I thought I’d moved beyond my days of Panicking in Northeast Iowan Malls
February 24, 2014 10:00 AM   Subscribe

"Girls who wanted to be my friend wanted to help me get better at being a girl. Like a Bridget Jones-esque makeover montage, I let them burn my forehead with curling irons, poke me in the eyes with eyeliner pencils, and look me up and down in dressing rooms. I was so thrilled for the friendships I was convinced I enjoyed the forehead burning (my same friend, always burning me in the same place, before every quarterly Junior High dance, as reliable as the changing of the seasons). What began in early adolescence– genuine friendships forged through drag-like gender performance– continued well into adulthood." -- Molly Knefel writes about growing up gender nonconforming.
posted by MartinWisse (26 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
"boy boots" .. geeze how I hate beating into my kids they are just boots. Bugs me to no end when I hear that ..
posted by k5.user at 10:28 AM on February 24, 2014

Been there, done that. 1985 Me had her camo army jacket and fedora (shut up it was 1985 and I had a vintage hat collection) roundly disapproved of at her new school, where the girls tried to convince me floral henleys from The Limited and curled bangs (ow, my burned forehead) were infinitely better.

I can fake the girly stuff when needed now but day to day my husband and I have a wardrobe so similar my mom puts things away in the wrong closet when she helps me fold laundry.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:38 AM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Toast is a national treasure.

Thirty-odd years on, I still get called "it." People who are certainly old enough to know better still ask me what I am while I'm just trying to check out at the goddamned grocery store -- my usual answer is "a person," but if it's a kid asking "boy or girl?" and their parents are looking on with curiosity instead of scolding them, the answer is a simple but resounding "YES." A while back, I was at a hotel that was hosting some kind of convention, and one of the convention attendees walked up to me and said this directly to my face when I got in line to check out: "You're either a butch dyke or the ugliest boy I've ever seen! So which one is it?" I just had to walk away, because when you look like I do, you get used to hearing shit like that no matter what, and you cannot win.

It's exhausting just trying to live without comment in a world that so constantly reinforces the notion that men like/are like X and women like/are like Y, and if a man likes Y then he is either gay or actually a woman, just as a woman who likes X is either gay or actually a man. Which doesn't even touch on the hilarity that is trying to enter the dating pool as an extremely straight woman who is also extremely gender nonconforming -- spoiler alert! Dudes don't really dig it. I'm constantly accused of hiding my True Sexuality (read: I must be lying about being 0-on-the-Kinsey-scale straight) or True Gender (read: I must be lying about being a woman).

Meanwhile, the occasions on which I'm forced to don the type of formal attire that is designed to fit my body and others like it continue to grow increasingly intolerable -- it is just unspeakably awkward to look in a mirror on a special occasion and see not a joyful or celebratory human, but a woman who is draped in some ghastly cocktail gown with makeup smeared on her face at someone else's behest. Sometimes it makes me feel downright dissociative, like I'm looking at A Woman Who Looks Like Me But Is Definitely Not Me, Because I Would Never Ever Wear This. But I do it because more than a few people would flip their shit if I wore a nice suit with a cute tie instead of a long sparkly dress. And sometimes you just want to go to your friends' wedding to drink, chat, and be merry instead of making a political statement with your appearance and answering questions about it all night.

When it's so widely accepted that specific sorts of attire and behavior are the sole province of women, and that women as a whole enjoy wearing and doing things Like That -- in stark contrast to men as a whole, who enjoy wearing and doing things Like This -- the world is basically telling folks like us that we've fallen woefully short of being Male or Female Enough, and thus that we've somehow failed to embody our true selves in a way that makes our secondary sex characteristics readily and sufficiently identifiable. Just as my high school boyfriend was immediately escorted off campus and given an out-of-school suspension because he wore a skirt to class one day, similar demands have been made for me and mine to wear dresses, heels, etc. because those are things that girls wear, and we're girls, so...

To be honest, I still don't know what the concept of gender as it relates to clothing and personality is even supposed to represent, aside from a feeble attempt at post hoc ergo propter hoc. Where is it decided what sorts of behavior can be considered "masculine" as opposed to "feminine," and how do I submit my request to do away with these stilted categories, which are so broad as to've been rendered altogether meaningless? Why is it that pink used to be a "boy's color" but now it's only for girls? When was it decided that men are strong, fearless, and rational, while women are weak, timorous, and overemotional? Who calls the shots?

No matter where you go, there's this constant slant toward demanding that gender nonconforming people must either alter/reign in our modes of self-expression or switch sides altogether so that we may more neatly fit ourselves into one (1) of the two (2) boxes from which we are so magnanimously allowed to choose. Is it obnoxiously idealistic to wonder why any of it even matters? Clothes, hobbies, careers, interests, charms and hopes and hindrances -- they're all just add-ons for our base model: Homo sapiens sapiens.

Worth a read, also, too: Why patriarchy fears the scissors: for women, short hair is a political statement.
posted by divined by radio at 11:29 AM on February 24, 2014 [87 favorites]

ohgod I wore my grandfather's waistcoat and a bowler. And checkerboard leggings, to complete the mental portrait. I think I was going for something like the guy in this video, but I harbored great consternation about the awesome skinny leather suspenders I thrifted being incompatible with the burgeoning bosom. Baggy and Grunge came in with some relief, and my mother at one point asked me with palpable disgust if I was "a lesbian or something," paradoxically in the midst of constant accusatory speculation about what I was doing with and to boys.

It's lovely to know as an adult that I can sample from any and all the offerings at the buffet - and I recognize that privilege. My most significant challenge is the dichotomy of not feeling terribly suited to the whole girl-thing, but also to have internalized a powerful (or power-less) sense of "you're more helpful if you get out of the way" and "don't touch it, you'll break it" that is quite hard to get over, especially with an audience. So I have my own tools I can do stuff with in secret, but I still have way too much anxiety about driving our Great Big Truck (it's only an F-150.)
posted by Lou Stuells at 11:50 AM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh - divined by radio's boyfriend in the skirt gave me a fond smile by association, in spite of the infuriating circumstance of the original incident. It was the anecdote that reminded me, because it's not an association I make ordinarily to skirts, but my husband and best conspirator is a kilt enthusiast, having sewn his own, adapted his own jackets, knit his own hose - not remotely drag, but a mite too close for many men's comfort, especially in our blaze-orange-and-Carhartt neck of the literal woods. (The funny thing is how much enthusiasm the kilt elicits from women: nota bene, dudes, lots of chicks apparently dig fuzzy knees!)

Nowadays I do buy off the women's side of the store - clothing tailored to my body shape feels less pajama-y. But the garments I most covet lately? They still happen to be men's fashions from the past: a hussar jacket and a justacorps coat.

Divined by radio, do the styles you might find from a search for 'feminine tuxedo' do anything for you? Tailoring and a scarf can do a lot to soften a look. I do think everyone can look fantastic while being true to themselves and their identity and comfort, though I am first to admit plenty of us aren't versed in how to get there. Hopefully figuring it all out is fun, once you give yourself permission.
posted by Lou Stuells at 12:30 PM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I once had one of my father's custom tailored white trousers (baggy! with men's style pockets!) resized for me properly by a tailor. I used to wear his hand me down shirts as well and slouch around.
posted by infini at 12:54 PM on February 24, 2014

My secret weapon is boxers! Since I was sixteen I've been wearing boys' boxers instead of girls' undies. Even on occasions I feel like it's expected of me to dress more feminine, I have a secret underneath and it is my comfy, stylish boxers. Makes me feel like it's okay to play dress-up so long as I stay true to myself underneath.
posted by alona at 1:19 PM on February 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

In my more optimistic moments I think that it would be great if the definition of genders expanded to comprise everyone within them, instead of making them feel excluded. I am a woman, thus everything I do is womanly, even if it doesn't conform to current standards.

Because as someone who is most definitely a woman, but prefers short hair, non-fussy clothes, works in a male-dominated profession and and fixes my own bike (etc), it honestly hurts a little bit when I see people who I see as kindred spirits decide that because they're not like a stereotypical "girl" they must be a "boy." Having not gone through that kind of decision I'm sure there's a lot more to it, but articles like this (as awesome as it is) don't do much to dispel that kind of thinking.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 2:03 PM on February 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

And I just want to hand out hugs to everyone who's been referred to as "it" or straight-out asked "What are you?" because that's just insane. I've never really understood the vehemence that people seem to have about categorizing gender, even for just random people they encounter. Is there really such a difference in how you're going to treat someone if they're a man or a woman?
posted by jeweled accumulation at 2:10 PM on February 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

I am so happy to see this article and also divined by radio's post.

The worst was last year, when I was seriously unemployed, broke, and trying to find some kind of day job backup option. A friend of mine waits tables, and I talked to her about there maybe being jobs at her restaurant. "I don't know if working there would be for you. You'd be expected to dress up, you know, like you were going on a date."

WTF even is "appropriately dressed to go on a date?"

Last week I hung out with the dude I've been seeing and we showed up dressed almost identically.

It's like femininity is a foreign language.

Of course, I'm not really that gender nonconforming. I will wear women's clothing, even dresses. (A lot of that is down to being petite -- I can't really shop in the men's section.) And I sometimes like some "girly" things, and am not really handy at fixing stuff or good at sports. I'm pretty sure some people probably don't even realize how much trouble I have with this stuff. If gender was a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being SUPER FEMININE and 10 being SUPER MASCULINE, I would probably be somewhere between 4-6.

I haven't been misgendered since I put on ~15 pounds a few years ago. I know I'm "overweight" for my height/body type now, but I don't care because nobody calls me sir anymore.

Nowadays my main concern has shifted from how I'm gendered by strangers to, as divined by radio said, how do you even date when you're androgynous. Not male. Not butch. Just a person who doesn't fucking want to do like 90% of appearing female.
posted by Sara C. at 2:33 PM on February 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I relate to all of this except the part about the other girls taking an interest in how she was mis performing femininity and wanting to help. The only femininity police I met were the kind who demanded to know who your crush was, and the excuse that finding these illiterate 10-13 year olds unattractive doesn't make one gay wasn't acceptable. The mysteries of hair, makeup, sanitary care and wardrobe I had to wrestle with on my own.
posted by bleep at 3:30 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my experience it depends whether the girls in question actively want to be your friend or actively want to exclude you.

For instance I currently have a friend who is like "LET ME HOLD YOU DOWN AND PUT GLITTERY SHIT ON YOU", but I have also met many women who take one look at me and have no interest in being friends. Those are the ones who tend to be the enforcers.

Luckily there are also lots of women out there who don't give a shit and want me to be myself and feel no need to give me makeovers.
posted by Sara C. at 3:39 PM on February 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

Is there really such a difference in how you're going to treat someone if they're a man or a woman?

For a lot of people, yes. That's why it's the first question almost anyone asks about you, even before you're born. So creepy.
posted by asperity at 3:39 PM on February 24, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's too bad she wasn't born a few years earlier. I remember when I was an adolescent in the early 90s, so many people (male and female) seemed to have that short, bowl type haircut. And grunge was becoming a thing, so jeans and a baggy shirt was practically a uniform for everyone, with stompy boots or sneakers. People still got shit for being gender non-conforming, but it seems like at least the clothes and hair had a bit more leeway for awhile.
posted by madelf at 5:53 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am exactly in that demographic, madelf, and I frankly feel like the more gender-fluid clothes of the 90s make it harder for me now.

On the one hand, I didn't have to go through adolescence worrying (much) about gender nonconforming. (I generally thought it was funny when I got misgendered.)

On the other hand, I pretty much woke up one day in like 2009 and realized that I had missed some kind of memo. I think I might have categorized myself on some kind of gender wtfuckery spectrum in a more assertive way if I had grown up with the balkanized situation we now find ourselves in. Instead I'm just like, "Wait, so what do you wear to go on a date? Not jeans and a mostly clean shirt?"

I kind of wonder if this is what it felt like to have been a factory worker in the 40s and then you wake up one day and it's like 1955 and everyone is wearing crinolines and shit.
posted by Sara C. at 5:58 PM on February 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was in high school in the early 90s, gender nonconforming and queer and with fabulous punk hair. I don't think grunge style was uniform at all, there were still distinct gender norms within it and I got a ton of shit for not performing femininity both from the people I expected it from and from other outsiders, usually with a hefty serving of homophobia.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:27 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Could just have been a regional thing then - I can only speak to my own high school experience, and what I witnessed during that time period. I don't even think most of my classmates would have classified themselves as having "grunge" style - just that grunge had enough of an impact to make that sort of dressing pretty normal at my school for the entire time I was there. I felt like I stood out a lot more when I would wear a dress and heels (outside of a dance or "formal" event), then I did in jeans and dr. martens.
posted by madelf at 6:42 PM on February 24, 2014

I basically dressed like Tai from Clueless in high school (post Dionne/Cher makeover). I looked like crap in carpenter pants, not that I didn't try it.
posted by sweetkid at 6:43 PM on February 24, 2014

I missed so many memos. Trying to move beyond my comfort zone only seemed to bring more obvious public failure. When I was old enough to lose the Cindy Brady pigtails, I wanted a haircut somewhere between Billy and Ziggy. Unfortunately, mom's stylist worked in a different demographic, and instead gave me something that put me more in the range between Blanche and Dorothy.

And I was well north of thirty goddamn years old before I realized that all the girls in school had perms. I thought that everyone but me just had naturally curly hair.
posted by Lou Stuells at 6:45 PM on February 24, 2014

So much yes! My mother was clueless about femininity in a way that was great for me long-term but painful at the time, and she taught me nothing. Other girls gender-shamed me into shaving my legs, "fixing" my eyebrows, pretending to care about boy bands, etc. ad nauseum.

I have a particularly vivid memory of a friend and I getting ready to go out one New Year's. I was in a corner diligently spit-polishing my thirteen-hole Doc Martens, and my friend (who was gorgeous, and modelled her look on Like A Virgin-era Madonna) fixed me with the world's most withering, pitying stare and said this: "He's not going to care about your *boots.* How about we pay some attention to your hair, and maybe I find you some nice earrings."

It was a long time ago and it's funny to me now. But at the time it was just one long string of mortifying fail.

I am really glad that these days there's nobody around me who's invested in being the gender police. Yay for big cities, choosing your friends based on interests not proximity, and the passage of time.
posted by Susan PG at 7:39 PM on February 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Arrgh. My (massive) breasts ended my androgynous style way too soon, but as a mainstream female, I still find myself doing the makeup things that I don't want to, so that I can date (because I already shrunk the pool by wanting smart guys).

My go to theoretical model for all confusing human behaviour is "how would this work in a prehistoric village" - not that it helps, but it soothes me. Promiscuous sex, for example, (in my imagined village but not all, please check with the bylaws of your own imagined village) is no big deal, and it doesn't come with the repercussions that it might in contemporary urban society. Dressing to suit oneself - also, no big deal, provided you didn't steal the feathers off the chook of the head shaman, and might even be a signal to a potential mate that you are interesting and independent, rather than weird, neurotic and something to dodge. Like an not-yet invented bullet.
posted by b33j at 5:00 AM on February 25, 2014

genuine friendships forged through drag-like gender performance
It's not drag-like; it's drag, plain and simple, just like everything else. Sure, some people have a stronger natural preference for some forms of sartorial gender epxression than others, but as my girl RuPaul always says, "You're born naked, and the rest is drag." I wish we could move toward a world where that's more openly recognized and discussed.

My secret weapon is boxers! Since I was sixteen I've been wearing boys' boxers instead of girls' undies.

OMG, men's boxers are the best. As soon as it's warm enough to ditch the heavy tights, I'm in men's boxers and bare legs under skirts. Sure, they make boxers "for women," but they're generally poor quality, badly sewn, with seams that crawl up your hoo-ha the minute you take a step. I may be wearing a full-length peasant skirt, but give me a pair of boxers underneath and I feel as free as John Muir striding across the Sierra Nevadas.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:34 AM on February 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am the daughter of a woman who Performs Femininity, and who is pretty damn convinced that there is a Right Way and a Wrong Way to do so. I have been doing it Wrong pretty much my entire life, to her constant dismay.

As a kid I submitted to having my hair blow-dried with extreme reluctance, knowing it would frizz up again by the end of the day; I lived in jeans and t-shirts and regarded makeup as a dark art.

These days, I actually enjoy having a feminine wardrobe-- I live in 1950s full-skirted day dresses, mostly-- but I only bother to pin-curl my hair once every few weeks, and makeup happens once in a blue moon. So I'm still Doing it Wrong, because I'm not wearing the right *kinds* of dresses and I don't shave my legs.

My mother only stopped threatening to sic What Not to Wear on me when the show went off the air, despite the fact that I own a small business selling vintage clothing, get daily compliments on my outfits, and dress other people-- to their apparent satisfaction-- for a living. Because I'm still Doing it Wrong, by her lights.
posted by nonasuch at 6:35 AM on February 25, 2014

It's not drag-like; it's drag, plain and simple, just like everything else.

The problem is that drag is a prison when it's forced on you.

It's hard for me to mentally compare "I have to wear my Gender Conforming Lady costume to this job interview or I won't be able to eat" to the kind of joyful experimentation with gender roles and performance that drag tends to embody nowadays.
posted by Sara C. at 8:37 AM on February 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

-It's not drag-like; it's drag, plain and simple, just like everything else.

--The problem is that drag is a prison when it's forced on you.

--It's hard for me to mentally compare "I have to wear my Gender Conforming Lady costume to this job interview or I won't be able to eat" to the kind of joyful experimentation with gender roles and performance that drag tends to embody nowadays.

Oh, no question. Having anything forced on you takes the fun out of it. I know I’ve been incredibly lucky to have landed in conditions where I’m free to choose a lot of my own expression for myself without too many unwanted consequesnces.

But there’s also this to consider. Ciswomen who don female drag and perform femininity are rewarded for it in most aspects of their daily lives. Men who do the same thing, although most of them describe getting started in it for very personal reasons and finding it personally rewarding beyond the paycheck, only gain rewards from it in certain, limited aspects of their lives, and are severely punished for it in others. Many lose lifelong relationships, some with parents and other loved ones.

So, there are rewards and punishments to be had from conforming to any gender performance, whether it’s the one associated with the sex and gender assigned to you at birth or not. I imagine there are a complicated series of circumstances in everyone’s life that lead one to weigh up whether A. those aspects of performance suit one's self and make one happy, and/or B. it’s worth it to change them if they don’t.

Enfin, my intention wasn't to declare that either "drag-like" or "drag" was better, safer, easier, or more rewarding than the other; it was simply to state my belief that the distinction between the two in this case was nebulous at best,
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:09 AM on February 25, 2014

There is something amazing happening in fashion where certain women have been quite successful at not just wearing menswear but becoming tastemakers of haute menswear with their style. While this is a very small faction, and many times they are still mixing in a lot of feminine signifiers, it's seems to be indicative of a large shift in acceptability. When Esther Quek makes her appearance a men's fashion week, people take notes. She is not just accepted for her sartorial choices, she is revered.

There is a growing acceptability in high fashion for nonconforming gender expression. It is still plagued by a lot of the same issues as mainstream high fashion, and the line is definitely a lot trickier to walk, but it is slowly becoming possible to dress for a formal occasion in a nonconforming way as a style statement and not a political statement. For someone who struggles with dissociation when being railroaded into a cocktail dress, perhaps this would be a great relief.

It's not enough. Not by a long shot. But it is a start.
posted by hindmost at 8:35 AM on March 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

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