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.
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.
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.