Oh Boy: An Examination of Fashion and Femininity
I alone knew the truth. After all, I watched indie films and read young adult novels, eagerly consumed syrupy stacks of them like fluffy pancakes throughout the summers before high school. I knew that all the boys worth dating pursued the quirky girls, girls who weren’t afraid to do their own thing.
So I strove to express my creativity through fashion. I donned chambray shirts three sizes too big, worn open over my dad’s old graphic tees. I sported rust-colored wool cardigans over mustard skinny jeans, matched turquoise suspenders with jewel-toned corduroys, and combined polka-dot button-downs, striped pants, and floral socks with gleeful abandon. In one memorable instance, I even wore my grandmother’s old cream and burgundy bowling shoes to school, paired with vintage button-fly Levi’s I found in her garage and my trusty black blazer.
So I strove to express my creativity through fashion.
In the midst of my blindly romantic idealism, however, I’d forgotten that other people’s perception of me might not match my own. I discovered this uncomfortable truth in the middle of sophomore year...
In the midst of my blindly romantic idealism, however, I’d forgotten that other people’s perception of me might not match my own. I discovered this uncomfortable truth in the middle of sophomore year, when an acquaintance that hung on the fringes of my social circle approached me one day at lunch, beckoning me over to a quiet corner by the lockers with a supposedly urgent question.
The girl flipped her shiny, flat-ironed black hair over one thin exposed shoulder. “So, we’ve all been wondering. Are you a lesbian?”
“What?” I eloquently responded.
The girl leaned closer to me as if I couldn’t understand her and increased proximity might help. Her glittery eyelids gleamed like chrysalises in the warm Californian sunlight, her spindly lashes, caked in too much mascara, reminiscent of insect legs.
“So, we’ve all been wondering. Are you a lesbian?”
“No. Why would you think that?” Perhaps I responded sharper than I meant to, because the girl’s eyes widened, and she skittered back, flapping one hand at my outfit.
“It’s totally okay if you are. Like, we’d still accept you. And you can’t get mad that we thought that. I mean, just look at you.”
Her gaze traveled critically from my bobbed hair to my messenger bag, which was made of natural canvas and burnished leather. She raised her eyebrows at my map-print button-down, twitched her lip at my patchwork-embellished boyfriend jeans, and blinked pointedly at my argyle socks and laceless oxfords.
“Is that your grandpa’s?” She jabbed one manicured forefinger at my oversized marled cardigan.
“Nah, it’s from my uncle.” I’d never been self-conscious about the thick mahogany knit before, but all of a sudden, I remembered the cardigan’s fawn-colored suede elbow patches, which were so large they were essentially forearm patches on me.
She shot me a glossy, self-satisfied smile, as if she’d just landed a particularly salient point. “See? You dress like a dude. Plus, you don’t wear makeup, and your hair is short.”
I wanted to say something, anything, but I couldn’t think of the magic words that would change her opinion. So I stood there, staring at her long hair, her tight pink camisole, her distressed super-skinny jeans and tan Uggs.
She huffed impatiently at my lack of understanding and turned to leave. “Sarah, I’m just saying. Maybe boys would like you if you’d stop looking like one of them.”
* * *
In the days and weeks and months and years that followed, it wasn’t the label of lesbian that continually nettled me about our exchange. It was the idea that to be a girl, to be seen as a girl by my peers, I had to change the way I wanted to present myself to the world.
At night, over and over again, I kept dwelling on what I could’ve responded to that girl had I been prepared for that confrontation, dreaming up increasingly elaborate, cutting responses. I even learned what the introspective cycle was called: esprit de l’escalier, or the spirit of the staircase. Those impeccable biting retorts that arrive too late, after you’ve left the gaping wound of dumbfounded humiliation behind you and you’re slinking downstairs on your way home.
Far too often, I’d conjure up the girl’s sneering face in my mind, then lash out about how at least I dressed uniquely compared to our classmates, at least I was comfortable in my layers of clothing, at least someone could pick me out of a crowd. I’d educate her about how sexual preference isn’t necessarily correlated with how someone dresses, that femininity isn’t the defining factor of being a female. I’d inform her that on the runways and on Man Repeller and Refinery29 (my favorite style websites), fashionable people are blurring the boundaries between what is considered feminine and masculine and androgynous.
They’re dismantling what it means to be beautiful and stylish, upending gender norms through clothing, making space for fashion as a vehicle for change and revolution, and I wanted, still want, to be a part of that movement.
I’d educate her about how sexual preference isn’t necessarily correlated with how someone dresses, that femininity isn’t the defining factor of being a female.
But regardless of how many times I eviscerated that girl in my imagination, I still couldn’t completely exorcise the worries that our conversation had summoned. While I stubbornly refused to replace my beloved whimsical wardrobe with skintight fast fashion separates, her words had the tendency to leap to the forefront of my mind every time an attractive boy crossed my path.
After all, it was true that I was perpetually single. It was true that I dressed rather tomboyish and weird (by my own admission, even), and I never wore makeup, except for extremely special occasions. And it was also true that my hair rarely made it past my chin before I made my way back to the salon chair, because in my opinion, long hair was too much of a hassle on the soccer field.
Self-expression through a mindful presentation of self was good, I reassured myself, but was there a right and wrong way of doing so? Was gamine style only meant for pretty, petite girls, girls without broad shoulders and plain faces?
It may sound ridiculous, but occasionally I find myself returning to this experience, these questions, even now, like prodding a scar to check for residual pain. After all, I’m still perpetually single. I still rarely wear makeup, my hair is shorter than ever before, and I still dress in a manner that doesn’t adhere to the feminine ideal.
The biggest difference is that, as these fleeting years go by and my teenage years fade to my early twenties, I’m making a concerted effort to no longer predicate so much of my self-acceptance on others’ opinions of my appearance and personal taste. In college and beyond, I’ve found peers who applaud my occasionally outlandish sense of style and understand my drive for conscious consumerism; I’ve befriended people who share my penchant for statement socks and vintage nubby pullovers, people who can amiably discuss the merits of a good striped-turtleneck-and-houndstooth-blazer combo.
I’m making a concerted effort to no longer predicate so much of my self-acceptance on others’ opinions of my appearance and personal taste.
More than that, however, I’ve found myself realizing that when I do find a boyfriend, I don’t want him to date me based solely on my appearance. I wield fashion as a sort of revelatory instrument, a way to show a bit of myself to the world, but ultimately, my real friends know that I am more than what I wear. As such, I hope my future beaux will appreciate the myriad other things I have to bring to the table, like intelligence and a morbid sense of humor and the ambitious plans I have for the future.