I guess I was a tomboy as a kid, but I didn’t really think about it. Now, of course, I wear it like a badge of honour in feminist circles — “Yes, I was a TOMBOY, how GENDER PROGRESSIVE of me!” — but back then, I wore what I liked, and most of what I liked came from the hand-me-down pile I got from my dad’s friend’s son. It was there, it was easy to wear, and it didn’t rip when I climbed trees or made my church’s wheelchair ramp into an impromptu set of monkey bars.
I did get flak for it now and then — I remember a girl in 7th grade trying to give me a hard time for wearing camo khakis because “army isn’t popular anymore” — but I honestly didn’t care. I didn’t realise that clothes were an extension of self, not really, until high school. Besides, I did wear dresses sometimes — to church or weddings, on class picture day, and when I pretended I was an orphan (my favourite childhood game).
Somewhere around the middle of high school I became more conscious of gender identity, and made a personal choice to flaunt it. Girls were expected to wear makeup and spend time on their hair, so I did neither. (With thigh-length curls, this … was more difficult than you’d think.) Girls were supposed to wear clothes that set off their figure, so (smack-dab in the middle of a mild, puberty-related body dysmorphia crisis) I snatched my dad’s oversized t-shirts and wore those. I started wearing things I knew would annoy people (riding boots, cargo jumpsuits, an entire outfit based on Han Solo’s look in “A New Hope” complete with Corellian Bloodstripe down the slacks). Every time someone made a nasty comment about my clothes, I relished it.
At the same time I found the community of tomboys, and fell head-first into that. Tomboys didn’t wear dresses, at least, not unless they’re forced into it, so I made sure to complain loudly any time I had to wear something nice for special events. I got special dispensation from my voice teacher to wear pantsuits instead of dresses at concerts. I put aside my geeky desire for a green wedding dress (the tradition of Corellia — sound off if you knew that!) and vowed to get married in pants.
This is not, in case people are waiting for it, a post about how I later realised my silliness and returned to the world of skirts and girl-jeans. It might be easier if it was, but my own gender identity, as it relates to clothes, is more complicated.
Now I’m an adult (or so they tell me) — I’ve been out of schooling and working full-time for several years now, anyway. I’ve stopped wearing baggy jeans a million sizes too big, and attempting to hide my size-D chest under enormous t-shirts (spoilers: that doesn’t actually work!). I still own more guy-jeans than girls’, and my general wardrobe is made up of t-shirts from Thinkgeek or Threadless or Topatoco, with a smattering of cheap wife-beaters picked up from outlet stores. For special occasions I have snazzy suits and pantsuits, usually pinstriped, and I still refuse to wear makeup or do anything to my hair (now short) other than wash it and let it dry.
However. For the first time since I was 8, I also have dresses and skirts in my closet; for the first time ever, I’m the one who bought them. Sometimes I’ll wear a dress and go outside — just for fun! This sounds like I’m being facetious, but it’s honestly a momentous change for me. Those close to me will know what I mean.
Every time I do, though, I face a huge internal struggle. I feel like I’m betraying my cultural identity as a tomboy, and by extension, someone who flouts gender expectations — which is still extremely important to me. I feel like I’m somehow letting feminism down. I feel like I’m dressing in drag — even though I am a woman — and that someone is going to jump out of the bushes and call me a fraud. Ever watch that Daria episode where she gets contacts? Her dilemma is pretty much mine in a nutshell, but with the added embarrassment that I’m not 17 anymore. I should be over this.
It would help if people didn’t make such a big deal out of it, but that’s partly my fault. In maintaining myself as a tomboy, I can’t expect to switch to girl clothes and NOT make a stir. It’s subverting of expectations. But what really gets me is the satisfaction in people’s responses. “See, I TOLD you …” or “Oh, good, you’re FINALLY dressing yourself!” or “I KNEW you’d change your mind about dresses one day!” The most dreaded are the “If you do this every day, you’ll get a boyfriend in no time!” because a.) not applicable and b.) pretty much affirms every one of my reasons not to dress in girl clothes in the FIRST place (that men will only want you if you’re a stereotypical girl — FALSE — and that this is a consideration you should take into account daily).
Sometimes I wish clothes weren’t so complicated. I wish we could just wear what we want, when we want to, as long as it’s vaguely appropriate for the situation. I wish that I could wear guy’s clothes without people telling me I’ll never find anyone that way (ha, WRONG, suckers!) or that I’d “look better” if I wore makeup and dresses. I wish I could wear a dress for a day, just because I feel like it, without people saying they KNEW I’d come to my senses one day.
This sort of fails as a blog post because I’m supposed to wrap it up with a thought-provoking solution, but I don’t have one. But I can’t be the only one with confused sartorial gender identity, so shout out! Let’s get some community up in the house!