I have always had a fraught relationship with the concept of femininity and gender norms in fashion. While as a young child, I loved traditional feminine signifiers like long hair and dresses, these same forms of expression became less enjoyable as I entered puberty. Part of this was because I hated that I was expected to wear very conservative, feminized clothing within my religious community. Part of it was that items like dresses and high heels made me feel vulnerable in a predatory, misogynistic culture.
Even after I left my fundamentalist community during undergrad, I felt very invested in maintaining a legibly feminine appearance. As a fat woman, I felt deeply de-feminized by the way my body was often read by others, and believed that I needed to prove that I could be sexy and pretty with the way I presented myself. In the last couple of years, I've slowly experimented with breaking some of the fashion "rules" I used to live by, and this process has had a major effect on my relationship with my body.
I've come to see that many of my efforts to appear feminine by conventional standards were really just attempts to be seen as appropriate or acceptable in the different groups I was a part of. Placing more emphasis on how I want to feel in my body, instead of how I want others to read that body, has been an incredibly liberating shift in my perspective. Read on to discover nine ways to break fashion's gender rules and ultimately love and accept your body more every day.
1. Trying Out "Masculine" Scents
One of my first experiments in rebelling against gender norms was an invisible one. Since, even as recently as a few years ago, I was afraid of looking "unfeminine," I eased myself into this process with one of my favorite beauty essentials: perfume. I've always loved perfume, and for most of my life have worn some sort of spicy, woody floral scent. After a while, though, I began wanting to branch out into fragrances that were considered more masculine — vetiver, cedar, and sandalwood, for example.
I started to search for scents that were marketed as unisex or "men's" fragrances, realizing how arbitrary these distinctions really were when I found out how much I loved the non-fruity/floral end of the scent spectrum. Although this was a tiny step that went pretty much unnoticed by anyone else, it was an important way for me to begin expressing myself outside of cultural gender norms, and the confidence this experiment engendered gave me the courage to make other, larger changes.
2. Saying Goodbye To Long Hair
For most of my life, I associated long, thick tresses with femininity and glamour. Throughout high school and most of college, I kept my hair long because I thought that cutting it would somehow be a rejection of the feminine parts of myself. When I finally got up the guts to make the chop, I realized how wrong I had been. I felt more open, lighter, more relaxed. And I saved so much time in the morning!
Cutting my hair made me realize that it's always better to focus on the way style makes me feel, instead of how I think it will make others perceive me. I don't feel less or more feminine with short hair. If anything, I simply feel less tied to how I'll be viewed in general.
3. Giving Up On High Heels
I love how high heels look — the way they create graceful lines and add height, or bring drama to even the simplest of outfits. But I hate the way heels feel. I have a relatively active life that requires a lot of walking and moving, and after years of trying to compromise with "reasonable heels" and aching feet, I finally threw in the towel and invested in a few pairs of cute flats and sneakers.
Although at first I worried that this choice would make me look less feminine or stylish, eventually I realized that these concerns were beside the point. I'm not required to look "feminine" by external standards, and my own version of femininity doesn't need to rely on cultural stereotypes. While I still love the way heels look, and even wear them from time to time for special occasions, I'm realizing that freedom and comfort are their own rewards.
4. Rebelling Against The Hourglass
I've always been curvy, even when I was much smaller than I am now, and all my life, I've heard the mantra of "emphasize your waist." I've always been encouraged to belt, tuck, or otherwise edit my outfits to define the ideal hourglass silhouette, and as I've gained weight, the pressure has only intensified. The only way my body can be considered even marginally acceptable is if it still approximates this socially-acceptable shape.
Experimenting with other silhouettes, from shapeless shifts to boyish pullovers, has been a revelation for me, both for my sense of style and my relationship to my body. Rejecting the notion of "flattering" clothing has opened up a whole world of new fashion options, and changed my perspective from one of trying to make my body acceptable, to one that celebrates my body in any way I like.
5. Making Makeup Optional
As a longtime feminist, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I feel naked without my makeup. For most of my teenage and college years, I wore a full face of makeup every day, rain or shine, no matter what. Makeup made me feel professional and presentable to a potentially critical world, and intentionally skipping this step in my daily routine would have been unthinkable. I told myself my makeup obsession was necessary — that it made me a better candidate for jobs, that it helped me look more put-together. But really, I was insecure to let people see my face without the protection of cosmetics.
Without makeup, my face is much more readable. I have dark circles under my eyes from nights of insomnia, and periodic, anxiety-triggered breakouts erupt regularly along my cheeks and jawline in angry red dots. As someone who loves control, I value cosmetics for the way they allow me to shape others' perceptions of me. But I've begun to realize that treating my face as if it is incomplete or unacceptable without beauty products on just feeds my own anxiety and insecurities.
Now, I try to make sure I spend at least one day a week with a bare (albeit moisturized) face, so that I can learn to be comfortable in my own skin. Although going makeup-free makes me feel more vulnerable, it has also retrained me to see the beauty in my own face, even when it's unadorned.
6. Refusing To Feel Bad For Not Liking Skirts
Like heels, my feelings about skirts and dresses are conflicted. On the one hand, I love the way these garments look on other women — the way they emphasize movement and make any outfit seem a little more "dressed-up." I also get far more positive attention and feedback when I wear skirts, so for years I tried to make myself enjoy wearing them. But, to be honest, I can't stand the way skirts make me feel. I am neither graceful nor ladylike by nature, and wearing dresses or skirts makes me feel deeply self-conscious.
I prefer the freedom of pants, which allow me to move any way I like without anxiety. Taking the pressure to "look nice" by wearing skirts off of myself has made me feel much more comfortable in my own skin. I'm slowly realizing that I can like the way an item of clothing looks, and still not choose to wear it myself.
7. Letting Legs Go Natural
This has been one of my hardest battles in unlearning what I've been taught about femininity. I started an experiment to let my leg hair grow out several months ago, and it has been fascinating to see what emotions this brings up related to my conceptions of my body. Growing up, my family always made fun of women with body hair, calling them " weird hippies" or "angry feminists." Even though I've become a feminist as an adult, I still often unconsciously follow the guidelines for women that were laid down for me when I was younger.
As many women have already noted, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with body hair, yet a woman with leg or armpit hair is often treated as if she has poor hygiene or isn't taking care of herself. Letting my body do its thing, and allowing myself to experience the emotions this brings up, has made me realize how tied my self-worth is to my performance of traditional femininity. And funnily enough, I'm actually starting to like my leg hair! It's soft and furry, and not the embarrassing thing I always imagined it to be. I don't know if I'll rock hairy legs forever, but I'm grateful for the change of perspective this experiment is giving me.
8. Adopting A More Minimalist Style
Left to my own devices, I crave the ease and comfort of simplicity. I like clothing that is functional, versatile, and uncomplicated; my perfect outfit is a great pair of leggings and an oversized top with sporty flats. However, given my love of fashion, I've always felt bad about these minimalistic impulses. The fashionable women I saw all around me often reveled in extra details — accessories, artful layering, etc. I started to think that to be stylish, I had to create more complex, detailed outfits.
Now that minimal fashion is having a moment, I've been rediscovering my love of simplicity. In doing so, I realized that authenticity is a more powerful force for personal style than I had realized. I can admire someone else's layered, stylized look, and still wear what feels best for me. I don't have to look pretty or fancy if I don't feel like it; I just have to feel like myself.
9. Focusing On How You Feel
The most important benefit I've gotten from breaking gendered fashion and beauty rules is internal. I've learned to put more importance on how I feel about myself than in how others feel about me. This might sound basic, but coming to this conclusion hasn't always been easy.
I tend to instinctually try to please others, whether by action or appearance, and putting the priority on my own needs and desires has made a huge difference in how I view myself and my body. I'm learning that I don't have to match up to some ideal image of femininity to feel worthy. I'm already worthy; fashion and style just allow me to celebrate the person I actually am.
If you've been curious about stepping outside of the gendered expectations of the fashion world, I'd encourage you to take the leap. Learning to be a more authentic version of your unique self is undoubtedly one of the best choices you'll ever make.
Images: Mariah Carrillo