Anyone who’s known me for longer than a year, however superficially, knows I’ve undergone some dramatic changes lately when it comes to how I present myself. I suppose it’s not so obvious for everyone that these changes have been a long time coming. They would have come a lot earlier, if not for the strange way my strongly individualistic nature has clashed with my equally strong desire to fit in and follow the rules.
I was bullied as a kid – surprise surprise – and although that time has definitely left its scars, the strange thing is how I can’t remember what I was bullied for. Kids make up all sorts of arbitrary reasons to pick on each other, of course, but usually these reasons are communicated to the victim. Not so much, in my case. Anyway, I do remember one time where a boy accused me of having cheated on a test. I remember it because that was one of the few times I hit back (verbally, at least). Because the very implication that I might have cheated got me furious.
Okay, but what’s this got to do with style? In my case, everything, as it turns out.
A need to follow rules has been a very strong theme in my life, without me knowing it. I always considered myself a very individualistic person, an outsider who likes to do things their own way. But fact of the matter is, I’m terrified of being caught having done something wrong. Even if that is simply wearing my hair wrong or combining the wrong pieces of clothing.
At the same time I’ve been actively uninterested in fashion. As in, I considered it anathema to the person I wanted to be. There were styles like synth and goth that appealed a lot to me ever since I was a teenager, but where I felt like trying them out would be putting on a costume. I listened to the wrong music, I didn’t have the energy or interest in learning to wear make-up … basically, I thought I had to buy the entire package to be allowed to wear the clothes and hairstyles I thought looked cool.
All this meant that I often dressed well, and in some ways originally, but always somewhat conservatively.
So that’s one aspect of what I used to look like. But my need to do things right didn’t just mean shutting myself out of alternative fashion. It also meant that I restricted myself to an imaginary binary.
Stuck in the Binary
It’s been a couple of years since I realised I completely lack a gender identity (what this means exactly is something I’ll probably get back to in a future post). When I first did, I didn’t think much of it. I’m AFAB and wore femme clothing, and as such enjoyed all the privileges, such as they are, of being interpreted as a ciswoman. And since gender literally means nothing to me, I didn’t really care if people kept thinking of me as a woman.
I also made one of the most embarrassing errors of thought I can remember: I thought, “Well, if I’m gonna dress as a man, I’d want to pass, and with these wide hips and narrow shoulders, ain’t no way that’s ever gonna happen.”
It never once struck me that there are other ways to present myself than fully feminine or fully masculine. That there’s a whole spectrum of gender expression, I knew. That there are plenty of people breaking the binary and challenging norms, I knew. I applauded and looked up to them. But for myself, I was completely entrenched in binary thinking.
So I thought that if I couldn’t pass, dressing masculine was pointless, and I told myself that with these wide hips of mine there simply was no chance of ever fooling anyone. Except perhaps very briefly, if seen at a distance. Simply going butch was never on the map, and what’s even stranger, it never struck me that I could dress androgynously. Even though I’ve carried a life-long fascination with androgyny.
All this changed, obviously. It changed through meeting the right people. The first step was, somewhat ironically, embracing femininity. Although I definitely had an interest in looking good before, I suffered from internalised femmephobia, which prevented me from wearing skirts and the colour pink. It’s okay, you can laugh. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
The first step involved meeting a man who was interested in fashion. Not fashion as in what’s fashionable, but as in how to find clothes that suit yourself as a person, how to combine them to accentuate good features, etcetera. And I realised that hey, this is actually a legitimate interest. A hobby, even. One doesn’t have to be shallow or vain (attributes frequently associated with femme) to find this interesting or fun. Besides, if I refused to wear clothes I liked simply because our culture tells me I should wear them because of my perceived gender, then in a way, culture would still be winning.
And that was the beginning of my femme revolution.
Over the next few years I enjoyed a variety of styles with a focus on around-kneelength skirts and brightly coloured and patterned tights. I mostly went either for conservatively cute (as opposed to full lolita) or high femme.
The problem was, it still wasn’t me.
Letting Go of the Rules
The final change began when I started hanging out with the people who are now my closest friends (and in some cases, lovers). Suddenly I was surrounded with piercings and sidecuts and interesting, norm-breaking styles of dress and above all, a very relaxed attitude towards it. They were not cliqueish in the least, and when I started expressing an interest in trying out some new style elements – like dying my hair in unnatural shades – this was met with enthusiastic support and offers of help.
And so I took my first few careful steps. A purple ombre. A discreet undercut. A not so discreet medusa piercing. A sidecut. Another sidecut.
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I am not a woman. I don't know what it feels like to have a gender identity at all, which is why I style myself agender. I am not a woman. I have learned to play the part, and to some extent it has been both enjoyable and empowering to embrace chosen parts of hegemonic femininity. But it doesn't define me. It never has. I am not a woman, but I know what it feels like to be seen as and treated as one. Thus I am a feminist. Today, on Intl Women's Day, I ponder how lucky I am to live in a time and place that allows me to think about gender identity and expression in terms like these. Most people never had that luxury. So – here's to past victories, and future success. #internationalwomensday #iwd #iwd2016 #nonbinary #enby #agender
And then, sometime this spring, I had many long conversations about gender identity and expression with my partner Deus, and through these realised what should have been obvious all along: I had been LARPing a woman, and for a long time felt comfortable in that role. But I didn’t have to keep doing that. I didn’t have to pretend to be anything that wasn’t me.
I could, in fact, start dressing to look androgynous. Or butch. Or weird. Or whatever I feel like at the moment.
And that’s where I am today. I cut my hair off and dyed it black and purple. I wear a fake leather jacket and prefer men’s clothing, especially trousers, which just have so much more space than the ridiculously tight trousers I wore before. I also happily abandoned the grossly uncomfortable underwire push-ups I had squeezed my diminutive bosom into (telling myself I needed it to get closer to the much-coveted hour-glass figure), in favour of sports bras.
And not just that – I started sitting differently. And standing, and walking. I suddenly became acutely aware of how I, while trying to act like a woman, had constantly been policing my own behaviour, adjusting it to fit the idea of what an attractive female person should be like. Now, I’m finding it amusing to try to emulate male ideals instead, in an attempt to perhaps land somewhere in the middle.
In the end, this journey (which obviously isn’t over yet) has led to all sorts of insights about myself and how I express my personality through my exterior attributes. I’m happy to say I haven’t just become far more relaxed about how I present myself, but also less judgmental of others. In the end, the important thing is to dress and look the way you like and feel comfortable with.
So, if you’re reading this and feeling even the slightest twinge of envy: Just Do It. Go on and buy that piece you’ve been ogling but didn’t think you’d dare wear, or get your trimmer and shave a side-cut. It’s less scary and more liberating than you think, and you can always change your mind.