The Clothes Make the (Wo)Man

I look like a girl. A woman, to be more precise. I suppose that doesn’t come across as particularly interesting or surprising, seeing as I was assigned female at birth and primarily identify as a cis-gender woman. But that is a simplistic view of my much more complicated relationship with gender, identity, and sexuality.

My coming-out journey was wrought with ignorance. I said things like, “I could never be a lesbian, because girls are just too much.” And, “I’m bi-curious.” And, most appallingly, “That lesbian looks like a dude. I like women. W-O-M-E-N. If I wanted to date a man, I’d date a man.”

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Let’s just say I’ve evolved.

I started exploring the idea that I might not be straight in the latter years of my undergraduate degree. By then, I was married to a man, and that fact made my crisis of identity much more complicated. Because I’ve talked on this particular subject over and over, I’m not going to explore it here. What I do wish to say is that I was and had always been very susceptible to the messages about what a girl should look like and act like, and while I fancied myself a fiery, outspoken feminist, I pretty much fell in line with societal standards, particularly with regards to beauty.

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An actual photo of me from college. I am pretty sure this was taken right after I returned from my honeymoon in Brazil.

The first butch woman I ever met was a sandy-blond, short-haired lesbian named Katie. She wore men’s jeans and shoes, played guitar, and introduced me to the term “family.”

“Are you family?” she asked me once in a dark corner at a house party. Her breath was tinged with the sweet smell of Jack Daniels, and she leaned in ever-so-slightly when she spoke. My thighs still tense at the memory.

The cringe-worthy quote from above? I said that about her. I couldn’t understand what women saw in her (at least not until our one-on-one moment at the party), and there were A LOT of women. Katie was a fixture at the queer parties, dances, and drag shows that were becoming my weekend norm. And each time I saw her, she had a different woman on her arm. Then, the woman on her arm was my best friend, Natascha.

I could not fathom why or how Natascha could find this person attractive. She didn’t have a slim figure, luxurious hair, soft skin, or any of the other qualities I associated with being an attractive woman. One of Katie’s most famous jokes was that she knew she was having a good hair day when someone called her a faggot. This happened often enough that she had to come up with a way to be okay with it.

The epithet is gross and hateful, but tucked inside is also something important. She was androgynous. She could float between two worlds and did not have to stake a claim to one gender over the other. At the time, I couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) understand how or why she did this, and more importantly, I couldn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t) understand why it perplexed and intrigued me. Why, deep down, I found it compelling. Sexy, even. I couldn’t admit that to myself or to others.

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This androgynous hotness is now my wife. Clearly, things change.

Quietly, my perceptions of gender, sexuality, and attraction changed. I began to find more body types appealing, more gender presentations achingly hot, and, in turn, started to analyze my own looks.

I didn’t look “like a lesbian.” This troubled me, because not only did it mean that once I did the painful work of fully and officially coming out, people didn’t believe me, but it also meant I had a really hard time getting a damn date. The two go hand-in-hand. Natascha once posed the philosophical question, “Is it more difficult to be outwardly, obviously gay, and never have to come out, but be subjected to hostile, hateful, and dangerous reactions to your sexuality, or is it more difficult to be outwardly perceived as straight, and have to come out every day, over and over?” The same question could be posed about gender identity.

I don’t believe there is an answer to this, because obviously both can be equally demoralizing and dangerous, particularly for trans people. (Sidenote: do not come into my mentions and EVER bring up the idea that trans women are “hiding” or “tricking” men, or vice versa.) But the question has lingered in my mind over the years, because I have often faced the latter of the two conundrums. And FYI, it sucks.

Because I wanted to attract lesbians, I started to dress “like a lesbian.” I wore men’s board shorts, ribbed white tank tops, sports bras, etc. I looked exactly like what you’re picturing–someone playing “dress-up.” (And apparently my dress-up was as a frat boy?)

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I Google image searched “frat boy” and this came up. You’re welcome.

But the thing is, I always felt the same way when I wore dresses or skirts–like I was putting something on to fit into an ideal that was placed on me but wasn’t me. I was in a sort of no-man’s land. I could and would never be butch. But I wasn’t all femme, either.

It has taken me years to figure out that people are not required to live in dichotomies. I don’t have to be gay or straight, femme or butch, cis or trans. I can travel between these worlds whenever I please, calling all of them home if I so desire. And I do desire this, the kind of fluidity that I realize now I always needed.

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Style goals.

I do not like wearing skirts or dresses, unless it’s an extremely special occasion and I really feel like dressing up. I love jeans and pants, I have a killer leather motorcycle jacket that brings me more joy than a material object should, and I steal my (butcher) wife’s plaid flannels on a weekly basis. I like wearing makeup, and especially love to experiment with bold lip colors. I have half of my head shaved, and I like it that way. My hair is short, edgy, and ever-changing. I wear sports bras most days now, because I like minimizing the size of my chest. This helps me fit into clothes better and makes me more comfortable. Even though it’s taken me 34 years, I am finally starting to understand what I want to look like on the outside and how it can accurately reflect who I am on the inside. I am feminine and masculine. I am delicate and aggressive. I am casual and formal. I am a tomboy femme. (And some days I’m not. Fluidity for the win!)

But here’s the thing: as I said before, I look like a woman. Meaning, I have full, round, large breasts, wide hips, a short torso, thin legs, and small feet. Lately, I’ve been on the hunt for masculine-of-center (MOC) clothes, and I know exactly what I want.

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Delicate, v-neck top paired with necklace=feminine. Blazer, Oxfords, and loose jeans=masculine. #tomboyfemmeperfection

Knowing what I want to wear and being able to find it is another story. Which brings me to this week’s new thing.

I signed up for Stitch Fix and received my first box this week. Stitch Fix is a clothing subscription service in which you are assigned a personal stylist who compiles a box of clothing to arrive at your home based on your body measurements/sizes and style preferences. I signed up for two reasons: 1) I hate shopping and was not having an easy time finding the kind of clothing I wanted, and 2) I was curious to see if a company that so obviously geared towards very feminine presenting people could modify and adapt to a person looking to find MOC wardrobe pieces.

I filled out my online profile and answered truthfully. I wanted the clothes to fit, after all.

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Curves for daaaays.
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No dresses please!

I was extremely skeptical that there was going to be an actual human being who would read my profile and custom design a box based on my wants and needs. I was pretty sure there was some sort of algorithm that sorted the info of its users and compiled a list of basic pieces for factory workers to throw into a box. I came by this idea honestly–a friend of mine told me that two women she works with have shown up to important meetings and conferences in the same outfit as each other on two separate occasions.

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Honesty is the best policy.

My box arrived on Tuesday, and I was far more excited than I was willing to admit. Inside was a pair of green twill skinny pants, a chambray shirt, a red and black plaid flannel, a boyfriend-style wool sweater, and a navy blue wool blazer. The skinny pants were a total dud. First off, they were cropped, and I do not wear cropped pants unless it is 70 degrees out and I have sandals on. Second, they made me look very…I don’t know, mom-ish.

You’d think the chambray shirt and flannel would have been on point, but both of them were only partial button-ups. I’ve never understood that trend. Why would anyone want a shirt with three buttons? I prefer the men’s style of a full button-up shirt. Plus, they were both very loose and baggy, which made me look slightly pregnant, and definitely did not work with a sports bra.

The wool sweater and blue blazer, though, were absolute perfection. There is only one other clothing item in my life that I slipped on and felt as though it had been designed specifically for me, and that is my aforementioned leather jacket. The blazer was masculine in style and color, but the shoulders were narrow enough to fit my small frame and the waist nipped in at the perfect spot for my torso. Plus, it has elbow patches! And the sweater was equally gratifying. It didn’t feel particularly gendered, and it wasn’t fitted in the waist, like so many sweaters meant for women.

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Wool sweater and blazer paired with men’s jeans from American Eagle.

Also included in the box was a note from my stylist, Ashley. She made specific mention of my Pinterest board dedicated to tomboy femme style, and described each piece in the box using some of the language I used in my style profile.

I’m pretty happy with this first box, even though I kept only two items. Truthfully, I didn’t think I’d like a single item, so Stitch Fix is already working out better than I thought. When I filled out my return, I asked Ashley to look for specific items that I’ve been struggling to find–Oxford shoes and straight-legged pants.

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These are men’s shoes. I do not fit men’s shoes. This is why I need help.

Walking out in clothes that match how I feel on the inside has been an exhilarating journey for me. It has taken me years to undo deeply ingrained ideas about gender, sexuality, and beauty. People no longer doubt that I’m a lesbian, and that goes for when I’m in a flowy dress or men’s jeans and a blazer. But one of those is more “me” than the other, and knowing that is a gift.

 

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