In life, we are encouraged to estrange ourselves from our enemies. When we’re pitted against a group, an important element of survival is to make sure we aren’t one of them, to avoid the criticisms we make coming back on ourselves.
Many young girls are conditioned in their early years to think of other women as their worst enemy — that they are shallow and vain, overly emotional, and weak. The instinct naturally falls on estranging themselves, to try and preserve their voices by condemning and ridiculing behaviour in each other that affirms these stereotypes. Any relationship I ever had with clothing, shoes, dressing up or the colour pink was proof that I was one of them, and enjoyment of these things was associated with feelings of shame, bitterness, and revulsion.
From the ages of ten to fifteen, I rejected my old favourite colour, pretended to dislike it, and refused to wear it. In this way, a young woman’s expression of gender is heavily policed and externally regulated from its very first moments. We feel observed, by other women, by men, and by womanhood in media which constructs a mirage of feminine perfection that infects self-image. This included my own.
At fifteen, I watched Legally Blonde for the first time. I was held, strong-armed to the corner of the couch by my mother. She insisted I watch, begged me to wait it out. I rolled my eyes, disgusted by the spectacle. But by the end, I was appalled at the change I had experienced. I had been so eager to judge other women, and to police my own relationship with clothing.
Of course, the truth was that I had had a relationship with clothing all my life! I liked fabric and patterns, shiny necklaces, I liked looking good. I spent hours combing through my mother’s jewellery, fascinated by the elegance. I once got dressed up, donning earrings and a scarf to take a stray cat to the vet, while my parents yelled at me to hurry up. I especially loved emulating my mother, trying on her clothing and strutting about like a miniature duchess.
I loved when my parents’ colleagues thought I was adorable. I basked in the attention, in the praise I got for performing femininity. It was like play-acting. I didn’t have girlfriends who did each other’s makeup and went shopping, so I had few women whose femininity I could model. My version of femininity as a little girl was dramatic, often strange, and occasionally, it must be said, an affront to the eye.
Then one evening, it hit me. I found myself sitting against the foot of my bed in my Lismore home, a rose-gold fruit basket on my head, wearing a checkered dress and a full-length Matrix-style leather coat. I gazed in the mirror through black round glasses, and the features seemed to twist and morph in front of me. Adrenaline pumped through my veins. That night, I tried on at least 30 outfits late into the night, each clumsier and more ridiculous than the last. They clashed, they were mis-matched, and finding what I was looking for felt more akin to pushing the wrong ends of two magnets together. In this exercise, I had attempted to express a feeling that had been brewing for some time, one that could not find any other mode of expression. It was explosive, exploratory, and I loved it.
Whenever I get dressed, with each unlikely combination of pieces, I feel a rush of euphoria. I’m giddy with it. After a few months of keeping this feeling to myself, to make sure it sticks around, I ask my writer’s group to use gender-neutral pronouns. All of them are trans so, as you can imagine, it goes over fabulously. Slowly, over the next year, I began introducing it to other parts of my life with varying degrees of smoothness but overall success.
My experience is not a far cry from what a lot of non-binary people experience. When clothing is no longer a means of performing your assigned gender, what is its purpose? What makes clothing masculine or feminine? What does non-binary look like? These are complex questions, and I don’t have all the answers. But since coming out, my love of clothing has had a gorgeous renaissance.
I like clothes that make me look big, that make me stand out. I like huge coats, patterned shirts, crushed velvet, aviators, fluttery blouses, petticoat skirts, shoulder pads. I like bright colours and no makeup. I wear masculine sleeveless dresses that show off my shoulder muscles, and feminine suits that give me a figure. Sometimes I’ll have a little joke with myself and go out dressed like a peasant girl or a pirate.
Clothing has become nothing more or less than total freedom. Every day I put on a performance, and it’s all my own. Is it still play-acting? I think it is, but it’s an authentic play. I love people talking about their clothing, I love it when people show me outfits they’re proud of. Is it shallow? No. Dressing how you want, how you really want, is a profoundly genuine and reflective form of self-expression. It can be surprisingly hard to do, and no one should be shamed for it. Dress for yourself, dress the way that makes you love yourself. And please, for the love of god, tell me all about it.