Yes, clothes matter.
In the never-ending saga of “how many ways can we find to bash Cait Jenner?” (which has already moved on to another flavor) there was a chapter a month or two back which sparked my interest – the one about how she was quoted as saying that being a woman for her (that bit is key, I’ll be back to it) had a lot to do with what to wear. Nevermind that a big chunk of above-reproach Laverne Cox (whom, to be clear, I adore!) tweets about is fashion related, how DARE Ms Jenner reduce the collective experience of womanhood to superficial stuff like clothing?
Except of course, she didn’t – she answered a question posed to her that said what was the most difficult part “FOR YOU” which reduces her answer to a discussion of her own transition experience, not the entire existence of all women in the history of ever. But it is not that point which provokes me to write because, frankly, if one sets out to defend Jenner from everyone who has appointed themselves her critic, one will starve to death in a puddle of their own waste before they find a chance to leave the keyboard. No, I decline to get into a specific defense of Jenner in this column. But the debate sparked by her comment provoked in me a thought that I do not believe anyone else has addressed.
For trans women, particularly the newly transitioning, clothes are of critical importance.
I’ve been living my truth 24/7 for over 6 years now and given the fact that there is much, from a medical and physical point of view, yet left to accomplish, how I present myself in terms of the variables I can control on a day to day basis – things like make-up, jewelry, and clothing – are of considerable importance to me every day. Because in many situations it is those things specifically that communicate to those around me “you are looking at a female” as opposed to “you are looking at a male” or leaving them uncertain which is true. You can say all you want that what they think should not matter, but the reality is that it does.
Do we so easily forget the restroom discussion? I have been called out in public for the use of the ladies room exactly twice in those 6+ years. Once by the relative of a person who knew me before (and thus my appearance matters not to her) and once in the first six months of my public transition when I was, frankly, not as “polished” in my presentation and was clocked by a pre-teen child who reported me to the manager. In other words, my restroom choice have been remarkably conflict free. Why? Because the overwhelming majority of strangers read me as female, despite most of that time having been spent with very little permanent physical alteration having taken place. My clothes, make-up, etc, mattered. A LOT. Still do.
Beyond the restroom door, all the little interactions which provoke dysphoria when one is mis-gendered are affected. You stand in front of a cashier who says “sir” and it may be because they are very perceptive, while nevertheless being callous and bigoted. But it’s much more likely that it’s because your effort to blend failed in a critical way and if you have had little to no physical intervention, you failed on things like clothes. I don’t say this to be harsh, early on a failed a lot – I’ve seen the pictures! – mainly by want of financial privilege. For example, the difference in a $30 wig and a $300 wig can’t be overstated. But it’s not just what things cost but it’s choices. Trans women have to learn, crash course in many cases, all the things that non-trans women absorbed naturally over the first couple of decades of their life. Actually putting yourself together in convincing fashion is much more difficult in practice, for some, than in theory. I have a friend on Facebook who’s a lovely – but still closeted – woman. But her make-up efforts are so clearly amateurish that they would mark her as corssdresser or trans instantly if she was to appear in public. That’s not to bash her but to say that she – and I, and likely you – must work at things that come almost instinctively to non-trans women our age. At least in the beginning.
This includes clothes. Have any among us NOT heard the charge that trans women “dress like hookers”? Of course most don’t, it’s a stereotype – but enough do to make it a real concern. I’m often accused of not dressing my age and I happily confess that it is often true during warmer months. I dress in a manner that makes me feel good about my appearance, but I DO still THINK a LOT about where the line is between “not dressing your age” and “dressing like a hooker.” There’s a limit to how short the skirt can be, how much makeup is appropriate, whether one is overdressed for the occasion, and so many other things. Get it wrong and you might as well have chosen a t-shirt that says “Not really a woman!” in big pink letters. Because that’s how a lot of people will read you.
On the other extreme, if you get too “butch” – even if that’s where you fit on the spectrum – and you surrender some of your ability to blend, because masculine physical traits simply force a certain amount of compensation, and if you choose not to compensate you are going to be misgendered more often. Like it or not. Either way (and several other ways in between) clothes MATTER, and if you were not socialized as a female then you can find it hard to find your particular style and integrate it into the cultural desire to “pass” (nevermind whether or not “passing” is a fair expectation, it’s the world we live in).
Back to Jenner, that pressure is greater when you are (a) in a glaring spotlight; (b) under scrutiny by media outlets who – guess what? – OBSESS over outward appearance as defined by fashion and “glam” and bodily appearance; and (c) has been saddled (unwillingly) with the expectation (particularly among those same media types) as a “representative” of what trans women look like. All these factors ratchet up the degree to which superficialities like clothes, shoes, make-up, hairstyle, and so forth are no longer superficial.
So, yeah, it’s important, and it can be hard. Because it’s not just “do I look good?” but “do I look like a woman enough that the world will interact with me as a woman” (thus mitigating dsyphoria) and even in some cases, “do I look like a woman enough to not get assaulted or even killed?”
Photo by: Nick McPhee