In one of my earliest memories, I’m four or five years old. My mom and I are in the living room of the house I grew up in, and I’m wearing the same dress I insisted upon wearing every day: long and red, with little white flowers all over it, and a ruffle at the hem that just brushed the tops of my feet. I had other dresses, but this was my favorite, and in this memory my mother is trying to convince me to relinquish it for washing, and I am staunchly refusing. “I’ll wash it right now,” my mother is saying. “You can have it back in an hour.”
“But then I won’t have anything to wear while you’re washing it.”
“You have a drawer full of clean pants upstairs. You can wear pants for one hour. It won’t kill you. Besides, wouldn’t that more comfortable to play in?” At this point she’s getting exasperated, because I’m being an unreasonable dick, as children are wont to be.
I stomp my feet. “No! I don’t wear pants. Girls don’t wear pants.”
“Taylor, that’s ridiculous. I’m a girl, and I’m wearing pants right now.”
“Yeah, but you’re a mommy. That’s not the same.”
You may not now be surprised to learn that my childhood nickname was “Miss Priss.”
This memory is interesting to me because a) I have grown into an adult who wears a dress maybe twice a year, and b) how did I get these ideas about what girls were “supposed” to wear so young?
Actually, it’s not hard to answer that last question. I grew up in the American Southeast in the ’80s and ’90s, consuming a steady diet of media that gave me all kinds of fucked up ideas about femininity. Or, if we want to be more charitable, we could say that these ideas lacked nuance. While it started being just about what I wore, this kind of messaging seeped into my thinking in all kinds of other ways. I spent years believing that being direct, outspoken, and intelligent meant I wasn’t “girly.” When puberty hit, my interest in dresses and ruffles waned and a mild eating disorder and body dysmorphia took over. I wore hoodies and baggy jeans to cover my body and became convinced I was ugly–for years I described myself as “practically a boy.” But this was never about feeling that I wasn’t really a girl–it was about feeling like I was somehow not being a girl correctly. I wanted to be good at womanhood, but I thought there was only one way to do that, and it was to wear things that I wasn’t comfortable in. This also had to do with not having an “ideal” female body, as I talked about in our very first post last year:
Honestly, I don’t think I began to form my own style until my late twenties, and it’s only in my thirties that I’ve really come to understand what I like and why I like it. Before, I wore what I thought I was supposed to, both trend-wise and in relation to my body type. For instance, I was always self-conscious about being tall and large, so I would try to feminize my dressing in weird ways: wearing skirts when I have never particularly liked them, gravitating toward ruffles or romantic lace details, which I love on the rack but rarely on myself. Then I swung the other way, and was strictly a T-shirt and jeans wearer because that felt easier—but I still didn’t feel like myself. It took a long time for me to accept that I have the body I have, and that doesn’t disqualify me from wearing anything, no matter what the culture at large might say about it. So, once that shift happened for me, I was finally able to figure out what I like, and that has pretty consistently been black and neutrals in simple, comfortable cuts, with nary a ruffle in sight (although I do still love a little lace now and then).
But my thinking around this has changed even since that post. In that post I also use the word “boy” to describe my style, and although I hate the word “tomboy,” I’ve used it many times as shorthand to communicate that I like comfort and pants. And the more I think about that kind of language, the stupider and more restrictive it seems. Besides, it’s not even true: I don’t feel like a boy at all. I feel very womanly, and I think I am a feminine dresser. The problem is that we still characterize femininity so narrowly (and it’s worth mentioning that if this is true for me as a cis woman, it’s doubly true for our trans sisters) that I can still make the mistake of thinking that I can’t dress the way I want to and still look like a woman.
So thank God for aging and learning new things. Hooray for opportunities to examine my thinking and learn from other people! As my relationship with femininity and what it means has evolved and I’ve stopped trying to perform my womanhood and instead just learned to inhabit it, dressing and shopping have become immeasurably easier. I can now look at a pair of satin athletic slides with a giant bow on them and say, without hesitation, “Those are so me.” And it’s true, whether or not I can put my finger on exactly why.
That’s it for this week, lovelies. Come hang with us on Facebook and Instagram, and tell us what makes you feel like you! We always want to hear.
C U Next Tuesday!