Essay: Yin Yang Woman Man
When I was around 23 years old, I rode a bus down a mountain every day to get to work. I was too distracted by the scenery outside the window to read, so I had a lot of time to think.
On one of these rides, it occurred to me that I was in fact 23, and that meant I was a grown woman now. (Hahahaha!)
This deeply confused me.
I asked myself, what did it mean to be a woman? What did it mean that I was a woman, and not a girl? That I was a woman, and not a man?
What made someone a woman?
Was it my breasts, uterus, and vagina?
No. There were women who didn’t have those things.
My more delicate bone structure and relative lack of upper body strength?
No. There were women who were not delicate, and could open pickle jars with the best of them.
Wearing dresses and makeup?
I snorted and dismissed that answer outright.
I puzzled over this question for a long time. Years, actually. What did it mean to be a woman?
Eventually I got tired of the question and settled on an answer.
What made me a woman was not related to my primary or secondary gender characteristics. What made me a woman had more to do with things that separated me from girlhood and immaturity than from men.
Things like integrity, personal power, knowing my own mind and heart, being independent but still open-hearted, etc. All those things that came along with being a good person of strong character were what made me a woman.
That meant it wasn’t a process that happened naturally. With a little dismay, I thought that maybe it HADN’T actually happened. I knew plenty of grown up little girls. That meant becoming a woman was something I had to decide to do—it would not “just happen” naturally.
This was the only answer that made sense to me, and yet it left me feeling a little hollow.
Being a person of strong character? That was it?
That meant that all the qualities that made me a woman were divorced from anything about me that was obviously female. It meant that everything about me that was obviously female . . . was meaningless. Yet, I was clearly a grown female, and it meant something to me.
I felt no closer to an answer than I had years ago on the bus.
[The following section has been added in an update to this essay.]
Years later, I had a gay friend who insisted that gender was nothing more than a concept. He could wear makeup, he said, and it didn’t make him feel less masculine. He said that he didn’t associate makeup with femininity.
He had a point. After all, I had decided that makeup wasn’t one of the things that made me female. I said to my friend, “Good for you. You be yourself and define who you are, not society.” Or I said something like that.
However, I can’t agree anymore that makeup isn’t a feminine thing. It’s not inherently feminine, but it is part of our social construct of femininity.
Different cultures decide for themselves what’s feminine and what’s masculine. This has been true throughout history—in some cultures, makeup really wasn’t a feminine thing. It was truly cross-gender. Such as in Ancient Egypt or Georgian society.
As a society, we have pretty much decided that makeup is feminine. Therefore, in our society, makeup is associated with femininity. It’s part of the psyche of our culture. A single person, or even a whole movement, can’t change that by creating their own labels.
Perhaps my friend really did not see makeup as feminine, but I find it hard to believe that he could completely extract both the conscious and unconscious aspects of his mind from the framework of our society.
(Just as I would find it difficult to convince my own psyche that being fat is sexy. All political correctness, self love, and feminine empowerment aside, I cannot deny that the way my culture depicts women and tells stories about them affects me on a deep level—so deep that I didn’t realize what was happening until I started writing my own stories and saw the roles I placed women in.)
I rather think that my friend had not turned makeup into a genderless thing, or somehow made eyeliner and nail polish masculine. Instead, he was embracing an aspect of his psyche that was feminine (without wanting to actually define it as feminine). In embracing this part of himself, he actually expressed himself more fully, and so he felt more powerful as a man.
This is what I think when I see that more men these days really are wearing makeup.
It’s not that makeup is becoming masculine or genderless. It’s that our society is becoming less threatened by the feminine. We’re realizing the feminine has some badass shit to offer that can help people (both men and women) express themselves.
Now I’m going to get spiritual on you. It’s what I do.
On one level my friend was right. Gender is more of a concept we’ve created as a society than it is an intrinsic quality. After all, on the highest spiritual level we’re all ultimately one—we’re all connected, and gender is not a thing when All Things Are One Thing, because polarity is not a thing when All Things Are One Thing. That’s the place where opposites merge.
So men can wear makeup and still be men. Women can work construction and still be women.
However, that doesn’t mean that masculine and feminine don’t exist, or that they are irrelevant.
So I was wrong—there was more to being a woman (or a man) than “being a person of strong character.”
And my friend was wrong—gender is not only a social construct.
Both of these ideas do have relevance, and I think they can be important ideas to live with if you’re thinking about what gender means or doesn’t mean for yourself.
But on a spiritual level that is very important to the world at this present moment, they’re wrong. Polarity is a real thing. Masculine and feminine are real things, and they really matter.
They matter because until we can understand what it means to be women, and to be men, we can never experience the whole Non-Polarity-We-Are-All-One-Thing. The genders will keep vilifying and abusing one another, and themselves. Until we can love each gender for all it truly embodies, we can never embrace it, and if we can’t embrace something like that we cannot merge with it.
So how do we understand male and female beyond the realm of social constructs—deeper than the whole “girls wear makeup” and “men do construction” thing? How do we understand men and women, when not everyone falls easily into one of those polarities?
I came to this thought as I began studying archetypal psychology more. Masculine and feminine energies flow strongly through the study of archetypes.
The universe is built of integrating yin and yang energies, even though the two are polar opposites.
Feminine energies are associated with yin.
Masculine energies are associated with yang.
For example, having a lot of personal drive to accomplish a goal is a yang energy. That means it’s associated with the masculine.
Now, you can say, “Hey wait, being driven and ambitious can totally be a feminine quality, because I’m a woman and I am FULL of drive and ambition to succeed, and don’t box me in with your gender roles, and blah blah blah.”
I hear you.
But just because you’re a woman with drive and ambition, that doesn’t magically change the energy of “drive” to a yin quality. “Drive” is still yang.
Don’t take it personally, okay?
What you mean is that you’re a woman in touch with part of her yang energy. And that is a good thing. We are all a combination of yin and yang. It’s just that most of us align more with one energy than another.
The spiritual teacher Teal Swan has a trio of excellent videos on the subjects of Divine Feminine and Divine Masculine. (Links at the bottom of the article.) I’m going to take the liberty of sharing some of her ideas here, because she listed qualities associated with both so beautifully. I’m not going to share her full lists, and I’m going to toss a few of my own ideas into the mix.
And I’m going to call them Yin energies and Yang energies instead of masculine and feminine. Saying “Yin” and “Yang” is a lot easier for many of us to understand, and not to take it personally or get too confused when we hear qualities “assigned” to our gender.
Yin Energies Include:
— Destruction (Both birth and destruction—think of the “yin” as the portal where life comes into and out of the world)
— The Moon
— Winter (Yin energy is quieting life down to rest, restore, and reflect)
— Wilderness and Nature
— Images and Symbols (as opposed to written language)
Yin is essentially a receptive, quiet, attractive energy. (I use the word “attractive” because “receptive” can sometimes make Yin sound like it’s a big bucket. Like it’s just sitting there receiving things while the Yang runs around and gets to have all the fun. )
Yang Energies Include:
— Material Abundance
— Authority (the positive, supportive, guiding aspect of authority—not the domination kind)
— Building Things (such as buildings or businesses)
— The Sun
— Summer (Yang energy is always bursting forth)
— Words and Language (as opposed to images and symbols)
Yang is essentially an active, moving, “let’s do it!” energy.
An online search will turn up a lot of different lists about what’s associated with Yin and what’s associated with Yang.
If I am a woman, that does not automatically mean that I have all the qualities on the Yin list. If you’re a man, that doesn’t mean you automatically have all the qualities on the Yang list.
And if I, as a woman, see a quality on the Yang list that I have in abundance, it doesn’t mean that I’m not feminine.
I actually have a lot of qualities on both lists.
You probably do too. That’s a good thing. You can’t be asleep or awake all the time. A Yin-Yang is a pair of polar opposites enclosed in a whole circle, after all. (That whole circle would be you, as a whole human being.)
So what does this mean for gender?
I still can’t answer that question for once and for all, and I can’t answer it for you.
But here’s what I would tell my 23-year-old self: “Being a woman means that, if you are a person of strong character, you can develop these Yin qualities—these archetypal feminine qualities—in such a way that will make you feel radiant and aligned with all of life. These qualities will give you power if you connect with them when you’re relating to yourself, relating to the rest of the world—and especially when you’re relating to men. You’ll find a lot of these qualities reflected in social constructs of femininity—for example, you can embody the Yin quality of sensuality when you wear makeup—so you can use society’s ideas of femininity to express your Yin energy. But some of our social constructs won’t serve you so well. Choose the ones you like.
“You can do the same thing with the Yang qualities, and that’s called developing your animus—your inner masculine power. (For men, it’s developing the anima.)
“However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because you develop a Yang quality, that quality magically becomes feminine. You have a lot of personal drive and ambition, and those don’t magically transform into Yin energies just because you’re a woman. In fact, trying to say that drive and ambition are Yin is actually expressing a kind of hatred for the Yang. I want you to embrace these opposites within yourself, not try to change them.”
I don’t think that feminine and masculine are EXACTLY the same things as Yin and Yang. But it’s a pretty damn good way to explain them, and it’s easier to think about them in Yin-Yang terms for a lot of people. So if these ideas work for you, run with them.
But we’re all at different places in our relationships with ourselves. If you still like the idea that gender is nothing more than a concept, run with that one. Embrace whatever helps you feel like your most happiest self.
If you liked this post at all, I highly recommend watching Teal Swan’s videos:
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