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. 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.

  2. “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!

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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”

  6. 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!

  7. 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!

  8. 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!)

  9. 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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