For much of my life, it has been difficult for me to identify with femininity and to present in an overtly feminine way. At a young age, there was great anxiety surrounding getting dressed in the morning for me, and for one reason: I hated wearing dresses. No matter how much my mother tried, and despite constantly being around my sister (who was at the time the most feminine-presenting person you could know), I just never saw the appeal.
Wearing dresses and hyper feminine clothing would honestly make me deeply uncomfortable — sometimes even nauseated. I never felt like me in these outfits, which led me to feel strange, dissociated, and insecure around family and friends. But, because I was a girl and this was how I was supposed to be dressing, I gave it my best shot.
Every holiday, I would loudly express my protest before eventually giving in as my mom would dress me in a whole slew of holiday-wear, usually from JCPenney or Macy's. For years, I put up with the yards and yards of tulle, silk, pastel colors, and sometimes even pink (the hue I abhorred the most as a child).
Usually getting dressed up for the holidays was unavoidable, but it was as though there was no other formal attire available to me. I often compromised by ripping off my dress two to three hours into the event, and changing into a t-shirt and pants, or pajamas (a change of clothes was always considered acceptable when concerning these events, thank goodness). Only then could I breathe, and release anxiety's iron grip around my throat.
As I grew older, my autonomy and developing understanding of the world informed me of other clothing options for me besides hyper feminine selections. As my sister graduated to strapless and more darkly colored holiday dresses, I opted for jeans. Still figuring out what I liked, I often went to holiday gatherings under-dressed, trying to express more masculinity, without all the femme and flounce of a dress. Androgynous formalwear, and clothing that was event-appropriate and generally comfortable for me, took years to discover.
In the meantime, outside of the context of holiday parties, I was known by my friends and sister as a "tomboy." I wore more masculine and casual silhouettes for much of my childhood, and was hugely inspired by punk and androgynous fashion that I picked up from my musical idols (most notably Avril Lavigne).
I rejected femininity with such fervor out of the anger and confusion I harbored towards traditional femininity and my identity. I would often try on my father's clothes, and take great joy in seeing myself in button-up shirts, ties, and even boxers. My grandfather gave me his tie to wear, unknowingly supporting me in the greatest way possible.
Meanwhile, my parents were not as perceptive. Their pushing of "being a lady," and "acting like a lady," sometimes created more stress concerning my gender. Additionally, with the start of high school, my obsession with fashion and beauty further confused those around me as well as myself about my own identity.
It wasn't until I went away to college that I began to put the pieces together. Thanks to many of my friends, and the greater understanding of gender that I gathered from them, my own identity began to make sense to me. I learned that there are other ways besides wearing dresses via which to express myself and my versions of femininity and masculinity. I began cutting my hair, which had been ridiculously long for most of my life. I watched it slowly dwindle away from waist-length, to chest-length, to shoulder-length, and now to my shorter and shaved-on-the-sides look. The more hair I cut, the more I felt the burden of a femininity that I didn't identify with wash away.
However, there is still a level of stress for me surrounding my tendency to prefer masculine shirts. Shopping in the men's department with confidence is still not something that I've perfected. Whenever I go shopping, I longingly eye the men's section, but usually avoid doing any browsing out of fear of judgment.
Wearing a short dress or getting all made up doesn’t make me any less fluid, any less demigirl, or any less me. Fashion gives me the freedom to be who I am on a day to day basis, and the confidence I gather from this practice in turn gives me the bravery to be myself every single day.
I gave in once at an H&M in my town, searching for some nice button downs to wear for my summer internship. The stares of confusion from fellow shoppers, the questioning look of my mother, and even being shoved past by some disgruntled-looking guys a couple of times, I experienced the strong feeling that I didn't belong there. Even when I tried to reach for a t-shirt that was out of my reach (my small stature being an obstacle in the context of clothing stores and high shelves), the very tall man standing next to me avoided eye contact and walked away.
My solution to this anxiety has been, and continues to be, raiding the closet of my best friend. Forever borrowing clothes from each other over the semesters, we've developed an ongoing clothing swap that has consistently provided me with men's shirts that I love and am comfortable in.
My best friend, thankfully, is very much my style twin, which means this sweet deal is scoring me some very on-point masculine fashion. Our agreement usually implies the swap being equal and clothing being returned, but there are many pieces of his that he has let me keep for long stretches of time and that are now valuable parts of my wardrobe. The sweater that I'm wearing in the picture below is one of the many pieces I've accumulated from him. I don't even know if he's aware of the limitless support and love he's provided me with by doing this.
However, equally as valuable is another lesson I learned: That dresses and makeup are not owned by one specific type of femininity, and are something I can embrace at my discretion while still being comfortable in my skin. Putting on lipstick and wearing short skirts on my own terms and without the label of "lady" made me feel empowered and more whole.
My gender feelings and presentation vary from day to day. Despite my beauty obsession, there are many days when I would rather wear a large button down and jeans, and avoid makeup altogether. And I'm comfortable with that! Lately, and especially in the summer, I tend to dress more femininely than usual. Just like I have the right to masculinity without identifying as a man, I have the right to femininity, too.
Wearing a short dress or getting all made up doesn't make me any less fluid, any less demigirl, or any less me. Fashion gives me the freedom to be who I am on a day to day basis, and the confidence I gather from this practice in turn gives me the bravery to be myself every single day.
Long gone are the days of flouncy tulle-covered monstrosities, although I do occasionally wear thrifted sun dresses that are very "me." These days, when I'm performing femininity, it's a femininity I'm comfortable with: Bright lipstick, high-waisted pants or shorts, a sexy crop top, and my Dr. Marten boots.
Images: Meg Zulch