle, fear of abandonment arises. After all, one of the most condemning criticisms femmes face is the brand of the “crazy girlfriend”. Effortless stability and a willingness to perform emotional labour at all times are just a few of the lofty expectations placed on feminine people. For other femmes I know, the focus is on appearance and adhering to culturally prescribed ideas of beauty. They apply their winged eyeliner with incisive precision and hope their efforts will not go unnoticed, trying to believe they are not replaceable. The jealousy this sense of replaceability produces is immeasurable.
It is a particularly painful kind of jealousy; one that turns me against the very individuals I value, adore, and think the world is better for. It is a jealousy I feel in my gut and have to fight with everything in me, knowing it is hindering my growth and happiness. I fight it when I surround myself with brilliant, supportive femmes that make me want to be better for myself and loved ones. I fight it when I communicate with friends and lovers about my insecurity and doubt, knowing my vulnerability does not make me less loveable. To name the damaging systems that make femmes regard each other with jealousy is to confront those systems head on. When you realize you are not alone in your feelings, when you find other femmes who have lived experiences of anxious comparison, you begin to recognize that the root of the problem lies outside of you. It feels less like you’re inherently damaged in some way and more like our sexist, femmephobic society is.
I hold my femmes close, knowing the sting of devaluation is eased by the fierceness of our community, by our ability to obliterate with a single look.