We may earn a commission through product links on this page. But we only recommend stuff we love.

Send Me to Low Femme Paradise

feature image photo by N. Maxwell Lander

I started wearing sweatpants during the pandemic, and I cannot leave this soft, sloppy cocoon.

The other day, I was scrolling TikTok and came across one of my favourite accounts, a blonde femme academic somewhere in the UK whose whole deal seems to be praising butches and dressing up in renaissance type outfits. I enjoy her a lot. She’s very smart. I love that she sees her femme identity as necessarily in relationship with butch and isn’t afraid to say it. In the late 90s and aughts, there was a lot of emphasis on femme being its own word and identity with its own history, not attached to butch at all. I understand this was a necessary correction to a bar scene that praised masculinity and mostly derided femininity and questioned its queerness, in addition to the lesbian community at the time who thought butch/femme culture was old school and just mimicking hetero norms.

My TikTok fav was explaining to her followers that high femmes date stone butches, like only high femmes can date stone butches. This was wild to me in its inaccuracy, but also maybe things have changed. I once watched a Them magazine info video that claimed the words high femme and pansexual didn’t exist in the 1990s, which was when I spraypainted ‘pansexual femmes for trans liberation’ on the wall outside a factory in Montreal that managed to stay up for five years. But every generation likes to invent things, don’t they? My first loves were all stone butches, and most are men now, but that’s another essay, one I’d never write. But it made me think about how I used to feel high femme, and now I do not. Now I’m more of a sundress and sandals kind of person, a little lip gloss, maybe a push up bra under my t-shirt with some converse. But only if I want to impress you. Most days right now, I wear a plaid jacket I bought at a store called — no joke — The Farm Store. I wear a few trans liberation pins on it, because it matters so much right now and also everyone in my small town Starbucks drive-through is either queer or trans and I want to impress them and get a free pup cup for my dog.

When I was 25 and working in a gay bar, I owned more pairs of fishnets than coffee mugs, more heeled boots than sneakers. In my early thirties, I bought some cowboy boots and a pair of Blundstones and put everything else in retirement unless it was Pride or New Year’s Eve. During Covid, I wore sweatpants outside for the first time. Now I cannot stop. What is this soft paradise? I was scrolling through TikTok to avoid looking at my closet, with all the dresses and heels I used to wear and have grown out of during Covid, in preparation for a book tour promoting my new novel. A book tour is a strange animal, where you must rise out of the chair you’ve been writing in for several years and become a person who speaks out loud in her own voice, not in pithy dialogue written for made up people. You have to be a bit charming and approachable, even if you still feel like the caustic owl in the arm chair curled over your laptop wondering about every comma. I’m about to appear on several morning TV shows, a few public appearances, and radio that now unfairly also uses video? Was I going to have to buy all new dresses?

Now I love the dopamine hit of buying new things from Eloquii and Nooworks and any plus size fashion outlet as much as the next late in life ADHD-er. But I remembered what shopping was like for my previous book tours, when I was a smaller size but still bigger than most. It sucked. There aren’t a lot of options, and somehow what I imagined in my head was never the outcome that materialized. I still cringed at photos and video while wearing outfits I thought were killer, the kind of dresses that might elicit a thin person to drunkenly comment on my confidence at the book signing table. For the first time in my life I longed for a type of uniform, because the reality of how you’re perceived as a fat femme person is exhausting when your job is to promote a work and form relationships.

I experienced the world — including about five years of the gay scene — as a fairly thin person until I started a medication that changed my metabolism. When I gained weight, I didn’t realize what was happening until people started to ignore me in ways I wasn’t used to. I used to have a joke in my stand-up act about how getting fat meant I had to learn to be interesting at 25, because unbeknownst to me I hadn’t been interesting at all — I’d just been conventionally attractive and so people would talk to me and say I was cool or cute or interesting. It also meant fewer men looked at me, which was a bonus when I had zero interest in them.

But fat women, and fat femmes in particular, are often only seen or taken seriously when they are hyper feminine and done up super slick. Because you can’t be caught having a regular day where you don’t feel like wearing makeup lest you fall into all the fatphobic stereotypes like slob, lazy, sad, pitiable. If you always have your nails done and a full face of makeup, no one can accuse you of not trying, right? It’s exhausting, and honestly I never really succeed at it. There’s always cat hair on my bodycon number, and I can rarely afford to get my hair done as much as I like.

I decided the cure for my wardrobe on book tour crisis was to buy a bunch of button-up shirts and just dress like an academic lesbian, slightly masc but with my hair done, so I’d look like what The L Word considers stylish. I’d noticed that women who dress this way in literary settings often get a weird begrudging respect from our male peers, and I’d prefer that to being ignored. Plus, I’d be more visibly queer on TV at a time when that seems to matter again. I ordered shirts from a queer company, Peau De Loup, a company my nonbinary butch friend told me I’d like because “all the models are people you’d want to date.” I tried the shirts on and looked like a box. I knew this was possible; I’m 4’11″ with a bra size toward the end of the alphabet.

So it’s back to my cowboy boots and stretchy black dresses for this tour, I guess. Unless I can realize my biggest dream, which is to hire an actor to do all my public appearances. Like a lazy, low femme Andy Warhol. It’s good to have a goal.

The Fake by Zoe Whittall is out now.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!

Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall is a Lamda award-winning writer whose most recent novels are The Fake and The Spectacular. She has worked as a TV writer on The Baroness Von Sketch Show, Degrassi, Schitt's Creek and others.

Zoe has written 1 article for us.


  1. I relate to this maybe too much. I moved house during the pandemic and, when deciding what to pack vs. donate, ended up tossing all my high heels and little femme flats. I don’t miss them, but now all I have are Blundstones and Birkenstocks, which somehow don’t seem office appropriate. (I haven’t worked in an office in 3+ years now, but what if???)

    As a fellow short and booby lady I’ve also been doing the dress + denim jacket + boots look, and decided that’s good enough for me so it’ll have to be good enough for everyone else.

    And as a fellow low femme (I usually call myself a “lazy femme”) there’s still this little voice going, shouldn’t you get highlights? A new lip gloss? Eyelash extensions? You can escape heteronormativity but somehow the patriarchy and male gaze BS is still there waiting for you. This is something for me to work on, I guess.

    This was a bit disjointed, but all to say: thank you for writing this!

  2. I’ve still got my lipstick but as someone who’s even abandoned mascara in the last few months – my eyes are what they are! – I really feel this. also, “ the caustic owl in the arm chair” is a great phrase

  3. I’m so happy to see Zoe Whittall on Autostraddle! I have similarly low femme tendencies. Today I wore sneakers to work with my button down and slacks which is a new low (or high??) for me, but they are comfy!

  4. I went from a femme bisexual to a lazy lesbian (well, was always a lesbian but that’s a story for another unread comment, another day), and was suddenly being perceived as “more androgynous” (by my partner, no less), and am now having a lowkey identity crisis because I thought I was femme?

    Nvm the 20-pound weight gain since about a year before the pandemic (my nervous breakdown era, ah nostalgia) when I went from being almost conventionally attractive to definitely not conventionally attractive.
    Now I’m ignored by basically everyone…but me and my leggings/loose Athleta t-shirt/birkenstocks with socks/thriftstore cardigan probably (I think) prefer that to any variety of male attention. So

  5. I call myself “sloth femme,” which basically means I skew femme as long as it requires no extra work. Cat eye glasses? Yes. Actually having to put on eyeliner? No thank you. Cute rompers that also mean I only have to put on one piece of clothing are the ideal.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!