I identify as a pansexual woman. However, I did not always know this to be true. In fact, for the majority of my life, I thought I was heterosexual.
The word “pansexual” means “being attracted to all gender identities, or attracted to people regardless of gender,” as defined by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. About two years ago, I realized that I am also attracted to women and it wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized that I am also attracted to people who do not fit the gender binary. While this breakthrough was a beautiful moment shared by my loving and accepting family members and friends, it did present some challenges, particularly in dating and adhering to beauty standards.
Dating still seems to be stuck within traditional gender roles. Many components of our patriarchal dating world such as the pressure to have sex or expecting men to pay on a date do not leave much room for queer people trying to navigate romance. Common dating advice such as letting a male partner take the lead or playing hard to get simply does not feel true to who I am.
I truly do not appreciate how common norms in dating uphold outdated gender roles. For instance, I have no problem splitting the bill on a first date with a man because I believe that a first date is meant for both parties to get to know each other, and that no excess investment should be required. Additionally, it begs the question, “Who pays on the first date between two women or nonbinary people?”
Because the majority of popularized dating advice is catered toward those in heterosexual relationships, I am often left confused as to how I should conduct myself in my relationships with people who are not men. The sheer heteronormativity of dating culture, combined with the emphasis on traditional gender roles, as well as the lack of resources for queer couples, makes dating challenging for me.
It is a depressing yet commonly known stigma that a crucial component to finding a partner is adhering to society’s ever-changing beauty standards. I have been conscious of said standards for women for as long as I can remember. However, upon discovering I am pansexual, my relationship with beauty standards and how I conform to them has significantly changed. Most notably, my increasing knowledge of the male and female gaze has helped me decrease some of the pressure society puts on me to be the “perfect woman” at all times.
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines the male gaze as “the fact of showing or watching events or looking at women from a man’s point of view.” It is a common theme within movies and television, with a “Transformers” (2007) scene with Megan Fox being a popular example. The scene depicts a scantily clad Fox working on a car, but the camera emphasizes her body rather than what she is doing. All the while, Sam, played by Shia LeBeouf, stares at her in arousal. The male gaze is not limited to what we see in movies. It is a prime example of female objectification in our society. Women are presented as objects for men’s viewing pleasure rather than multifaceted human beings.
The female gaze, on the other hand, is far more complex. According to Gwendolyn Smith in her article about the film “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “it portrays the full gamut of women’s lives rather than focusing on the 0.001% of the time when this involves being sexy and naked.” In contrast to the male gaze, the female gaze views women more holistically, taking into account their qualities and characteristics outside of their physical appearance.
I, certainly, have experienced the pressure society puts on me to cater to the male gaze throughout my entire life. I rejected my love for traditionally feminine clothing and activities during my “not like other girls” phase in middle school and now ensure that my posture and hair make me look attractive at all times as a college student. However, when it comes to dating as a pansexual woman, I find myself catering more towards the female gaze. Specifically, I feel more comfortable relying on my nonphysical attributes in my relationships with women and nonbinary people. In contrast, I find myself worrying about my physical appearance more often when dating men.
I am not entirely certain how or why this shift happens. My best guess is that dating women and nonbinary people allows me to present myself in accordance with the female gaze, which is closest to how I see myself. I take all aspects of my being into consideration such as my character traits, goals, fears, and opinions when viewing myself. Dating people of other genders besides men allows me to let my nonphysical qualities shine through, creating a more positive, and less performative, dating experience.
Despite the aforementioned problems with my pansexual experience, I am incredibly proud of my identity and have found methods to combat the stress these issues sometimes bring me. For instance, I am extremely grateful to have people in my life who empathize with my struggles and support me however they can. I am also able to reflect on how I may be potentially harming myself in attempting to adhere to societal beauty standards. No matter what challenges come my way, I love myself enough to know that I can handle them.