Blog  Reflecting on My Gender Expression Journey Through a Jewish Feminist Lens – Kol Isha Blog

Reflecting on My Gender Expression Journey Through a Jewish Feminist Lens – Kol Isha Blog

By Ruby Martinez

When I was younger, I hated the color pink. With a passion. Wanting so badly to be a “tomboy,” I was turned off by most things “girly.” My favorite colors were blue and green. I would do everything I could to not have to wear dresses or skirts to formal events, and I owned nothing in pink, purple, or yellow.

As I got older, I began to become more comfortable with expressing myself femininity. I started to enjoy dressing up and wearing makeup. As I’ve grown up, I have been able to figure out a little more about who I am and what I care about. Now I like to wear pink and dresses and do my makeup in a way that makes me look traditionally feminine.

However, as I’ve grown and learned more about feminism and Judaism, I have begun to understand more about the gender roles we have been taught to conform to, and I recently, I have been wondering about pushing my comfort zone as far as gender expression. Gender expression is how one exhibits their gender identity. For example, it is common for men to have short hair and women to have long hair, or that women should shave everything, while body hair is expected from men. In some circumstances, I have felt uncomfortable or unhappy with how I am presenting myself physically, whether that is through my appearance or my actions.

In April of 2017, I decided to push myself to not wear makeup for a whole month. I had been feeling like I was wearing it too much and depending on it to make me feel better about myself, which was a habit I did not want to fall into. Throughout the month, I felt empowered, insecure, and everything in between. I remember hanging out with a few of my friends and feeling uncomfortable because I felt as though I wasn’t giving the first impression I could have given had I been wearing makeup. However, by the end of the month, I had learned to not feel like I needed to wear makeup whenever I was going to see people, and not to rely on it to make me feel beautiful.

Last May, I made the decision to stop shaving my armpits. I was inspired by one of my close friends, who had recently stopped shaving to push back against gendered stereotypes. From the time I entered middle school, I had always felt the need to shave my armpits because it was something I had been taught girls did. Initially, I was going to stop shaving my armpits for a limited amount of time, and that I would try it out for two weeks and then get back into my shaving routine. Lo and behold, my “limited amount of time” has turned into a whole year, and something that I see myself doing for a long time, because having armpit hair makes me feel so beautiful and empowered and connected to my body. It was such a liberating and fulfilling experience, and I’m so so glad that I was able to bring myself to defy this gender expectation.

Growing up, I always pictured girls wearing makeup, having long hair, and wearing traditionally feminine clothing. While I love looking feminine, I am so excited to challenge how I look and not rely on stereotypes to portray my femininity.

For the past year, I have been a part of NFTY-NAR’s Feminism Fellowship. The fellowship is called Kol Isha, translating from hebrew to mean “the voice of a woman.” Throughout this fellowship, we have been exploring different topics of feminism and aspects of Judaism by teaching and learning from each other. As a culminating project, Cydney and I worked to create a survey to gather more information about different people and their opinions and practices on how they express their gender. In this survey, we accounted for many factors, such as age, religion, gender identification, and more. The goal in creating this survey is to see different perspectives on gender expression and gender roles, and to start a larger conversation about what we deem as “masculine” or “feminine,” and how this impacts our lives positively or negatively; and on an individual or communal level. (You can take the survey here.)

You may be wondering, how is gender expression a feminist issue? How is it a Jewish issue? Throughout history, women have been seen as inferior to men, and have been held back socially, politically, intellectually, and economically. In many circumstances, women have also been repressed through our appearance. Historically, women were always aiming to look as small and fragile as possible to contrast how big and strong men were. Women have also been held back religiously. In the 1970s, during the second wave of feminism, a group of Jewish women came together to form the feminist group called Ezrat Nashim, named after the female section of the ancient temple. This group called for reforms that would allow women to be counted as part of a minyan, to have equal rights in laws regarding marriage, to hold leadership positions in jewish communities, and more. Jewish feminists continued to push for gender equality in religious and secular settings by creating jewish experiences aimed at women. Feminism plays a big role in the reform movement, as the Hebrew Union College ordained its first female rabbi, Sally Priesand, in 1972, and have gone on to ordain many more female cantors and rabbis.

As times have changed, feminism has widened its horizons to become more inclusive, fighting for more issues to further equality. As a movement that began with the goal to introduce reforms to achieve equality between the sexes, it is only right and only makes sense to expand these measures to include all gender identities and to see them all as deserving of the same human rights and freedom to express themselves.

Jewish texts, while defining gender roles that we may not agree with or follow today, have always acknowledged not only men and women, but those who identified as androgynous. In the torah, it says that we are all created צֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים (“b’tzelem elohim”), in the divine image, which I interpret as meaning that no matter who you are or what you look like, you are alike to every other human being on the planet, and your identity is valid. Additionally, the Mishna references genders beyond male and female, stating: “The androgynos is in some ways like men, and in some ways like women, and some ways like both men and women and in some ways neither like men nor women.” (Mishnah 1, Mishna Bikkurim Chapter 4). Mishnah Nazir 2:7 goes on to say, “even if a daughter, a tumtum or an androgynos is born to him, behold, he is a nazir!” implying that all children, no matter their gender, are seen as equal. These statements that are rooted in Jewish texts trace back to feminist goals of achieving equality.

Today, while gender roles still exist and play a significant role in our society, it has become more common to reject or push these roles. At my high school in Chelsea, NYC, it is common to see masculine people wearing makeup or even wearing dresses, as well as girls/feminine people with short hair and traditionally masculine clothing. Seeing these changes around me has made me so excited for the future, where people have the freedom to dress and present themselves however they want to. Cydney and I are so excited to have created this project to gain a wider perspective and start a larger conversation about how we identify and chose to express ourselves, as well as what has been rooted in our minds from a young age about what is “girly” vs. “masculine”. As I’ve grown up and been exposed to more of the world, and as times have changed, playing with gender expression has become more common and been more accepted in society. While these advancements are wonderful, we still have a lot of work surrounding the stigmatization of harmful gender stereotypes that are holding us back.


Ruby Martinez is a fellow in Kol Isha, NFTY-NAR’s NY Teen Feminist Fellowship. To read more about her and Cydney’s final project, and to take the Gender Expression & Inclusion Survey, click here.