My Superhero Shirt and the Allure of the Unflattering

feature illustration by Iris Gottlieb

I went clothes shopping yesterday and, for the first time since I was a preteen, didn’t want to vomit. So that’s pretty cool.

I want to talk about why that is, why men’s flannels and thick wool socks make my body feel like I’ve finally gotten it that Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas. I mean, it’s only been asking for a couple of decades, jeez. I want to talk about the big, warm, cozy sweater that flattens my breasts, that would make my mother frown and use words like “unflattering” or “linebacker.” I want to talk about those things. I do. But first I think I want to talk about my superhero shirt.

illustration by Iris Gottlieb

My superhero shirt has been in my life for about three years now. I got it at a thrift store. It’s cute, a woman’s shirt, kind of a taupe color with gauzy little cap sleeves. Not my usual thing, but I loved the color. I thought, this is feminine but not overly so. Maybe it won’t make me feel so squirmy, so naked.

I guess I should say I have a complicated relationship with my shoulders. And my mother. My shoulders were one of my body parts (along with my legs, my ribs, my cleft chin, my thick eyebrows, etc.) that she liked to remind me were too masculine. “You’re built like a football player,” she’d say, her lips pulled into a deep, upside-down U-shape. It was probably meant to make me try harder to be feminine. It just made me into a Chicago Bears fan.

So this shirt. I tried it on.

It was incredible. I liked the way it hung on my body, the way it didn’t snug in at the waist. It was form-fitting without making me feel like my form was on display and “wrong.” And then I saw my shoulders.

My three-QB-sacks-per-game shoulders. I heard my mother’s voice. I saw her frown.

But I bought the shirt anyway. It lived in my closet in a guilty, folded packet for a couple of months. I finally decided to wear it to a writing workshop, a place where I feel in my element. I think, now, that there was no going back from that feeling. Now I like to wear it to all of my poetry readings. It is my public uniform, my impenetrable armor.

shirt

illustration by Iris Gottlieb

My favorite thing about that shirt? The way those cute little feminine cap sleeves make me feel like I have the shoulders of a superhero. It’s the kind of shirt you’d wear to rescue puppies or to crumble a villain’s volcano lair using only the power of your mind.

See, it’s not that I don’t feel female. I do. I’m mostly at peace with this body, my breasts, my menstrual cycles, all the things inside that feel right and signal my femaleness back to me. I like it. I identify with it.

But my outside is different. For as long as I can remember, I would tuck my long hair up inside baseball caps so I’d look like a boy. As a child, I had an aunt who volunteered at a Salvation Army and she would bring over garbage bags full of clothes they couldn’t sell. For all of middle school, my closet was full of sports t-shirts and Budweiser t-shirts and carpenter jeans. When I was fifteen, I cut my hair off altogether.

Objectively, aesthetically, I find women’s clothes attractive. Just… on other women. But I’m intensely uncomfortable wearing them. There’s something about the way they’re made — cinched in at the waist, the hem grazing the fullest point of hips, the wide or deep necklines — that make me feel like I’m on display. And that’s true, isn’t it? Women are always on display because they are always someone else’s property. Everyone else’s property.

“Of course you want to show off that waist.”

“Heels will accentuate your legs and butt!”

“Remember, v-necks narrow your shoulders.”

My attraction to masculine fashion isn’t even a rejection of the women-as-public-property schema, though I do reject it. I don’t wear men’s clothes as a statement, or as protest. They make me feel right in this body. They let me interface with the world almost non-sexually.

So today I get to wash and put away a couple of thrift-store bags full of flannels and t-shirts and these socks that look like they should be worn while field-dressing a deer. And the next time I go out, I get to feel present in my skin.

I'm a queer poet and book artist relocating from hyper-rural Michigan to Chicago. My work has appeared most recently in Menacing Hedge and Stirring, and I have two chapbooks forthcoming in 2016 - "Lost Birds of the Iron Range" from Porkbelly Press and "Darling Girl" from Dancing Girl Press.

amber has written 2 articles for us.

45 Comments

  1. “Objectively, aesthetically, I find women’s clothes attractive. Just… on other women. But I’m intensely uncomfortable wearing them.”

    I think I said this exact thing about myself yesterday.

  2. *raises hand* Another linebacker!
    This past year has been the first year that I’ve embraced my back and arms and shoulders and given up on such futile endeavours such as running and starving in favor of rowing and lifting weights in the gym.
    Now I really DO look like a quarterback, but I feel great.
    Wide shoulders make me walk upright and into any room like I own it.
    And I do.
    I do own every room I walk into, because I finally am owning up to myself.
    *superhero fist bump*

  3. I love Autostraddle articles that hit me in the feels! When I was a kid, I was always wearing boys’ clothes and my parents were supportive. But then puberty happened and I felt the need to “femme it up” due to society yada yada yada. 20-years later, I’ve reclaimed my MoC-ness that I had when I was 8 and I’m wearing clothes that make me feel powerful. I feel confident when I’m rocking a blazer with a tie and a pair of Chucks. Any hang ups I have about my body are gone; especially my height (I’m only 5’0).

    • I have so many feelings about my height. At 5’3 (almost anyway) I’m not the shortest person out there, but I’m short enough to often be the shortest in the room, or to be patted on the head in a nightclub (WTF!).

      Hopefully one day I’ll be okay with my height. But for now I just keep a mental list of short people who are awesome and respected and successful.

      • I’m with you my fellow short stuff ‘straddler. I still get the “You’re so cute!!” comments by girls at clubs/bars and well, I don’t think a 28-year-old should be described as “cute” if you call my dogs cute, that’s one way to score points though.

        My gal pal is 7 inches taller than me (and likes to wear heels) but then I see pictures of Ellen Page and her bae and I’m like whatever! Haha.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this! I have had a really similar experience, and at 25 I’m only just starting to realize that I can stop trying to “look pretty” when all that does is make me uncomfortable. For the longest time I thought I just sucked at being a woman because “pretty clothes” always fit me wrong and just made me feel bad about myself. Now it’s thrift store baggy sweaters and corduroys as far as the eye can see. I’m starting to actually be comfortable!

    • That sounds like story of my life. At 4’9 I’m almost always the shortest person around and I get the you’re so cute all the time. I’m honestly comfortable with my height, I just wish that people would take me a little more seriously. And as a MOC presenting human I’m often read as like, a 14 year old boy (this is probably not helped by the fact literally zero things in the men’s section fit me so most of my clothes are actually designed for 14 year old boys). Generally I just find it funny when people asking for the store manager are surprised when it’s me but sometimes it gets a bit frustrating. But overall I’m way more comfortable this way!

      • Yes Caitlin! I shop in the boys section all the time! It’s so good to wear something where the arms aren’t ridiculously long, and honestly, they make some really cool stuff for 14 yo boys! It’s just MOC enough for me without being FOR MEN, if you get me.
        I spent a few years just stealing my brothers clothes but as he’s got older I’ve just started buying it for myself. Makes me feel awesome.

      • I love meeting other short MOC folks; I feel like the only one sometimes. Hey, we can wear stuff from Crewcuts and still look dapper as fuck without having to pay “big people” prices. I fit in kids’ shoes, my friends are amazed at my sneaker collection and I’m like, “My shoes cost half the amount as yours do, I can buy more pairs!”

        I can totally relate to having a hard time with people taking me seriously; especially in a professional setting; we just have to make up for it with our awesome personalities and strong will.

  4. I read this sort of numbly, but when i got to the end I realised I wanted to cry from the feeling of recognition. thanks for writing this 🙂 *wraps self in blankets*

  5. Amber, this was a great piece, thank you for writing it. It’s terrific that you’ve found the clothes that make you comfortable. Wear the hell out of ’em, and feel proud to do so! Superhero all the way!

    Clothes are powerful. I’m continually amazed at how much influence they have. (I remember reading an advice columnist’s response to a girl whose boyfriend didn’t take her fashion job seriously: “Next time you go out, tell him you’re wearing pants and he’s wearing a skirt, which should be no problem for him since clothes don’t matter.” Ha!)

    Personally I never wear skirts because I feel too much on display when I wear them. I’m feminine and happy to be a girl, but I’m never girly. My superhero outfit is a black t-shirt, jeans and boots. The end.

  6. I had a lovely co-worker once, who was probs a young fashion following person in the 80s, ask if I was wearing shoulder pads. I looked confusedly at her BECAUSE I DIDN’T EVEN KNOW WHAT THEY WERE. She grabbed me by the shoulders, to check for pads, and said to me “You have such broad shoulders!”

    She clearly meant this to be complimentary. But it’s the difference between complimenting someones eye makeup or their eye color, one is a choice, and one isn’t. I’m still not sure why this had to happen. But I dress to accentuate that quality now, just so there’s no confusion. At least from anyone else.

  7. I was feel a little bit weird reading peices like this. I’m really happy that Amber found a style that’s comfortable for her – everyone should be able to wear whatever it is that feels best. But I wish masculine of center people would just say that they prefer traditionally masculine clothing because of a personal preference, rather than implying that traditionally feminine clothing is somehow degrading or anti-feminist.

    Wearing skirts, dresses, and makeup certiantly doesn’t mean I see myself as someone else’s property – I just feel comfortable in them and enjoy them. I do dress in part to be seen by others, but I’ve never looked at that as a bad thing. Fashion is a form of self-expression and is generally meant to be seen – I guess one could say I’m putting myself on display on days when I dress to get noticed, but what’s wrong with that?

    • I agree with you so much. I prefer dressing masculine myself, but every now and then I like to try feminine gothic styles. Whenever I read stuff like this it bugs me a bit, especially when they put down “men’s inspired” feminine clothes because I can’t help but think “There’s women out there who actually enjoy dressing like that you know.”

    • From my perspective, it seemed like the author was saying their MoC style is personal preference, with an explanation of how that preference was formed. The second-to-last paragraph kinda re-states that.

      I didn’t see anything that mentioned feminine clothes as degrading or anti-feminist, so I’m confused about that part of your comment.

      And I agree, there’s nothing wrong with “putting myself on display” if I want to. Yes.

      • I was refering to this part of the essay: “There’s something about the way they’re made — cinched in at the waist, the hem grazing the fullest point of hips, the wide or deep necklines — that make me feel like I’m on display. And that’s true, isn’t it? Women are always on display because they are always someone else’s property. Everyone else’s property.”

        To me, this sounds like the author is saying that feminine clothing is designed to demonstrate that women are property, and I don’t feel comfortable with that statement. Hopefully she didn’t mean it that way. I don’t mean to be overly harsh – I liked the peice overall and I’m very happy that the author found a comfortable style! I just felt that parts of it could be read as denegrating femme clothing.

        • Just popping in to say, oh gosh, yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that I think there’s anything wrong with dressing more femininely or being on display or anything like that. I am very Team Dress How You Want. Just, I’m personally uncomfortable with my own body being on display (and I should have been clearer about that being an anxiety thing rather than a political/statement thing) so I like to wear more masculine fashion, which makes me feel closer invisible.

          I know it’s a huge and important conversation right now, how women can’t win with how they dress. There’s backlash with falling on either end of the feminine-to-masculine fashion scale (fem=not taken seriously, masc=not for male consumption so invisible) and I’m really sorry for wording things in a way that added to that rhetoric, even if that’s not what I meant for it to do. Thanks for calling it out. I really do appreciate this conversation and I’ll take it with me to help make my writing clearer in the future. <3

  8. My mom used to call me a linebacker too. But I didn’t feel like a linebacker. I felt like someone who wanted to hide because my body was too big and too noticeable and nothing fit right. I did want to feel pretty but not too feminine, femininity didn’t feel like me. I wore jeans and band t-shirts and slouched.

    It was when I got my hair cut off that I finally felt at home in a dress. My girlfriend liked my broad shoulders, and told me that they looked great in the sleeveless dress I put on. I wore the dress with docs and I finally felt still queer and feminine. Now I stand up straight, work out to make my arms and back stronger, and I am proud of my strong frame, and I know that I can be femme and tomboyish and beautiful everyday no matter what I’m wearing.

  9. “My attraction to masculine fashion isn’t even a rejection of the women-as-public-property schema, though I do reject it. I don’t wear men’s clothes as a statement, or as protest. They make me feel right in this body. They let me interface with the world almost non-sexually.”
    WOW, this is exactly what I was feeling without knowing there was a word or words to the feeling. I have “dressy” women’s clothes for work, but boy when I’m not at work you better give me a nerdy/fandom tee and a flannel really quick!

  10. These words explain so succinctly why I secretly love these Buffalo winters:
    “My attraction to masculine fashion isn’t even a rejection of the women-as-public-property schema, though I do reject it. I don’t wear men’s clothes as a statement, or as protest. They make me feel right in this body. They let me interface with the world almost non-sexually.”
    And I will talk my puffy unflattering black snow pants up and down until I’m red in the face FOREVER because I’ve yet to feel unwillingly sexualized in them.

    Just try to do it. I dare ya.

  11. This article is so timely to my life right now, and I love it! I just got a job where the dress code is “casual” and I can’t tell you how much more confident I feel going to work in clothes that make me feel like myself. I just left an very professional workplace where I had to wear dress pants and blouses that just didn’t fit me very well and I always felt like I am wearing a costume. It’s not like I show up in sweatpants or anything, but now I can wear jeans that fit and tops that make me feel like I’m being myself. It’s the best feeling!

  12. My super hero shirt is always some generic tank top, not the cute girly ones, but the ribbed menswear type. Your article made me realize that they are a tool for me, they put my large chest out in a way that gets attention, but then show off my muscular tattooed arms as a way of defending myself, thanks for sharing your story, it really cleared up why I go to my “go to outfit”

  13. I like this. There was a time in my life when I wore form-fitting stuff but now it generally makes me uncomfortable. An oversized sweater (plus nice boots plus swanky watch) is my best friend. Can take it from office to casual daywear and I am in control of precisely who (and particularly, how many men) are in a position to study my body throughout the day in a way that is sexual without my permission.

    This is a great time too to mention Peau de Loup again, whom I learnt about on AS (thanks!) who do ethical MoC-style shirts for women (or for anyone?!). Check em!

  14. Thanks for sharing this!
    It’s funny because my broad shoulders are definitely one of the things that made me feel different when I was younger. I’m taller and I used to have huge breast and I have wide hips and even just my face is bigger. I don’t generally notice it or feel self-conscious about it until I see myself in a group picture with other women. Be it at 14 year old or now, I always do a double take, thinking “holy shit I AM tall and bigger and larger than everyone else”.

    … But I don’t think I’ve ever felt bad about my shoulders. I’ve always felt they were POWERFUL. I was swimming a lot as a teenager and there was power in these shoulders. And then I took up sailing and my shoulders were killing it in boat races. I remember standing in front of the mirror naked and when I do a body builder pose, open my ribcage, stand straight, flex muscles, I look so fucking huge, like a comic book superhero. It used to make me laugh.

    When I thought I was straight I tended to look for men who where even larger than I was. I was supposed to be feminine after all and feminity means fragility. How could I feel feminine in the arms of a man that felt smaller ? Now that I know I’m gay I’ve also changed my perception and don’t really care to appear fragile or dainty. I just wanna appear awesome. In retrospect it’s sad that it took coming out for me to realise this. I hope straight women find the freedom elsewhere to be liberated from this and realise they too have superhero shoulders (which btw is one thing I really like about the supergirl costume, the fact they padded it up to make it look like she had mean muscle, it’s such a good message to give to young girls).

    sorry this turned into a novel, I have a lot of feelings re: shoulders and gender presentation!

  15. I think it’s worth noting that breasts, a menstrual cycle, aren’t necessarily female (in the same way that not having breasts or a menstrual cycle doesn’t necessarily denote a male body). (Other than that though I do really like this article and how you talk abt gender presentation vs. identity!)

  16. This is an excellent piece of writing! I’m glad you shared it. I can definitely relate. I don’t wear masculine clothes, and I ID as femme. But I don’t feel comfortable in women’s clothes. They are too fancy, uncomfortable, and impractical for me*. I like simple designs, cotton fabrics, and comfort.

    *I’m speaking only for myself. I know a lot of femmes feel empowered in heels, layers, and fancy dresses, and that’s awesome! But just not for me.

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