I’ve been un-ladylike most of my life. My mother grew up with five older brothers and as a single mother her tomboyish upbringing rubbed off on me. Some of my first baby pictures are in overalls and I never took issue with dirt or bugs, but at the same time for special occasions my mother would spend hours trying to get my stick-straight hair to curl and do her utmost to keep bows in it, even when under layers of church-dress-ruffles my knees were skinned. As I grew older I became more accustomed to performing femininity as was expected of my assigned gender.
Junior high school definitely stands out as a period of intense change, and desperately trying to figure out what I was or wasn’t comfortable with as far as my appearance was concerned. It didn’t help that in our “health class” the school nurse had me read aloud to the group of girls the dictionary definitions of woman vs. lady, so that we would behave like ladies now that we had hit puberty. Sixth grade revolved around grunge: Nirvana, Soundgarden, oversized flannel shirts, baggy jeans and Airwalks because I was in love with skateboarders, and my best girl friend…. Seventh grade was punctuated by really short shorts and trashy blue eye shadow and pink lipstick. By eighth grade though my best friend’s influence was strong, and I was wearing spaghetti strap tank tops with bell bottom jeans and barrel curl bangs (my best friend at the time was Mexican).
As my bangs grew out and my wannabe-skater-girl style became more comfortable I grew into my role as the brainy tomboy once again. It’s a role I’ve been comfortable with ever since. Even now, as a full-fledged adult it truly depends on the day whether I wear jeans and a T-shirt or a pencil skirt and heels. To be quite honest I’m more comfortable in jeans because it feels less like a performance and more like …existing. Too bad the androgynous look doesn’t work on everyone! So I guess I’m not the best at performing femininity either, but I have a hell of a lot more practice at it. Presenting as male or solely masculine–not just as a tomboy–not so much.
Last week some brave male friends of mine joined me at a drag show and gender swap. They looked beautiful in their skirts, leggings, shimmery eye shadow and bold lipstick. I felt so grungy in my masculine garb. Even though the clothes I was wearing I am intimately familiar with (they are my partner’s so I have seen and felt and washed and folded them numerous times) I was flat-out uncomfortable in them. Since I needed men’s clothes that could hide my curves they were baggy on me, and felt colorless. Stripping myself of my daily routine of earrings and mascara I felt exposed and vulnerable, which only added to the poor façade I was putting up.
While the boys were seeking help in applying their makeup, figuring out how to line their eyes and which blush to wear, I was… bored. Men’s clothing, men’s fashion and style are no fun. They don’t get to play with color, they have little to no accessories and their face is what they get. And if men want to dress up they have to spend a lot of money (think three-piece suit) to look formal/fashionable. While I hate that women are expected to hide their faces with make up, I also hate that men don’t have the opportunity to play with color and shape and lighting.
You may be wondering what my venture into “cross-dressing” has to do with activism but the personal is political, so even my friend and I choosing to rebel against socially constructed gender roles through our physical presentation is a political act. Most of the evening I was checking in with my friends to see if my machismo was holding up, if I was “passing.” The boys didn’t seem so concerned but for good measure I regularly reminded them that “ladies” keep their knees together and take up less space.
The whole experience was exhausting. I felt like my presentation was fairly convincing, that unless someone looked very closely they would not know I am a woman/usually present as female. Because of this I felt a huge burden to continuously “prove” my masculinity, walking with an uncomfortably exaggerated gait, standing with my shoulders back and chest out, sitting with my legs spread and staring menacingly with my lips and jaws tightened in a half-scowl. Whether or not I was actually passing… I don’t know.
I felt like I couldn’t smile, because my face, when content-looking, would reveal my usual identity. Later in the night as politics and alcohol flowed together to liven up our trio I know that I was smiling, but I never saw my own face do so while in my façade, so I don’t know if my smile did, in fact, erase all the masculinity I was trying to layer onto my decades-deep layers of femininity. I was reminded that night though that masculinity can be an uncomfortable mask for people who identify as men as well.
Whenever I would complain about my discomfort within my get-up my friend would commiserate and regale me with coming-of-age tales of small town Texas, and my heart would ache for all the boys in the world who don’t really want to be girls, but really would love to be able to wear a skirt, or lipstick every once in a while, just because they felt like it. There’s nothing wrong, at all, with men in skirts. So this is my call to action, dear readers: WEAR WHAT YOU WANT! And send me pictures of you flaunting non-traditional clothes for the gender you usually present as. I love you for who you are.