It’s not a ‘Femme’ Thing – The Power of Clothing & Identity

1 04 2016

The Tomboy & the Awkward Teens

Growing up, I was a pretty awesome tomboy. I ran to keep up with my two older brothers, scraping knees and dirtying dresses to try to climb into the forbidden tree house in the woods. I caught frogs and bathed turtles in the dog’s water bowl. As a preteen, I went back and forth between wearing baggy clothes to hide my shape, and conceding to my best friend’s fashion advice about short shorts and makeup. Like many girls that age, I struggled to be comfortable in my own skin as I tried to define who I was. However, I was the girl who always picked up other people for photos, in order to prove my strength. I also taught myself how to sew my own clothing around age 14 in order to create a unique style that fit my body the way I wanted it to.

 

 

I learned the incredible power that clothing can have over perception. Dressing like a girl also meant being ogled as a girl. Sexism was alive and rampant, and men from 16 to 60 regularly honked or made comments as I walked down our small town streets. My best friend thought it was cool to get hit on by older men, and she loved the attention. I, on the other hand, hated it. I didn’t want boys to see me that way, and I developed a fear of being stared at or hit on by the opposite sex. If I’m invisible, I’m safe from that objectification.

By the time I started college, I had overcome much of my body image issues, thanks in large part to the unconditional love of my high school sweetheart, who is by and far the most respectful man I have ever met. With his gentle love and support, I started to feel confident in myself, and in control of my life. I dressed how I felt best, and didn’t concern myself with what other people thought. I started to shed myself  of the most eclectic attire that I hid behind in my youth, and started to search out a style that could be both uniquely my own, but also professional. As I started my career as a young Architect, I liked looking put together, because it made me feel like an adult who deserves to be heard. I dressed for respect.

 

Dressing for ‘Real Life’

I donned appropriately fitted suits at work, trying to balance comfort and professionalism with pieces of feminine flair. As a young woman in a male-dominated field, I had to balance many aspects of my appearance, to look serious, yet distinctive. I had no desire to repeat the offenses of the 1980s, with ridiculously bulky shoulder pads to compete with male body types. I had to look like a peer, but not a dude. In lieu of the fashion-forward blouses that the secretaries and interior designers wore, I learned to wear conservative collared shirts in collars beyons the blue or white of my male counterparts. If I was feeling a blue pin stripe sort of mood, I might add -(gasp!)- dangling, sparkly earrings! I wore my long hair mostly up in a bun or a low ponytail, but would let it down when I felt the need to look more feminine. Outside of work, I was still an active athlete, and often wore comfortable shorts with ample pockets, and practical sports bras beneath tank tops or t-shirts. You never know when you might run into someone with a frisbee and have an impromptu game of ultimate, after all! I owned one pair of strappy black dress shoes with a chunky heel that I could walk in, for that rare occasion that required me to wear a dress. For the most part, I dressed only feminine enough to be clearly identified as a woman, but never accused of being ‘girly.’

Even in my twenties, being hit on by guys gave me the creeps. I avoided unwanted male attention by dressing in a way that should not say, “Hey look at me!” and I think I escaped the worst of the sleaze. Yet, it still happens, and no matter how polite or nice the guy may be, I never know how to respond, and I hate the attention. Being in a long term relationship gave me a shield to protect myself from such unwanted attention, and I learned to quickly insert “my boyfriend” into all conversations with the opposite sex- just to be clear. I had no interest in any other men, and was grateful to have the safety of my relationship to help fend off occasional suitors.

 

Switching Teams- the Lesbian Uniform

My previous partner of 14 years is a very masculine man, tall, with broad shoulders, strong arms, a square jaw, and a deep voice. Compared to him, even in combat boots, or chuck a boos, I was always the feminine one.

Then, at the age of 29, I met a woman. Not just any woman, but my soulmate. And a lesbian.

Nothing can prepare you for switching from straight culture to gay culture. Everything you think you know about who you are and your place in society is rapidly dispelled. Dating a woman is entirely different than dating a man! There’s no ‘his’ and ‘hers’ expectations, no gender roles to despise, you are suddenly free to follow your heart! The dichotomy of masculine and feminine almost entirely disappears. (Almost). There are no longer any lines in the sand, or an understood balance of yin and yang. Nobody looks at you and asks, “why is SHE going to play with the guys while her boyfriend makes dinner?” In reality, I found this transformation quite liberating, yet I learned just how much I still clung to those stereotypes that I fought so hard to break down.

 

Pin the Tail on the “Femme”

When I started dating Bethany, everything changed. She herself is a dichotomy of masculine and feminine, with her short but funky hairstyle, her feminine curves, and her extensive tattoos. She can rock a dress all night long, only to change into carharts and wrench on her motorcycle the next morning. Being next to her suddenly brought into question some parts of my own identity that I never expected. When people see us together, especially straight people, they immediately want to categorize us, to be able to clearly label us, in order to push their own comfortable, hetero-normative gender roles onto us.

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“Which one of you is the ‘boy’?” the unfamiliar breeders sometimes wonder. As offensive as this question is, in gay culture, the same things still happens, except it’s ‘butch’ and ‘femme’ instead of ‘boy’ and ‘girl.’  So when people see us together, they see Bethany’s tattoos and short hair, and immediately decide that she’s the butch and I must be – by default- the femme. F-E-M-M-E. Me??? Seriously? At first, I was extremely offended. I’m not a girly-girl, by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, people want to put a label on me, and my long hair seems to be the only indicator they can see, so… “Femme” it is. All the sudden, now that I’m with a woman, my context has changed how people perceive me.  When she dresses ‘butch,’ I end up feeling more ‘femme,’ by default.

Looks can be deceiving. The reality is, I’m the one who gets called to remove the icky spider from the bathroom. I’m the one who deals with the tiniest occurrence of blood. I’m the patient yet tough negotiator. I’m the one who comes in from the yard with dirt under her fingernails every weekend. I’m the one who hates makeup. And I’m the Femme???

My wife is the one who loves getting dressed up in elaborate costumes with full, dramatic makeup. She’s the one with both a shoe and a wig collection that would make Theater Bizarre folks jealous. She’s the one who is sensitive and passionate, in need of more cajoling and reassurance. She’s the one who is incredibly thoughtful and considerate, and remembers everyone’s birthdays. So does that mean she’s the femme??

 

The truth is, we both are both. We joke that I’m a femmey butch, and she is the butchy femme. Within each of us, we have both feminine and masculine characteristics that play to our strengths.

 

Learning all the nuances of lesbian gender roles and identity is tough when you are new to the gay scene. Nothing translates from my previous life as a straight ciswoman.

 

Learning to Embrace Femininity

As a feminine tomboy, becoming an open lesbian was a real game changer. Suddenly, I had a new title that was way more effective than “taken” to ward off male attention. In the past, some men would literally hit on me and say “I don’t care if you’re married.” GROSS. But now, as a lesbian, I’m completely off the table for straight guys. (Obviously, there can be a sidebar conversation here about monogamy and polyamory, but that is outside the scope of my expertise or interest). Unlike the straight version of myself, being gay suddenly felt liberating. I now finally understand why it bothered me SO much when men hit on me. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t single, or that an individual was unattractive, it was truly that what I did not want sexual attention any men.

 

1898110_761767903905836_219651953483986976_nAs I learned what it meant to be comfortable with the title of lesbian, a shocking realization occurred. I spent decades of my life trying to break the perception of a woman being weak and frilly and liking to cook and clean. I revolted against traditional women’s work, even refusing to learn to cook until my mid twenties, because “that’s what they want women to be good at.”  I had never even made a pot of coffee in my life until I became a lesbian. Take that, male chauvinism! Now that I was no longer bound by the stereotypical gender roles, I learned that I can actually enjoy being feminine.

 

Suddenly, instead of fighting for an expansion of equal gender roles, I could do whatever I wanted. With my beautiful soulmate at my side, I was liberated to be masculine one day or feminine the next, without fear of bringing down the perception of women as a whole. I enjoyed the secret pleasure of knowing that I could do more pushups than most of the people in a room, while wearing elegant attire. Wearing a dress still sometimes feels like I’m in drag, but I love it. It’s fun!

Most of all, my wife makes me feel beautiful and sexy in a whole new way, that makes me want to dress more flirtatious around her. Over the first year or two after coming out as gay, I rediscovered and redefined myself as a woman. I finally felt entitled to claim my femininity, without fear that it would discredit my other strengths. It was a glorious discovery, and a journey that I hope will never end!

 

Sincerely yours,

A happy, femmey butch

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3 responses

16 06 2016
Shine Brightly

This is a great post and I feel a real connection to your story, I’m in the midst of divorce and am now in an amazing relationship with a woman and constantly find myself re-evaluating what that means for me…It’s nice to read about someone who has come out of the other side.

16 06 2016
kaleskitchen

Thanks so much for sharing! I know just how you feel. It’s complicated, right?! Congrats on listening to your heart & not being afraid to act on it.

16 06 2016
Shine Brightly

So complicated, and so worth it. I was just saying yesterday how certain I am that I’m on the right path, but knowing that doesn’t necessarily make the road any less bumpy! I look forward to reading more of your posts!

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