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Before I go out to the party I put on my eyeliner, I make sure to put it on sloppily and with the unsteady hand of someone who doesn’t usually wear eyeliner. I put on my purple tights with runs at the thighs and my worn denim jacket, I strap my messenger bag across the whole mess. I am aware that I go out looking to attract a certain type of person, maybe a butch girl, maybe a gender non-conforming person. Hopefully somebody sweet, a little gruff, someone who works with their hands. But why do I insist on putting my eyeliner on so sloppily? Why don’t I treat myself to a new jacket, maybe swap out my messenger bag for a purse? The truth is if I do find someone while I am out tonight, I want them to know that I am not good at being a girl, that there are other things about me beyond my precarious femininity that I value more, and that if things work out, I will expect them to value.
I guess I expect whoever it is to be in on the joke that is my femininity, but why is it a joke? It’s a joke because I’m fat, and fat girls are funny, right? It’s funny when we wear frilly skirts and bikinis, it’s funny when we act flirtatious and sexy, it’s funny when we dance with our jiggling bums and bellies. My fat body is funny because that’s what the media tells me about it, I am not the protagonist, I am their best friend who Can’t Get Laid. If a thin person and I wear the same outfit to a party, they’re two different outfits, conveying two very different stories.
I grew up into a fat girl, with hips and a belly that started forming with puberty. For many years I tried to cover them up, along with my sexuality, in the brightest patterned dresses I could find. “Maybe if I wear a really outrageous outfit, people won’t notice my lack of interest in men, or my love handles,” the logic seemed to go. Well, that didn’t work out too well because people still noticed both of those things about me. So many of my sartorial choices then were meant to offset my wide “masculine” shoulders and back, trying not to “look like a boy,” as well as underplay my big breasts and belly, attributes that are undeniably female.
I realize today that my relationship to gender has been impacted by the ways that others understand and interpret fat bodies. Bodies that by their very nature are incapable of fitting into traditional modes of gender conformity. I always felt afraid of embracing the more masculine parts of myself for fear of losing my already precarious grip on femininity. It was a relationship to my gender created by fear and social policing, built on a logic that “if you are not one thing than you are another.” To be feminine is to be small and delicate to a fault, so if you are already thick, you are fighting an uphill battle to meet norms that are already elusive.
Here’s the twist: I’m not doing it anymore. I have opted out of the idea of femininity that is built on a set of standards I feel incapable of meeting. I don’t enjoy being a girl all the time. I embrace my wide shoulders along with my thick hips, I get no pleasure from the ritualistic practices of womanhood, and I have an affinity for button-downs. In no way do I understand myself to be “masculine presenting” “butch” or “dapper” because of these preferences. Yes, things are complicated, but you would think that in the queer community, that complexity would be welcomed. This is not always the case.
I do not know why fatness flattens gender expression, but I think it has to do with the predetermined expectations of bodies. Culturally, we understand androgyny to be the ability to shift between gender expressions with a facility that highlights their outlandishness, and sometimes their closeness to each other. Learning to embrace the hyperbole of my own body has liberated my gender expression, but also made it more difficult for others to understand. There is little precedent for fat androgyny. Generally our androgynous icons are svelte and lacking in secondary sex characteristics. David Bowie, Tilda Swinton, Katherine Hepburn; these small-bodied, predominately white figures of androgyny have created an aesthetic with little room for deviation. This means that for those of us with bodies that do not conform to traditional standards of androgyny, we are often misread and misunderstood, even in queer spaces. Every day I struggle to present my fat queer body in a way that is intentional and binary-defiant. Sometimes this means I don’t get what I want, Sometimes this means I am misunderstood, sometimes this means I am put into situations that make me feel uncomfortable and challenged. I try to embrace all of these instances for their learning and teaching value.
I went to the same monthly queer party twice wearing two different outfits. Once I wore a skirt, once I wore pants and a button down. I was treated like two completely different people. The first time I went to this party while I was wearing a skirt, someone asked me to go out for a drink. Things didn’t work out and I kind of hoped we wouldn’t run into each other again (an unrealistic expectation in the tiny queer community.) When I saw them again at the party the next month, they grabbed my wrist and snarled “nice pants” at me, as if I had somehow personally offended them by wearing pants. When I wore a skirt, I danced alone or with my friends. When I wore pants, I was given a type of attention that made me uncomfortable. I knew it was because I was being read as “butch.” People treated me differently, gave me space on the dance floor differently, flirted with me differently. It felt somehow insincere, although I was just as comfortable wearing one outfit as the other. I felt I could not live up to the expectations of masculinity that were being imposed onto my body in that space when I projected my femininity non-traditionally. A stranger sneak-attacked me and began to wind her butt in my face. Her male friend slapped my shoulder and said “get it.” I was completely thrown off and angry. What about me allows people to assume that I want to “get” anything? Is it not you who is trying to “get” something from me? What about my body and my presentation allows people to assume that I am the one “getting” and not the person who is shaking their butt in my face without my permission? These are questions that I still do not have any answers to. Instead of confronting the booty-winder, I sneaked off into the crowd to go find my friends. I made it a point to dance with my hips like a girl and shake my own ass in the face of no one, because I have an ass, even in pants, just as I have wide shoulders in a skirt. Nobody is owed an explanation.
About the author: Allie Shyer is A queer student and writer currently living in chicago. She likes poems, the color lilac and dogs that look like their people. You can read more of her thoughts at http://thecactuscollector.tumblr.com/