Giving other people Christmas gifts that are bound to land directly in the landfill without being used, appreciated, and cherished is a waste of money, and it also causes unnecessary harm for the environment. If we, as a society, have collectively decided that Christmas gifts are obligatory, then we should at least strive to give other people something they will like or at least find useful. Therefore: Don’t just give gifts to other people based on their gender. It can terribly backfire.
This ought to be obvious, yet somehow it isn’t. I have seen countless online articles with titles like “Best Gift Ideas for Men/Women.” Such approach is just wrong. For example, many women don’t like romance novels, and many men don’t like whichever alcohol you consider “a universally desired gift for men.” Individual people aren’t walking collections of all the gender stereotypes out there. You aren’t giving a gift to the average man or woman out there. Your give a gift to a unique individual human being who has their own tastes and interests, hence some gender stereotypes about what men or women, on average, tend to like won’t be helpful.
Even if the woman to whom you are giving a gift likes jewelry or romance novels in principle, there’s a high probability that she won’t like that silver bracelet, which clashes with all other jewelry she already owns. Or maybe she won’t like that BDSM romance novel with a submissive female protagonist, because she’s more into vanilla relationships. When it comes to items like clothing, jewelry, books, etc., people usually have strong personal preferences that cannot be reduced to “all men/women like this one thing.”
If I were obliged to give gifts to complete strangers, I’d pick something generic, things that anybody can use, things that, if necessary, can be easily re-gifted to somebody else. I’d also look for things that can be quickly consumed. Consider chocolate candies, for example. Many people like chocolate, therefore even if the recipient doesn’t like said candies, it’s always easy to find somebody else who will gladly volunteer to consume anything with sugar in it.
Another consumable option is fancy handmade soap, shampoo, etc. Everybody needs to wash their bodies, thus somebody will use this gift, and it won’t just end in the landfill. If I were given women’s clothing as a gift, I wouldn’t wear it, because it clashes with my own fashion preferences. If somebody gave me an overly feminine pink bottle of rose-scented shampoo, I’d actually use it. I’d cringe about the packaging, but ultimately I do not care about how the shampoo that I’m using was originally packaged.
Back when I was a child, my school gave us books as gifts. Books were selected for us based on our age and gender. I always got young adult romance novels. I watched with envy my male classmates getting science books and encyclopedias. They also got adventure novels and detectives. It made me so angry and envious. I never read any of the romance novels that were given to me. Those landed directly in the landfill.
When people buy gifts to strangers, they at least have the excuse that they couldn’t have anticipated that some gift won’t be appreciated by the recipient. Yet, due to not conforming to various gender stereotypes, over my life I have gotten countless underwhelming gifts from people who ought to have known me better.
Oddly enough, the biggest offender was my uncle (my mother’s brother). He had no children of his own, and I was very close with him back when I was a child. He was like a father for me. Unfortunately, he never listened to me. He “knew” that the right gifts for a woman were flowers, jewelry, and perfume. As a child, I just accepted all the costume jewelry he gave me. I never wore any of it, I just stashed it deep in a closet, throwing it out a few years after receiving this stuff. My uncle managed to give me earrings twice even though I have never pierced my ears (and I have no plans of ever doing so). I was taught that I must be polite and pretend to be happy whenever I receive some gift.
The breaking point happened when I was 21 years old. At that point I still hadn’t realized that I want to live as a man, but my lifestyle and fashion preferences were as masculine as possible within the constraints of what was allowed for a woman in the society where I lived.
My uncle went to a business trip to the USA. Well, I call it a business trip, but in reality he was doing manual labor for a small salary. His employer needed some workers in the USA in order to fulfill an international contract, hence some people were sent there. After returning home, my uncle gave me a bottle of perfume. He also showed me the receipt for the purchase. That perfume had cost him $200. I started crying. I refused to accept the gift. I was impolite.
My uncle was poor. $200 was a huge amount of money for him. At that time, I was an unemployed university student. $200 was a huge amount of money for me. If my uncle has spent $200 on homeopathic medicine, I would have been worried about his wellbeing given how he had wasted a huge amount of money. But I wouldn’t have been so heartbroken. By giving me an expensive bottle of perfume, he made me complicit in this colossal waste of money. Ha made me guilty of throwing out something so expensive. A child who grows up in poverty (as I did) learns to feel guilty about wasting money and throwing out things that are still useable and have some material value. Never mind that at that time I would have wanted to take $200 in cash, I would have had countless good uses for it.
My uncle was puzzled about why I appeared so upset and distraught. All his male work colleagues had bought similar gifts for their wives. Why wasn’t I also happy? I was supposed to be a woman, and all women were supposed to like the same things. He had never truly listened to me. I had told him that I don’t use jewelry, make-up or perfume, that I’m not into feminine stuff, that I don’t want flowers unless they are potted and can be grown on a windowsill as house plants. I had told him all that. He never listened.
Upon witnessing the scene, my mother intervened and said that she loves perfume and that she’ll take it. She even pretended to love the scent. I could tell that she was lying (she had bought some perfume for herself in the past, but she rarely used any, because regularly applying it was too much hassle). I let it slip anyway. At least after I was really rude and made a scene, my uncle finally realized that I wasn’t “like all women.” On my next birthday, I got a circular saw. That was finally a gift I loved.
There has been one more occasion that made me feel bad about the mere prospect of getting a gift. I was 21, my boyfriend offered to buy new clothes for me. I was an unemployed student, he at least had a real job. At that time my wardrobe consisted of jeans and dark sweaters. I wore the most masculine things I could find in women’s clothing stores. Since I hated shopping for clothes, I owned very few items of clothing. When my boyfriend offered to buy clothes and suggested the two of us to go to a clothing store the next day, I agreed, because I knew that I was supposed to be happy about getting free clothes. Yet I wasn’t happy. I felt terrible. We didn’t buy anything that day. In the store, my boyfriend would point at some item of women’s clothing, and I would explain why I didn’t like it. I couldn’t understand why shopping for clothes made me feel so bad. I had always disliked shopping, but it had never been so bad. Nor could I explain why exiting the shop without having bought anything made me feel so relieved.
At that time I hadn’t yet figured out that I wanted to live as a man. The whole situation had triggered my gender dysphoria back when I still didn’t know that I had it. On top of that, I had felt like a doll, like an object that was being dressed up and controlled by somebody else for their own pleasure. In the society we live in, men routinely give their wives or girlfriends clothes or jewelry, stuff that is supposed to make the woman look more attractive. In my eyes, these gifts felt like they weren’t really for me, I felt like they were for the man’s enjoyment. I was supposed to make myself look prettier so that my boyfriend could enjoy looking at me. If a guy gave me some feminine clothes to wear, this wouldn’t be a gift for me, it would be something he got for himself and only requested me to put on for his pleasure. (And, yes, I know that there exist women—and also men—who love dressing up for their own pleasure. This was not the case for me back when I still lived as a woman, for me wearing feminine clothes meant dressing up for somebody else enjoyment.)
When I was 23 years old, I finally realized that I am not a cis woman. Instead I am an agender person who prefers to live as a man. Understanding what was going on with me helped me to untangle that mess of weird emotions I was feeling but couldn’t explain. “A woman is supposed to be happy to get such gifts. Why am I not happy? No, why am I on the verge of tears? Because I am a man, and this situation just triggered my gender dysphoria.” Explaining my own emotions became so simple once I finally figured out who I am.
Oddly enough, realizing that I want to be a man made me feel so much better about wearing female clothes. In past I used to question my own gender identity, I used to be unsure about myself. Nowadays I’m comfortable with who I am. I used to feel that me behaving either in a feminine or a masculine way reflected who I was, that it was related to the real me, that how my body looked like was part of who I was. It is not. I can be who I want to be regardless of such trivia. Sure, I strongly prefer dressing as a man, but having to put on a women’s dress wouldn’t upset me anymore the way it used to. After finally figuring out who I really am, my emotions stopped being tied to my visual appearance. I have managed to successfully externalize my gender problems.
Nowadays, if somebody gave me a dress as a gift, I would perceive it as a joke. I’m confident enough in my masculinity, so the prospect of putting on a dress no longer hurts me. I wouldn’t even particularly mind wearing a dress for a Halloween party or other similar prank. I could dress in drag for fun. Nowadays dressing as female would make me an actor pretending to be a woman, it would feel like playacting femininity instead of actually being a woman. It wouldn’t be the real me, but just an act. I also know what situations trigger gender dysphoria in me, hence it is easy to avoid them.
The difference is that I no longer feel trapped within society’s expectations; trapped within the obligation to be feminine. I feel free. I can live as a guy. Understanding who I am and accepting myself as I am has essentially eliminated my gender-related discomfort and insecurity. Also, nowadays I’m perfectly happy to get clothes as gifts. This Christmas I got a hat from my boyfriend, and I love it (obviously, it’s a men’s hat). And I also love this T-shirt I got last summer.
The reason why I wrote an overly long and detailed explanation about how receiving the wrong gifts made me feel extremely unhappy is because a few people imagine that a woman who appears to own no jewelry and no feminine clothes should be given those things as gifts: “She doesn’t own any dresses or jewelry, therefore I must give her some as a gift, she will fall in love with it, and then she will start wearing these things on a regular basis.” Well-meaning people imagine that they are doing a masculine woman a favor by giving her feminine stuff that she hasn’t purchased on her own. In reality, this can be just an unwelcome attempt at coercing gender norms upon some person who doesn’t want to conform to traditional gender stereotypes. It can terribly backfire.
Don’t try to give other people things that you want them to have in situations when the recipient doesn’t like it. For example, when I was about 14 years old, one of my neighbors, an elderly lady, gave me a book about how to host dinner parties. It contained recipes how to cook various foods, instructions on how to serve the dining table, tips on how to entertain the guests. I didn’t read a single page of said book, I threw it out immediately. Yet getting such a “gift” felt worse than not receiving anything. At that time, I already knew that I didn’t like the female gender role. Having to cook food for other people, predominantly men, felt like servitude. By giving me this book, the old lady had attempted to force femininity upon me against my will. The so called “gift” was a reminder that I was a woman and that I had to know “my role in life.” It was an attempt to enforce sexism and traditional gender roles upon me. I wasn’t happy about her gift, I was annoyed.
When you give some stereotypically feminine or masculine gift to a person who doesn’t like it, that’s potentially sexist, given how you are trying to enforce some gender norms upon them, you are sending them the message that “people of their gender are expected to like this thing.”
Direct sexism would be loudly proclaiming: “All women should be stay-at-home mothers who ought to cook food for their husbands.” Less direct sexism would be giving a cookbook to a woman who hates cooking. It subtly enforces an outdated gender norm on a person who doesn’t want to follow said norm. (Of course, if you personally know some woman and are certain that she loves cooking, then a cookbook might be a great gift. I’m only objecting to subtly nudging all women to cook food even when they dislike said activity.)
Giving feminine clothing as a gift to a butch lesbian would be problematic for the same reason, because it would subtly suggest her that her chosen lifestyle is wrong or at least socially not accepted and recognized as valid.