What drawing faces taught me about gender

Sometime around middle school, I became obsessed with drawing faces. During long lectures on the Civil War or powerpoint slides of mitochondria, I would draw them in the margins of my notebook paper in ballpoint pen. It started out with stylized faces, like in anime and manga, but soon their eyes and noses became too simplistic for me— I started drawing wide eyes and eyelids, full nostrils, and thick lips. Teachers began to comment. They started asking if I was paying attention with these full scale facial studies of people I’d never seen peeking behind algebraic properties.

Eventually though, I realized my focus in class wasn’t necessarily the problem, I suddenly saw that I only drew female faces. I mean, it wasn’t that big of a surprise. I actively sought out books with female lead characters. As a fifth grader, I felt kind of guilty about my deep obsession with Harry Potter, but actually the focus of my attention was always on Hermione. I tried my hardest to play video games led by women or characters I could could pretend were women. I was so lucky that Link in Legend of Zelda has a ponytail and you can’t really tell his gender.

This only-drawing-women thing though, really got to me. I would go through websites and see all of these people drawing male characters and couples. My angsty 14 year old heart just wanted to draw a boy and girl making out and the prospect of it just seemed impossible. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have male characters I wanted to draw. But these fully formed characters I could see clearly in my mind’s eye and no matter how I tried, they just looked female.

So I did exactly what a girl obsessed with Hermione Granger would do: I researched. I would tell myself, Women are soft. Men are hard. They have jaws. You make them out of triangles. Women have full lips and eyelashes; they wear makeup. A male face is drawn with straight, hard, pressed down lines. Female faces are made of round concentric circles and drawn with soft lines.

It’s only now that I know why I couldn’t make it work: the lessons didn’t make any sense.

I would start to harden my lines, spend less time on the eyes, and stop myself from making full lips—just a simple hard line. Then I would see my work and totally regress.  I would shade and soften the outline of the face, put little eyelashes and emphasize the eyes, and just articulate the lips a little further, I just wanted the boy to look like I had drawn him. I wanted to be able to escape in drawing a male face the way I do in a female face and I would look: another woman. And I couldn’t understand: Don’t men have lips? Don’t men have soft faces and eyelashes? Don’t men have big eyes and don’t they have eyes that shine?

And the answer is: of course they do.

Years later, I see that the problem wasn’t my drawing skills or the features I was adding: the problem was my perceptions. Along with the nonsense that girls are supposed to like pink and boys are supposed to like blue, I had been indoctrinated with the idea that boys cannot be soft and beautiful, that those characteristics belong to girls. Someone’s face has nothing to do with their gender, just as their body doesn’t either. It’s not the qualities of the face that make a character a man or a woman, but the character itself.

I spent all of those years trying to edit my drawing style to fit different genders when I should have just been editing the way I think. There is no specific way a man or woman should look, it is just who they are. The world is full of people that don’t look like your stereotypes. There are women made of hard lines and triangles. There are men who are soft and curvy. There are women with short cropped hair and facial hair, and men with long flowing hair that are hairless virtually everywhere else.

Gender has nothing to do with preconceived notions or should-be’s or should-not’s, it’s not about hard or soft lines, it’s not even about art or real life: it’s about the character of the person who claims it. I eventually started uploading my soft lined and big eyed boys accepting that I had an androgynous style. I don’t know if it’s a common experience for young artists, gendering their work, but today, I’m glad I can see it for what it was and what to take from it.

Katy Koop is a recent graduate from Meredith College with degrees in English and Theatre. She has a website at katykoop.com and can be found trying to get advice from celebrities on Twitter @katykooped.

[Image via iStock]