08 October 2010

conflating size and gender and short blurb about vintage clothes

(TW: Post contains discussion of struggles with gender/body image as a teenager.)

A long, long time ago, I wore a pretty strict uniform of men's jeans and men's t-shirts. I had knock-off Docs and wire-framed classes in a really bizarre oblong shape. Oh, and acne. Lots of acne. In short, I was a teenager, and I continually slunk around in dark pit of darkness.

While I enjoy, and occasionally lust over, men's clothing on all makes and models of human beings (because that look is pretty damn hot), the awkward assembly of saggy denim (and, for a rare bit of zazz, cargo khaki!) with baggy t-shirt definitely wasn't doing my 14 year old-self any favors in the bodily confidence department. This had nothing to do with there being anything inherently ugly about "dressing like a boy," and everything to do with my intentions, which were, probably pretty clearly to many, to make myself invisible. I saw boys, but didn't see them -- they mostly seemed like a visually neutral (though certainly very influential and vocal) backdrop for highly visible girls. Socially, I think I was encouraged to see women (and girls) and their bodies, clothes, and habits with a more instantly critical eye than I saw boys and men. [This is not to say men don't find themselves scrutinized; I know they do.] At least partially, my eye had been trained to watch other girls since birth. But what my eye did on its own was find them attractive.

After childhood cuteness evolved into pre-adolescent awkwardness, I was intentionally bodying myself in a particular way in order to divert attention from my size; in my mind, coding myself as masculine visually would prevent--or at least somewhat stave off--the criticism I felt was due (and I often received) for my failure to achieve what my mother, to this day, refers to as a "girlish figure." Because my shape, whatever it actually was way back then, was several sizes larger than what culture suggests is normal, I decided that the best way to go would be to deny myself the pleasurable (to me) experience of wearing the kind of clothes that would show my shape at all. Clothes that display shape, in my media-addled preteen brain, were clothes that were some how essentially feminine. And I, with my big tummy and fat arms, was not allowed to be feminine. I felt, like Hagrid looks: "too big to be allowed."

To sum up a lot of what I've been reading lately [which works on the assumption that the majority of childcare is done by women, while the majority of out-of-the-home work is done by men; we know that, at least in Western culture, this is changing, yet, as a professor of mine put it: "The larger culture still believes in this, even though it's a myth"]: Much philosophical, scientific thought traces our development from "merged with mother" through a struggle to realize the self as an autonomous body separate from her. As our abilities of relation and self-cognition grow more and more complex, we see, as children, that we are either like or unlike our mother. Our autonomous body becomes gendered.
If we are female, we understand our gender by associating with our mother -- we're working under the idea that she's the primary caretaker, so we have her around all the time, to model "normal" female behavior. Therefore, female children have a more difficult time separating from mother and expressing autonomy. If we are male, we must attempt to liken ourselves to our fathers, who are more absent from our lives than our mother -- Nancy Hartsock explains this circumstance as "abstract masculinity." In turn, boys have a harder time forming a cogent gender identity; indeed, to be gendered male is understood as oppositional to mother, and femaleness/femininity in general. What follows is the male child having an easier time expressing his autonomy. (So, nly's been reading a lot of object relations theory via Shannon Sullivan, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Nancy Hartsock. I realize that there are lots of real and meaningful problems, especially of the exclusion of the experiences of people of color and over-generalization, with some of the theories and opinions in these works; with this in the forefront of my mind, I have found these authors to be helpful in helping to frame up an understanding of gender and identity theory that is, however, quite incomplete. Plus, I have a deeply rotten soft spot for psychoanalytic theory -- I blame my academic interest in horror movies.) At some point, I experienced a disconnect with my level of identification with my own mother. I felt shame that I wasn't pretty like she was, and I did want to be pretty, but mostly just so she would stop being so critical of me. Toss in marital problems, years of watching her yo-yo diet, and general unhappiness, and I had a pretty damaged idea of what a "normal" woman was anyway.

So. Back to alienated teenage nly

I may be struggling with terminology here. I don't mean to suggest that categories of sexuality and gender can be used interchangeably, but that I was neither successfully nor happily identifying as masculine or feminine, despite being biologically female and raised in a way that encouraged me to act out gender in a heteronormative, feminine way. I didn't understand that clothing and bodying (though I certainly wouldn't have conceived of "bodying" at 14) does not necessarily reflect sexual and gender identity. Skirts aren't sexual beings. Skirts aren't inherently feminine. Culture inscribes meaning on clothing, and I was using clothing to inscribe a meaning, however confused, onto myself. So a longing to wear a skirt shouldn't dictate identity. If I was unhappy in boys' clothing, damnit, I could just take those painter's jeans right the hell off. It wouldn't have meant I was trying to identify as something I not only felt excluded, and also very different, from -- meaning typical a heterosexual woman performing gender in a feminine way, it simply would have meant that I would have allowed myself to wear the kind of clothing I thought was beautiful.

I had no real exposure to queer culture as a kid, and I wrong-headedly assumed there that gay and straight were the only options. I just couldn't figure myself out with such a dichotomous understanding of sexuality and gender. There were some immature fumblings and kisses with other girls, but most of them weren't interested in the kind of relationship that would have sustained me. Most of them, like myself to an extent, were experimenting and playing with roles and boundaries. I thought, typically of me, that no girls liked me because I was too ugly for other girls--even girls who liked girls--to be attracted to; girls, in my eyes, were feminine and pretty, and therefore could only find someone equally feminine and pretty appealing. Although as an adult I identify as queer,  I still carry around a lot of anxiety about not being attractive to other women, even though I'm not actively seeking a relationship--neither physical nor romantic. Being baldly criticized by men is worrisome, too, but I am less likely to be affected in their attention in that particular way. Now that I can dress comfortably in a way I find pleasurable, I'm more comfortable with my "too big" body. I'm not as anxious as I used to be about the limited clothing options available to women of larger sizes because, to me, being able to wear pretty things at all is quite refreshing. Thrifting and finding vintage clothing, for me, is a way to prove to myself that women of my size exist and have existed, and that somewhere, some fabulous woman (or hell, a fabulous man!) wore the same vividly visible polyester dresses that I'm buying from Goodwill for 2.95 a pop.

I know, I know. TL;DR. If anyone makes it this far, you're a damn champ.



  1. wow- thats left me kind of speechless. I only very recently discovered the whole fat acceptance and 'fatshion' idea, and I certainly had no idea that people were looking at the politics of size like this. Its all been a big inspiration to me in such a short time. Keep up the good work and keep enlightening me!!


  2. Debbie, thank you so much for reading, and for the encouragement!


  3. What an amazing post! Thankyou for being so brave, honest and open. Our difficulties in life can in later years turn into the beauty of it, if we reflect, question and learn from our experiences. You seem to have come so far in such a short amount of time. You are beautiful

  4. Aw, I'm doing that awkward-glowy thing that happens when someone says something unexpectedly really complimentary and sweet to me. Thank you. :)

  5. Aw, I'm doing that awkward-glowy thing that happens when someone says something unexpectedly really complimentary and sweet to me. Thank you. :)

  6. What an amazing post! Thankyou for being so brave, honest and open. Our difficulties in life can in later years turn into the beauty of it, if we reflect, question and learn from our experiences. You seem to have come so far in such a short amount of time. You are beautiful