Thursday, September 30, 2010

performing femininity

or: how I learned to dress like a girl.

Here's the thing. Only in the last few years have I embraced skirts and impractical shoes and dainty dresses. I still don't wear makeup, and I still don't devote a whole lot of time to my hair. I shave my legs as infrequently as possible. And I think a lot about performing femininity, and what it means to me.

I have kind of a complicated relationship with girliness. I wasn't a tomboy-- I would have had to have even a slight affinity for sports, which, no-- but I wasn't what you'd call a girly girl. Between learning how to read and puberty, I spent as much time as humanly possible with my nose in a book, in the company of girls like Meg Murry and Alanna of Trebond. My mom picked out my clothes, which in retrospect was pretty unfortunate, because it meant I spent a lot of time in stirrup leggings and those awful tapestry vests that were popular in the early '90s. But I didn't worry much about what my clothes said about me-- I wasn't really aware that they were saying anything, or concerned about whether they should. And if you asked me what "being a girl" meant to me, I would have talked about the girls in the books I read-- girls who had adventures, who were brave and fearless, who rebelled against the roles society wanted them to play.


Then came middle school. And, uh, it didn't go very well. Having spent the last six or seven years mostly in the company of fictional people, I didn't know how to socialize, how to act, how to present myself. And all of a sudden I *wanted* to do those things, when I hadn't before. Which was unfortunate, because I was really, really terrible at them.

It didn't help that I come from a family full of women who (it seemed to me) instinctively knew how girls are "supposed to act." My mother, to this day, seems kind of confused at how she ended up with a kid like me, one who can't apply eyeliner to save her life and never knows which are the right kind of shoes to wear. When I was younger, she'd just look at me and ask, incredulous, if I was really wearing *that,* if I couldn't tell that those don't match, why I thought that was the right outfit for this time of year. And at school, as far as I could tell, everyone who was any good at performing femininity was really, really mean to me. Girls, I concluded, sucked.

So I headed in the opposite direction. I was a jeans-and-t-shirts girl, a geek who didn't care about stupid stuff like fashion. I became a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which is a great Baby's First Feminist Theory show when you're twelve), and I identified hard with Willow, the awkward nerd who didn't dress like the fashion-plate cool girls. In high school, I was introduced to punk and riot grrl, to women who knew that femininity *was* a performance, and that you could choose to play it however you wanted.


It took me a few years, after high school, to figure out that reflexively disregarding "girly stuff" as stupid and a waste of time was, possibly, not the most forward-thinking feminist attitude I could hold. Eventually I stopped automatically rejecting girliness as bad, and starting thinking about which parts of it I actually wanted. And I found that the clothes I'd never wanted to wear, the stuff I'd thought was impractical and uninteresting, actually made me like how I looked and feel good about myself. I already had a fondness for weird old stuff, and vintage clothes were weird old stuff you could wear, that looked a lot better on me that most of what I saw in stores. I figured out that I was in control of what I looked like, and that I could control how I presented myself to the world.

So here I am now: a much better feminist than I used to be, and just as much of a nerd as ever. Only now? I'm pretty sure I'm much better dressed.


  1. Completely and utterly related to this story, thanks!

  2. Really liked this. I went through some of the SAME phases for sure.