Actually, if you could point me towards any of your preexisting writings that talk about…why you choose to wear/dress the way you do, the reality of those choices, and feelings associated with being read in the world.
A dear friend asked me this yesterday, and I realized that I have never written about these things explicitly. They are complicated and convoluted and integrate multiple facets of my life and self and identity: gender, politics, sexual identity, body dysphoria, etc. So I thought maybe I would sit down and try to write out some of how I got to where I am now- not just for her, but for my own sense of understanding the places and intersections on which I stand.
When I started dating my partner, I was a very different person in many ways, and yet…not… in others. I look back at my 22 year old self and see someone who was desperately grasping at the meaning and purpose of my life, someone that struggled to analyze the world around them but lacked the language and the tools to do so. I wore lots of button-up shirts and boot-cut jeans. I think that was my cowboy boot phase, wherein I wore my late father’s cowboy boots because they were loud and forced me to take up space.
I had to force myself to take up space back then.
And then I met this boy who lived life in a way I had never imagined. He lived with a sense of chaos I craved and the freedom to explore that somewhat safely. I was enamoured of his life but too stubborn to sink into it fully for fear of losing myself in the process. So I flitted around the edges of his world, not quite fitting in, but not entirely separate either. Something in his world resonated so strongly with me, and I wasn’t sure then if I was responding to NRE or to some deeper truth about myself and how I wanted to exist in the world.
I had been on testosterone for a couple of years and was, for the most part, pretty solidly passing as male. I was binding every day (something my back has never forgiven me for) and wearing appropriately masculine clothing because I needed to validate my identity as Not Female- and was drowning in the invisibility of my experiences and life. I showered every day (sometimes twice a day) because it was The Thing To Do, and I dealt with itchy arms all the time because deodorant was a given in my world, and it didn’t matter that it made my arms constantly break out. I wore cologne. I didn’t own any makeup and went to a salon to get my hair cut every 4-6 weeks.
I was a disgusting human trying to cover myself up with a fresh coat of paint every day. I was choking and suffocating on social rules that were well-ingrained in me from childhood without stopping to think about whether those rules made sense for how I viewed the world. I questioned everything except the fundamental building blocks of my life, and couldn’t see that my foundation was faltering. I grasped and struggled and tried- so hard- to be the person that the world expected me to be, and I was drowning in those things.
And then I met this boy.
This boy, who hung out with people who
broke every one of these rules and looked happier for it. This boy, who danced along the edges of worlds I had only dreamed about or, in the moments that I caught glimpses of them before, looked at from the outside with ache and envy. I wanted to Belong, and I didn’t.
A strange thing happens for me when I start seriously dating someone who lives solidly in worlds that I do not: I am very slow to join and integrate into those worlds. I get nervous that I am only integrating those things to be closer to them (and it’s a justifiable fear; I found my way to active addiction to meet a lover where he was at, and it nearly destroyed my life). I always want to be sure- beyond sure- that this world holds something for me, even if we part ways. Radical communities took me awhile to claim as my own; I felt like an imposter for so long, scared I was only welcomed in because I was dating someone enmeshed in that community. I fucked up a lot. I didn’t show up for people because I assumed I wasn’t the people they wanted to show up, assumed that invitations were lip service or done out of obligation. I hurt a lot of people who cared about me because I wasn’t willing to trust their affection and care.
What does this have to do with how I dress and aesthetics? Both nothing and everything. So much of my life, I dressed the way I dressed because it was expected of me. And then I hit a point where I was engaging with people looked- and acted- viscerally, tangibly different, and held the space in their skin in a way I envied and desperately wanted.
I remember saying things like, “I don’t really have the body type for skinny jeans.” I remember judging people who had curves and wore tight clothes- not because of them (let’s face it, they looked pretty hella badass), but because I lacked the courage and body confidence to do the same. I remember meeting boys in makeup and cut off short shorts and wishing I looked different, WAS different so that I could do those things.
(For anyone who knows what I look like now, this is almost comical to read.)
Anyway. I was choking and suffocating in my own skin and I didn’t know what to do with it. I was afraid that I would be seen as an imposter, but I also stuck out like a sore thumb in the spaces full of all-black-wearing, fierce, radical badasses that I was suddenly surrounded by. It started small: I had a faded pair of black skinny jeans that I had bought for a costume or something, and I put them on one day. I already lived in boots- albeit cheap ones that usually died within months of purchase- so those just stayed. But please know: it was an atrociously awkward transition period. I had one pair of jeans and a whole bunch of button up shirts, and it was a very slow transition. I tucked my button ups with rolled up sleeves into skintight jeans and crappy boots and tried to learn to take up space in my skin. I had a friend cut my hair in the kitchen for the first time and tried not to panic about the outcome (never mind that I had been doing this for years for other people). They cut lines into my head and I couldn’t stop touching them for days; the sheer novelty and brazenness of it felt… wildly subversive and rebellious. It really is comical to me, now, but at the time, I was this terrified little queer, trying to shatter the assimilationist box that I had been in all my life.
I started doing female drag and discovered the magic of makeup. I learned to feel comfortable- more comfortable than I could have ever imagined myself being- going to breakfast the next morning with the vestiges of morning-after makeup still smeared on my face. I learned to reapply touch ups to make it look good, and realized that eyeliner didn’t say shit about my identity.
I started to be seen in ways that felt real. I stopped passing 100% of the time and started to be seen as this complicated amalgamation of gender characteristics that felt like something more authentic than passing as male- or female- had ever felt. I bought more skinny jeans. My wardrobe slowly became monochromatic. I learned to feel comfortable in my skin as it moved and found church and sanctuary at crusty dance parties. I embraced my penchant for glitter and my love of dark eyeliner.
Somewhere in here, I moved to (more) rural North Carolina to finish school, and lost this beautiful, chaotic, glittering community that had suddenly become my home. I felt every pressure I had felt before to conform and fit the mold (exacerbated, I’m sure, by going to school for mathematics, a field not particularly known for diversity and inclusivity). But this was different. I had new language and tools, new ways of viewing the world. And rather than bow my head and acquiesce, I got angry and lashed out. I didn’t want to pass. I didn’t want to sink back into invisibility, another White Dude in a STEM field. My clothes got tighter. My makeup got to be more of a daily ritual than a sometimes-fix. My facial hair had grown in darker, and I wore it proudly- and besides, it fit me and made sense to me. I actively sought out ways to un-pass myself, to not sink into a chasm of invisibility and fear.
I scared the shit out of my partner, constantly. I knew just enough to be dangerous- how to fight, but not necessarily how to fight back. How to thrown down my own gauntlet of sorts, but not necessarily what to do if someone ever picked it up. (Thankfully, no one ever did, but certainly my aggressive daily presentation was a source of stress for us. He spent his time trying to fit in for survival; my reaction was entirely opposite)
So much of my aesthetics began as reactionary measures, pushing back against systems that felt strangling and oppressive. Perhaps it’s luck- although I’m not much of a believer in coincidence- but in my reactions, I have found bits and pieces of truth about myself, coming ever closer to something that feels authentic.
And so I ended up here, where I am, some strange amalgamation of gender fluidity that confuses people more often than not. But it feels real. And if parts of it were reactionary in their own way, they were also permission: permission to challenge the conversation around gender and what the narratives of trans people could sound like, permission to explore the boundaries of my own skin and see what I found there. It’s not always easy to live the ways I live, but I can breathe easier now, and that makes all the difference.