I’ve known I was into women my entire life. As a four-year-old in ballet school, I was always looking for an excuse to hang out in the dressing room. Not exactly because I was already a creep — though tbh, I probably was — but because I loved to see how the older girls tied their skirts, and watch them adjust their toe shoes, and witness the rigorous straining that produced a flawless bun. I was shocked and delighted to learn that many of them didn’t wear underwear beneath their tights, like I, the unworldly preschooler, did.
To this day, there’s nothing more captivating to me than watching the mysterious trappings of femininity come together to create a person’s particular beauty. My lover affectionately rolls her eyes when I watch her dress for work in the morning. “It’s just for a dumb office!” she cries, as if this could quash my interest in how she manages to infuse her elegant and irreverently bold personality into an outfit every day. Primarily it’s done with impressive textures and patterns, unexpected waistlines, and a touch of sheer. I love watching the process of femmes dressing up and performing, and love it even more when I’m invited into private spaces where they’re undressed and undone, and not pretending anything, including politeness.
From an early age, I was aware that this intimacy with femininity was what would propel me through life. So one might wonder why, as a young woman who grew up in the Bay Area with very open, generous parents, it took me 14 years from my dressing room reveries to recognize with certainty — and I’m otherwise overflowing with certainty — that I was a dyke. I wish I could say it was about the intellectual complexities of sexuality and gender, or that I was afraid of being different. Those were factors, but not nearly as pressing as this: I thought dykes had bad style.
It’s one of the more embarrassing things I have to admit. Of course now, when I look back, I fully understand that what I meant by “dykes had bad style” was that lesbians did not seem cool to me, because patriarchy ran hard and deep in me, and remains most unforgiving to those who know it’s worthless. I also knew nothing about lesbians. In 2003, as I finished my last year of high school, my working list of Dykes (With Bad Style) looked something like this:
1. Rosie O’Donnell. She dressed like a cheesy daytime talk show host (because she WAS a cheesy daytime talk show host) and I didn’t buy her performance of femininity.
2. Ellen. See above, but with overly feathered hair and too many vests.
3. Laura. A girl in my high school creative writing class with a shaved head and nasal voice who I believed could benefit from a lesson in subtlety.
4. Friends of my aunt. These were always smart, soft-spoken women who wore drapey, earth-toned clothing and looked like they didn’t want to be noticed.
5. Lindsay. A coach from my soccer camp at Mills College, who wore mirrored sunglasses attached to a string around her neck and cargo shorts to below her knees. Because she was 100% tough.
This was the tiny collection of primarily white dykes I was using to decide whether or not my deep love for women merited a title. For context, it’s not like I was bursting with staggeringly fresh style myself. More often than not, I was shuffling around in tight flared jeans, a graphic t-shirt and a pullover hoodie — trying, like my aunt’s friends, not to catch any eyes. And I was a jock. I did sometimes feel like I was copping a Lindsay vibe in my spandex and baggy athletic shorts. I knew how to vaguely femme it up with earrings and scarves, prep it out with sweaters and collars, or make it harder with worn-out shirts and a denim jacket. But I was always dressing for a role, never as myself. Which I had never seen as problem — because that, I assumed, was what everyone was doing.
Then in the spring of my senior year in high school, I won a writing award from the National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts. Part of the award included a week-long workshop in Miami with my fellow writers and young artists in eight other art disciplines. I had never considered myself a sheltered person, but I distinctly remember walking into our large orientation room and realizing as I gazed at the flashy, visually challenging, physically demanding styles on the long-limbed, Black, gay dancers from New York City, that I’d never seen a real person before. A true person. Someone who wasn’t dressed up to look like anything other than who they were.
The bright blues and sharp whites, loud patterns on impractical fabrics, diagonal cuts I’d never imagined, and impeccable hairstyles stunned me. Their styles told stories; they shouted “fuck you” while also subtly beckoning with a finger and whispering, “but really, no, fuck me.” You might have guessed that in no time I was hanging out in their hotel rooms in the evenings, sipping on tiny airline booze bottles and watching the meticulous and whimsical production of their beauty before we went out at night.
It merits mentioning that I also met two dykes during the workshop. Cool, funny dykes, who were both writers and even shared my same wry sense of humor and deep anxiety about having to dress in formal wear for the closing gala. But whatever recognition I should have had about my own sexual identity was lost in the revelation these dancers delivered me: that feminine beauty could also be masculine. The same essence that made the swish of a skirt breathtaking could also live in a well-ironed pant leg and the exaggerated puff of a shirt shoulder. Suddenly, I saw the possibility for a kind of feminine beauty I might cultivate one day. It was not about how dainty or tidy it looked, but how intentionally each outfit was meant to fall together in a way that nearly missed and caught a surprise landing.
But this isn’t a piece about how I clearly have a thing for dancers. Nor is it about how Black gay men taught me to embrace my own femininity — though they did, thank you to my college friends Jamal and Micah. It’s also not a piece about how a few careless white dykes have made everyone else look bad — though they have, and The L Word deserves most of the credit. What I want to share is this: even once I saw the beauty in the attention and joy these faggy men brought to cultivating their own style of masculine femininity, I still needed even MORE time to translate this into the realm of women.
I think it’s much too simple to blame this disconnect on patriarchy and homophobia alone. We’ve all heard from dubious sources in our lives that masculinity on a woman is unbecoming and that dykes are ugly. But I was simultaneously exposed to a regular competing stigma against looking “too together,” as a girl, because it meant you were at risk of cultivating a physical reputation at the expense of your intellect. That left a very narrow alley for a young woman to walk and not lose all respect. While my dad did lament aloud that my sister and I didn’t walk effeminately and wear dresses more, both of my parents spent more time making it clear that people who cared about appearances were shallow, and that a person’s ability to be amicable and reason critically were more important than any look.
Which is, I’m sure, a great utopian lesson to teach your kids, but also absurd. Neither of my parents are immune to the charm of beauty — I know why they watch beach volleyball and Tom Cruise movies, and ask them who they remember after going to a party. Plus, my dad is a dark-skinned Indian immigrant and my mom is the child of interned Japanese Americans, so I know they’ve always felt the need to maintain an appearance of respectability — especially when they were young, broke, and people in our own families weren’t sure about them. In my fully queer adult life, my dad has asked me if I shouldn’t change my name to something shorter and less Indian to be published, and whether anyone would hire me with the soft mohawk I have. He would say he brought up these questions because other people are the ones who are shallow and superficial, and he didn’t want me to receive the brunt of it. But would I not be validating the world of superficial appearances if I complied and played along? Whose authority was I recognizing with my style?
That was the real question that plagued me in my high school years. If I weren’t going to blend in, I would be saying something, and what was I prepared to say? My fashion vocabulary was incredibly limited. I spent one summer in Andalucia by myself at 17, and even then, when I was free to entirely reinvent myself, I ended up dressed in strange frothy Zara creations that were part club ho and part grandmother. I recognized the performance required of me to wear most items of women’s clothing, but it had never occurred to me that there might be something better.
So that’s where my style had been stuck, when I arrived for my first day of college at Oberlin. Which is also where my parents met. My dad tutored calculus in his room and my mom liked his tutoring style, which is why, I presumed, being amicable and thinking critically were our top household values. I remember walking down to South Campus for an alumni lunch with my dad, and for the first time, I saw a whole range of beautiful people who effortlessly expressed themselves in ways that felt unexpected then. There were goateed people in flowing floral skirts, bald beauties in huaraches and velvet, curly-haired angels in baggy overalls and cut-off thermals.
My first thought was, “Oh my god. You can be be an obviously queer person who looks hard, soft, pretty and handsome all at once.” When my first college friend and real-life love interest appeared next to me at the sink in the bathroom, I finally understood how those faggy dancers’ beauty could look on a dyke. Goldie had a short blond fade, a denim halter dress, silver platform sandals, and a broad shouldered walk that indicated they meant business. When they introduced themself as a bi poet, opera singer, and dancer (I love to imagine their epic eyeroll at this introduction now) and then wrote their number on my hand so I could come get ready before the party at the ‘Sco, I nearly died.
I want to acknowledge now how hard it can be to be a Dyke With Good Style. Because you have to invent that shit yourself. And inventing anything takes time, energy, and intention. Because, believe it or not, a shaved head can be striking in an anarchist, dapper, folksy, sporty, intellectual or a million other ways. Because the conventions of feminine beauty are rife with messages that, when you’re read as a woman, must be carefully calibrated, mocked, inverted, and otherwise fucked with or else you’re mistaken for harmless, pandering, or just faking it — and I’m not even talking about among straight people. It took years for me to come into my own style. Even now, when I’m asking myself whether or not I can pull off leather Tevas like my friend Sophie, I see how tenuous it all remains. I arrived at my style in stages.
Stage 1 involved Goldie, Micah, and Jamal, my beloved first queer friend group, familiarizing me with uninhibited displays of femininity including but not limited to: talking with your hands, jewelry, singing in public, taking off your shirt at a party, wearing tights, yelling pussy as an expression of joy, loud color coordination, crying in front of people, nonsexual physical affection, revenge, shameless flirtation, walking in heels, dancing upside-down in a cage, eating an entire pizza, cocoa butter, and telling somebody exactly why they’re pissing you off. I wore bright reds, pinks, limes and turquoises, with luxurious black and purple sweaters, sequins, feathers, tight jeans, long earrings, stiff blazers, heeled boots. It was a form of drag and not my truest self, I see now, but I loved that my style said something clear: I am a formidable woman, do not fuck with me. A power I had never felt before.
Once I learned my to feel my own femininity, I wasn’t attached to it looking recognizable or intimidating to other people. I don’t like to use the words masculine and feminine in opposition to each other because I generally experience them simultaneously, like bass and treble. But I wanted to find a more low key style, one that wasn’t declaring itself all the time. Stage 2 of my style came when I cut my hair after the rough end of a relationship with my first girlfriend. I thought my facial features would look more striking and beautiful, and after many iterations of the haircut landing sometimes too butch and other times too mommish, I like to think that’s what it still does.
My short haircut also came with the great benefit of visibility. I can barely express with words the utter and complete rebirth I felt when other queer women began to notice me, when I suddenly started getting invited to hip parties with women I wanted to know, when people started telling me I was cute and wanted to make out. Just because of my hair, I thought. Which is of course false. It was because of me. I was fully visible for the first time in m life via my faux-hawk. Because it was both groomed and relaxed, mildly disobedient and kind of chic, a casual faggy statement. And that was me. I understood then that my parents hadn’t given me the full briefing on the unsuperficial side of appearances. My hair told people how to regard me, and everything about being in public felt easier. It gave me the confidence to start thinking about what story I wanted my own style to tell, which began by me shopping in the men’s section. My hair seemed to offer a quick explanation on what I was doing there, and was a middle finger to everyone who stared too hard, too long.
Stage 3 was a series of trials and errors. It was a process to figure out how to fit my very womanly body into men’s clothing. I tried shorts of all ill-fitting lengths, strange 80s outdoorswear, way too many twee layers, and long, baggy flannel looks that were meant for skinny tomboys. I eventually learned that I needed clothes shaped like squares, with enough room for my boobs and belly. They had to be colorful, irreverent and playful. I wanted to balance my humor, and my brownness, my politics, my attachment to comfort, my disinterest in seeming “adult” and my distaste for anything too obvious.
It was at this point that I moved to Chicago and met my friend Amy, who had a profound hand in shaping my style. She was just a touch girlier than I was, but both of us wanted to be sparkly and chic for an evening, wear bold play clothes from the Target boys’ section when we rode our bikes to the beach, rock loud vintage styles at queer dance parties, ironically sport preppy sweaters while drunk at brunch, and wear cute homemade crewnecks on the couch at home. I started teaching creative writing classes in grad school the following year, and all of my college students told me that my general appearance gave the impression that 1) I was super comfortably gay 2) I knew what I was doing, but 3) I was not a standard adult with standard rules. And that was when I knew I’d hit my stride.
Recently, I think I’ve begun a new stage, Stage 4. I’ve begun to return to the women who originally gave me the impression that dykes had bad style. I’m 33 now, and I don’t always need to stand out. It’s cool if I’m standing in line at the deli and someone thinks I’m the parent of an Asian toddler who is about to knock over the chip rack. It’s also cool if I’m at an art show wearing my backpack and a young queer with a beautiful George Michael vibe asks me where I go to college. Most of the time, I wear one of 10 t-shirts I got from the Gap men’s online clearance section — don’t get me wrong, they’re classic Ts with a subtle flair, but they’re nothing special. That’s sort of the point, I think. I don’t feel the need to declare myself quite so loudly and so frequently. Sometimes when I want to make an impression, I wear my powder pink side-zip windbreaker, or my crewneck printed in juicy oyster half-shells, or a pair of brilliant blue velvet loafers with tassels. I have Looks, for sure, but I also have the everyday.
That’s what I consider when I think about the Dykes With Bad Style from my list. I know they looked a lot cooler at some point, either before or after I came upon them — though I personally think Ellen’s current look, in the vein of a trendy Fab Five member, isn’t any better. But they weren’t trying to impress me, the normal high school girl imposter with my beauty obsession. And they still managed to make an impression. Not because they were so outrageously piquant and flamboyant, showing me contrasts and twists never before seen, not because they were beautiful exactly — though they really weren’t NOT beautiful — but because they seemed like regular people. They weren’t trying. They were comfortable dykes in the style of many other dykes, and many other people, like them. And I know now, that’s what struck me as truly unforgivable in my younger years: the terrible notion that I, even as a dyke, might simply be unremarkable.
These days when it’s 10 o’clock and I’m reading in bed and my young lover comes over to work on her computer and teases me about being a granny, I understand the great triumph of being able to feel sometimes like an unremarkable half-Japanese, half-Indian, amicable and critically thinking, chubby, queeny, writer dyke. It’s nice that I can be a granny, like anyone else. It makes dressing up to aggressively spit in the face of patriarchy that much more fun. I do like to think that if my high school self saw me now, I’d shock myself into full dykehood because my style is so subtle and easy. But if I ended up on my list of Dykes With Bad Style instead, I wouldn’t be mad. I know I’m cool; why would I give a fuck what anyone else thinks? And that’s exactly the aesthetic that I was inclined to read as “bad” without an understanding of how that’s also a certain kind of freedom.
edited by rachel.
I feel like this piece just tripped me down the stairs, but at the bottom of the stairs was a ball pit and drinks and soft, gentle music. Going to be thinking about this for a while, and I can’t wait to read your novel.
Oh I love love loved this! I’m feeling my way into my dyke style, and I think I’m finally at the point where my expression of femininity is queer enough that I’m clocked as femme not straight <3 wow what a difference it makes to move through the world
good shit!!!! rly good shit!!! ♡
I love this! I relate hard to so much of what you wrote. I hope I can figure out my style some day. I still feel pretty invisible to other queer folks but also I’m old and tired of trying so hard to be seen. Somehow I made it to the granny phase without figuring out my style along the way?
Beautiful article and I’m looking forward to your book!
Thank you for your writing, Kamala
This was a fantastic read and I’ve been thinking about it the whole day.
I almost want to quote all of this piece back to you, Kamala. Thank you. I know I’m going to be thinking about it all week.