Just a note to clarify that in this piece I refer to myself as a lesbian and also mention dating a cisgender man. I used to identify as bisexual, and now identify as a lesbian.
1. Bristol 2014
My flatmate Izzy informed me with excitement that a Victoria’s Secret had opened in Cabot Circus, the big shopping centre in town in which cute queero Franky shoplifted a glitter party look in the fifth series of Skins. I had never been to a Victoria’s Secret before, but I convinced my girlfriend that we should go together on a mission to buy exciting underpants. Both relatively femme-presenting at the time, we laughed that we probably just looked like a couple of gal pals advising each other on what our boyfriends would like. The fitting room assistant cheerily introduced herself and ushered us into a cubicle together without blinking an eye.
I hadn’t bought a new bra in years, so I picked a range of sizes and figured I’d buy whatever fitted. It turned out that I wasn’t a B cup anymore. I was a DD. I looked at my boobs in the mirror, encased in a red lace bra with matching underpants.
“I have huge boobs.”
My girlfriend paused from taking photos of me on her phone and looked at me.
“Yeah… I know you do.”
“I just didn’t realize they had got this big.”
She paused, cocked her head to the side. “We should have sex in here.”
I did buy a bra that day, but I no longer own it, or any other bra. A couple of months ago I gathered up all of my lacy, ribbony underwear and slips and gave them to one of my friends. A few weeks before that we did an impromptu photoshoot in her room where I wrapped her naked torso in bondage tape to make a crop top. On my initial attempt I wrapped it round like a mummy and she looked in the mirror and laughed.
“What are you doing? You’re totally squishing my boobs.”
She used her hands to hold her breasts in place as though wearing a huge push-up bra,
“I want them here.”
I tried again. This time shaped her chest the way she wanted it to be, instead of the way I want my chest to be.
In 2016 I cried in my girlfriend’s bed because I hated having breasts, but I wasn’t sure whether that meant there was something wrong with me. I decided to buy a binder off the internet. When it finally arrived it took me about 10 minutes to squeeze it over my head. I looked in the mirror and freaked out. I could do nothing but focus on how fat my stomach looked now that my chest was also flattened. I felt so ashamed. I thought it must’ve been an eating-problems hangover. I had no right to hate having breasts when it was a natural result of female fat distribution! How could I not be ok with it! The only solution was to embrace my newfound femininity by ignoring my discomfort. I struggled for a while to get the binder off of my body before I gave up, cutting it off with a pair of scissors and throwing it into the bin.
My girlfriend and I broke up a few months later, and I started dating a cisgender man for the first time in my life. In the early weeks of our flirtation I wore an underwire bra, a skintight black turtleneck and high-waisted black skinny jeans every day. He told me he had never dated a woman like me before. He thought that I was beautiful and sexy, and he wanted me to belong to him, so I felt like maybe everything would be ok. I hardly thought about my breasts for the year and a half we were together. It was like they belonged to the woman I was dressed as, and it was ok because the real me wasn’t actually there.
2. London 2017
After the fourth or fifth time it happened, Anne just took it from me.
“It’s fine,” I said, “I’ll just leave it.”
“No! After all that time. I’ll pay.”
“I don’t know why it’s not working, it was working before. I definitely have money.”
The assistant chipped in,”We’ve been having some problems with this machine. It’s not you. I’m sorry about this. Would you like to pay in cash?”
“I don’t have my purse.”
“You could go to a cashpoint, if you wanted, we can wait.”
“Or we can hold it for you? Tomorrow, you could come back tomorrow.”
“Great, can I take a name?”
“Ok Jess. it’ll be on the first floor, just ask, if you have any problems.”
I never went back for the bra. I kept having this vision when I was trying it on of my boyfriend. Me, taking off my clothes, and him, laughing at me trying to be sexy. And then, when I got upset, he would just say “darling!” in that funny voice and not understand.
One day when we were visiting his parents, his mother came downstairs with an old dress of his sister’s which she thought I’d like. It was long and tight and black. I tried it on with trainers. His father said “No, you can’t wear those. It just ruins it, such a svelte dress.” I tried on several pairs of his sister’s high heels. It was fun, I love playing dress up. His mother said “Do you want any hair remover? Or a razor?”
“Ok as long as you’re comfortable. I just wasn’t sure if you’d be comfortable like that.”
We were going out to an alternative Pride event. I had been planning on wearing boxer shorts and a red sweater with a fried egg painted on it. Instead I sat in the car in the dress and the shoes, feeling like someone wearing fancy dress to a formal party for a dare.
“I bet your mother never felt the need to dress up any of your ex-girlfriends.” I snapped.
“Does that idea bother you?”
“It’s like she took pity on me, like ‘oh that poor thing needs help being a woman.’ I hate it.”
“Does it worry you that she might think that or that I might think that?”
In Victoria’s Secret, when I tried on the lacy bra Anne said to me, “Oh he would love you in that.”
Later, after my card was declined and I went home, I phoned him. We talked for three hours while I panicked and told him repeatedly:
“I’m not a real person.”
“I wish I was dead.”
“I’m not a proper woman.”
I told him that I didn’t care about anything and I wished I didn’t exist. He said, “But what about all those really interesting women writers you’ve been researching?”
I tried to bury my head even further into the duvet.
“Most of them killed themselves. It’s not very reassuring.”
3. London 2018
I broke up with my boyfriend earlier this year. Soon afterwards, I noticed that my old discomfort with my chest returned. Nearly two years to the day after I ordered my first binder, I bought another one. This time it was the right size. When I rolled it on and looked in the mirror, I almost cried. It was the complete opposite of the first time. I felt like I was coming home to myself. The sensation of tightness around my chest was a strong hug. I am hugging myself. I thought. I am hugging my actual self.
The idea that women should judge their own bodies while simultaneously performing wholesome self-acceptance, is a paradox I’ve lived with for as long as I can remember. My mother hates her thighs. I cannot remember a time when I did not know this. She also encouraged me to wear what I wanted, and didn’t mind when I dyed my hair blue. She has been so accepting of how I dress without seeming to try, but once my breasts grew we kept having conversations like:
“Have you stopped wearing bras then?”
“No. I’m just not wearing one today”
“You’ve got such lovely breasts. I don’t know, when I was young, we supported them.”
She doesn’t mean to be limiting. She just doesn’t see that the way she feels about her body is not the way that I feel about mine.
When I was 15 or 16 I bought a pack of rainbow tie-dye mens boxer briefs from the UK bargain clothing store Primark. I sensed that my mum would react weirdly to my choice of underwear if she saw them, so I shoved them in my pajama drawer and resolved that if she said anything I would claim that I bought them to wear as pajama shorts – women’s sleepwear being one of those areas of fashion in which it’s considered cute to dress as if your clothes might belong to your “boyfriend.” I did not have a boyfriend. My mum noticed the briefs, and commented with confusion and concern:
“These are men’s underwear. Do you wish you were a man?”
If I’d said yes, if I had been trans and told her so, I think she would have been supportive. But, I didn’t feel like I was trans. I felt like a woman who was constantly told that she was not doing a very good job.
This was a common occurrence in my teenage years. I would wear something camp and outlandish (velvet trousers, a snakeskin waistcoat, chelsea boots) and my mother would express confusion about my gender identity. In a way I feel I should give her credit for having such a flexible vision of masculinity that my attempts to dress like Noel Fielding registered to her as strictly male. I wish she could’ve had an equally flexible vision of what it is to be feminine. My dad, who reminisced fondly on the days of his waist-length blonde hair and three-piece maroon suit, seemed to understand better. My mum asked more than once if I wished I was a man. I don’t think she ever outright asked me if I was queer.
It probably didn’t help that I was struggling to comprehend where my gender and sexuality fit into a landscape of queerness that, to me, was defined purely by David Bowie and the Todd “Director-of-Carol” Hayne’s movie Velvet Goldmine. As far as I was aware, it was only men who had the potential to be beautifully androgynous. The phrases “butch woman” and “lesbian” prompted a vision of a short, fat woman with a crew cut wearing a polo shirt and chinos. It was an incredibly crude and old-fashioned stereotype. I don’t know exactly where it came from for me, but it stuck. It makes me sad to think that as a 16-year-old closeted lesbian I believed that when a man dressed androgynously he was beautiful, but when a woman did it, she was ugly.
I wore my femininity like a costume, dressing like a 19th century cabaret performer, and feeling that somehow I still would never look as good as Jonathan Rhys Meyers. I remember the conversations I had with my best-friend-who-was-secretly-my-girlfriend. They tended to go along the lines of:
“I wish we lived in London in the 70s.”
“Yeah, I wish I was in a glam rock band.”
“Why are there no good women characters in Velvet Goldmine?”
“Because women are boring.”
“I wish I was a gay man in London in the 70s.”
I had no awareness that with the decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK being only a few years before, and the AIDs crisis looming, that to be a gay man in the 70s was not just a case of wearing amazing outfits and huge shoes. Instead, I had fully absorbed a misogynistic cis male perspective of queerness that made me think that being a queer woman was somehow impossible. So if I was gay I must actually be a gay man, or should wish that I was one.
When my mum found my tie-dye pants in the washing basket I made my excuses, and then threw them away.
On that first visit to Victoria’s Secret with my girlfriend I selected a style of plain cotton underwear marketed as “boyshorts.” I picked up four pairs in black and took them to the till. The shop assistant pointed out that if I selected a fifth pair, I would save a fiver. I went back and rummaged through the leopard prints and skin-tone options until I found a pair that were perfect. They were tie-dye. Rainbow tie-dye. I bought them and wore them until they turned grey with repeated washing.
It was 2018 before I bought a pack of men’s underwear again. I had just got back from A-Camp and was filled with a seemingly undentable queer confidence. I went into Calvin Klein. As I was browsing, I overheard a couple of feminine-presenting folks asking about sizing.
“Are you looking for something for your boyfriend?,” the shop assistant asked. They smirked and held hands.
“No,” one of them said. “We’re buying them for us.”
The pants I bought that day turned out to be made of some mysteriously sweat-inducing fabric. I decided to return to Victoria’s Secret and see if there was anything there that felt like it was for me. I thought that I would see it in a whole new light. Now that I no longer wore bras, I thought perhaps the world would seem turned upside-down and I would have some profound thought that I could use to neatly wrap up this essay. I found that I still love the leopard print carpet and the spiral staircase, the walls of video screens with crazy catwalk outfits, the low lighting and endless mirrors. It makes me feel like I’m inside of a frivolous dressing-up box. I love the fact that it’s the opposite of a minimalist boutique – that everything is crying out to you I am covered in sequins and I’m loving it! None of that was new.
But, I did observe something new about myself. As I ran my hands over a rail of gothic corsets, I realized that I was mentally preparing for what I would say if someone challenged what I was doing there.
“I’m a stylist,” I would say. Or, “I’m buying something for my girlfriend.”
I don’t have a girlfriend. Or a partner of any gender. I am happily solo for the first time in five years. It just seemed more plausible than claiming that I would buy a lace corset for myself. I technically could, of course. I mean, if I was still 16, or 17, or 18 I would have been all over it, and that impulse to dress up like a goth fairy is still there. For a moment I thought maybe it would be fun. But I know it wouldn’t.
Something has clicked for me, finally. I’ve found the masculine-of-centre women and gender nonconforming role-models and friends that I didn’t know existed when I was a teenager. I’m no longer trying to fit myself into the moulds of relationships that don’t feel comfortable. I am honored to consider myself a butch woman. I still feel uncomfortable about the shape of my chest, but I am at peace with my discomfort. I know that it doesn’t have to stop me from feeling that I am a woman, that I am androgynous and beautiful.
I sometimes think about that Patti Smith quote, that when she first heard the word androgynous she “thought the word meant both beautiful and ugly at the same time.” I can see a side of truth in that idea, but in my case I no longer feel ugly. I no longer feel like a woman who is failing at being a woman. I know that I am a beautiful queer butch babe. I don’t want to be anything else. I didn’t intend to buy anything on my “research” trip to Victoria’s Secret, but in the end I gravitated back to the boyshorts. I bought a pair in navy blue, covered with a chunky white writing. The writing said, “over it”.